A different Vienna, part 1 – the Flakturms, or “Don’t Mention Ze War!”

(I’ve been to Vienna last week. This is the first of my impressions of the city.)

Flakturm V looming over Hofburg Gardens

You’d be forgiven to miss them on the map. They are not marked in any way, other than the pale pink of ‘some building’. You’d be forgiven to miss them in a guide, as they are not listed under the main attractions of the city – of which there are many (except one of them, on which more below).

But you should not miss them while standing anywhere within quarter of a mile from these dread-inspiring constructions. Fifty meters tall and forty meters wide, these blocks of solid concrete stand out not just like sore thumbs, but like entire sole limbs, looming over some of the more picturesque parts of the city. Just try to go to Augarten park and ignore their existence (as does everyone else around you). It’s impossible.

The Flakturm VII in Augarten. Can’t miss it.

The constructions bear no marks of any kind, and are surrounded with plain wire fence. What are they? Some kind of storage facilities? Gas tanks? If you guessed they are dark towers of some evil overlord (which is what they most resemble up close) you’re not far from the truth. These are Flakturms, or Flak Towers: insanely overgrown anti-aircraft gun platforms. Adolf Hitler’s personal ‘brilliant’ plan to protect his precious home city from the allied bombers.

Augarten G Tower Up-close

Constructed at great cost in just six months after the Berlin bombing in 1940, several such complexes had been erected in Berlin, Vienna and Hamburg. Each complex was made of two towers: a square one, which held the observation and radio equipment, and a round one, which held the AA guns. Like everything Hitler came up with personally, the Flakturms were enormous (compensation much?), costly, nigh-indestructible and pretty much useless. The Allies have quickly learned to avoid the guns in their bombing runs, and Vienna, Berlin and Hamburg had all seen their share of fire from heavens regardless of how many tonnes of concrete had been poured over their parks.

What strikes me most about these buildings is how inconspicuous the Viennese pretend them

Augarten Observation Tower at the end of a picturesque chestnut tree alley

to be. Talk about a 150-foot tall elephant in the room/city! Just like in the episode of Fawlty Towers, the World War II and Nazism are simply never mentioned. A wise man once said “the Austrians are the greatest liars: they convinced the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Austrian”. I don’t know about Beethoven, but they certainly did a good job on the moustached fellow.

But, you may ask, if they don’t like them to the point of ignoring them, why not simply remove these eyesores from the landscape? Well, that may have something to do with how enormous and ridiculously tough they are. The Germans always built well – and when they had to built something out of solid concrete, they built even better. The Zoo Tower in Berlin withstood all Soviet guns and bombs during the Berlin siege, serving as an unbreakable shelter for some 30,000 civilians, like a Star Wars equivalent of a castle keep. It took the Brits four months and 35 tons of dynamite to finally blow it up (on second attempt) – and that was only one tower. The Austrians, seemingly, decided it would be more frugal to simply forget about their Flakturms. One of them they managed to transform into an Aquarium  and an occasional climbing wall, the other is a storage space for galleries and museums, but the remaining four are simply out there. Forgotten. Ignored.

The Augarten L Tower shown to scale with an average-sized human being (my good lady wife)

The Flakturms are remarkable buildings, in their looks, their dark origins and how history had treated them. Ever since I’ve learned of their existence (accidental wikipedia surfing for the win) I wanted to see them, but I never imagined how easy it would be – and how difficult to find any information about them once I finally got there. It’s a bit of a shame the Viennese decided to so thoroughly ignore these remnants of history, but then it was their decision and I can respect that.

There’s no reason for you to ignore them, however. If you’re in Vienna one day and decide to go off the beaten track of palaces, museums and cafes, why not go to Augarten Park (alight at Taborstrasse underground station and go north along the garden wall) and spend a few minutes in the shadow of a Flakturm, contemplating the madness that had descended on this part of the world seventy years ago. And when you’re done and still feel like you don’t have enough of Nazi concrete, go to the Bunkerei for a beer – a fun pub inside an old German bunker.

