Dialectic at a Standstill: The Discourse of Victimhood in Thomas Bernhard's "Heldenplatz"

by Fatima Naqvi
Dialectic at a Standstill: The Discourse of Victimhood in Thomas Bernhard's "Heldenplatz"
Fatima Naqvi
The German Quarterly
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Rutgers Universit-y

Dialectic at a Standstill: The Discourse of Victimhood in Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz

A photo in the Burgtheater playbill ac- companying Thomas Bernhard's drama Heldenplatz (1988) shows the eponymous square fifty years after the Anschluss, this time devoid of crowds cheering a triumphant Fiihrer.1 At one corner of the Heldenplatz, we see, in medium close-up, a high metal fence bearing a rudimentary placard with the words "Platz der Opfer" (19). A meager bouquet of marguerites and a sash adrnon- ishing us to "never forget" dangles beneath the small plaque. While the callto remember pertains to'the Jewish victims of the Third Reich, a commemoration symbolically ef- fected by renaming the Heldenplatz, the photo allows a more insidious reading. Its lack of specificity could be seen as an injunc- tion to remember others who perceive them- selves as victims, such as then President Kurt Waldheim, a former SA-member.

Oliver Herrmann's other photographs in the playbill also suggest that one of Heldenplatz's underlying themes is the role of vic- timhood and its relation to historical respon- sibility. Black-and-white photos of scowling elderly people are juxtaposed with images of police battalions, anti-Waldheim protesters bearing signs such as "Wer tritt Waldheim zuriick?" and "Nie wieder Pflichterfillung furfremde Grossmachtinteressen!" (108-09; 331, as well as the nearly empty Heldenplatz and city center from various vantage points. With the exception of a few quotations from the drama, verbal commentary is eschewed. The minimalist presentation cleverly con- jures what will be the crux of the play: the pervasive rhetoric of victimization and vic- timhood among heterogeneous groups. Hel

denplatz ultimately undermines stark op- positions of victims and perpetrators and instead reveals a problematic relationship between the two. In what follows, I would first like to discuss Bernhard's juridical-ethi- cal discourse, which seems to present the characters as victims of Austrians' selective treatment of the past, only to subvert this subject position. Then I will look at the non- synchronous and non-dialectical thinking of the drama's Jewish protagonists and the connection between this logic and their self- perception as victims.

Staging a Show Trial

There seems to be an inverse relation be- tween the magnitude of the scandal Heldenplatz generated and the amount of close at- tention expended on the piece (see Pfabigan 14-15). The uproar surrounding the play- commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniver- sary of Austria's premier stage, the Burg- theater, and to commemorate the 50th anni- versary of the Anschluss-reached unprecedented heights and continued from June well into December of 1988. The coup de thkcttre attendingHeldenplatz exposed fissures in society regarding Austria's historical responsi- bility, and the typically querulous Bernhard was taken to task for his vituperative attack on postwar Austria and its citizens.~loser scrutiny has only recently revealed the drama's contradictory aspects and the nu- ances intrinsic to Bernhard's hyperbole.3

Heldenplatz centers on the Jewish Schu- ster family, which, lured by academic posi-

The German Quarterly 75.4 (Fall2002) 408

tions and Vienna's cultural life, returned from English exile in the 1950s. In their own estimation, the Schusters are now, in March 1988, confronted with a resurgence of anti- Semitism. One brother, Josef, intends to leave for Oxford with his wife. The elderly patriarch, however, unexpectedly commits suicide before the play begins. In the days following his death, bereaved family and friends congregate in the Schusters' apart- ment on the Heldenplatz, incessantly dis- cussing Josef s act and the man himself.

I would argue that one reason for the fbror caused by Heldenplatz was Bernhard's use of juridical discourse to address ethical questions of historical accountability. Under- lining the non-synchronisms between Aus- tria and the Federal Republic of Germany, where a juridical discourse about National Socialism and the Holocaust preceded theo- logical, historiographical, and social-psycho- logical ones (Koch 7), Bernhard's drama seeks to