Edit: a commenter from reddit adds a little more information:

[the Aquarium’s] twin in the Stiftgasse off Mariahilferstraße is in the Stiftskaserne, a military academy that also houses at least a part of the Verfassungsschutz, the Austrian Secret Service (ha!). When I worked at the academy those guys were housed in the basement of the bunker, or at least their servers were. You mention in the blog post that the brits needed tons and tons of explosive to blow them up in Berlin, and the same is the case for those in Vienna. The steel concrete is too strong and the shockwave caused by the explosives one would need would level half the Mariahilferstraße along with it.
Hilariously, despite their solidness, the bunkers are actually structurally unsound. The balconies especially need work and are unsafe, no one knows exactly how much weight they can hold. And of course, it would cost an absolute FORTUNE to fix them up. When I worked in the aforementioned military academy, there was a safety cordon around the tower and a steel-framed tunnel with a reinforced roof leading to the entrance. They’ve become a part of the landscape, rotting away.
I agree that it’s sad they aren’t being used for anything, but I think the reality is that it’d be prohibitively expensive to do so. If you’re interested, I believe the district museums these towers are in usually have a little section about them, or the military museum talks about them too. I’ve always been fascinated by them!
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9 thoughts on “A different Vienna, part 1 – the Flakturms, or “Don’t Mention Ze War!”

  1. Hitler’s hometown was Braunau am Inn.

    You were at the tower with the zoo – you probably saw the giant letters on top of the tower that deal poetically with bombings and war. To me, that’s not ignoring.

    In the tower in Augarten, a rare hawk species was breeding for the last decades in a crack in the tower. It’s one of their last breeding spaces, they cannot go and breed elsewhere. I just hope nobody forgets this! Leave this tower alone, maybe put a sign on it. This is the kind of poetry nature provides if left alone. (Oh…and you wouldn’t understand one of the excellent Wolf Haas “Brenner” books otherwise xD)

    For me, every Flak tower is an anti-war monument itself…because I don’t really want to live in a world full of geometrical hugeass concrete buildings and I can feel how people felt in their massive, threatening shadows.

    You got one thing right though: Austrians do not like to talk about their very active roles in antisemitism and war. But this is something you can only find out by talking to people and gathering opinions inside and outside of Vienna, the existence of war buildings itself says nothing.

    On a side note:
    I’m pretty sure the first few metres of the “Donau-Oder-Kanal”, a channel meant to connect those two rivers (ugh good thing their biospheres were dead at that time already), was left there for comical effect.

  2. Hi,

    I live here (moved here 30 years ago), so I think I should respond: what made you think these towers are ignored? Or forgotten? Who can possibly walk by these monuments of evil and ignore them?
    I agree they should be marked as what they are and it should be explained for what crimes these have been used. Going to school here I heard and learned about that things, these sights have been pointed at when we pupils went to town with our teachers. The one left at “Haus des Meeres” (the one in Arenberg Park) has written “Smashed to Pieces (in the still of the night)” in big Letters on its Top. I believe that relates to “Reichskristallnacht”. At least that’s what my teacher said.
    We also went to see KZ Mauthausen as pupil (I think I’ve been 13 or 14) and spent a day there being toured around and presented what happened at this place. Of course I can’t tell if all kids get to “enjoy” that tour and wether this is still the case in our Schoolsystem
    If you’d ask a viennese on the streets, I’m pretty sure 99% can tell what these towers are, what they have been used for and who build them.

    This should not be taken as an offense, I hope you enjoyed your stay!

    1. Hi,

      Good to see at least kids in school learn about them, but from an accidental tourist’s standpoint the lack of markings on the maps or anywhere near the towers really does give the impression as if everyone was just trying to forget about them.

      1. as said: I agree on the lack of information – planting some plates explaining the origins can’t be that hard or costly. Maybe they are there, but I’ve not noticed them either.
        There are some sights reminding of this horrible past throughout vienna:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judenplatz
        at Morzinplatz – where the GeStaPo HQ was during the Nazi Reign – there’s a plate as Reminder for the (jewish) Victims.
        Government seems to put in at least some effort. But it could be more, I agree.

      2. I once read that the monument on Judenplatz is sort of a reaction to that – the jewish community criticized it, as it was dedicated to all vicitms (also soldiers of the 3rd Reich) of that time. I think that’s a good thing they made that happen. It isn’t as big as the Holocaust-Monument in Berlin but nonetheless brutal. I walk by it a lot, always makes me shiver.

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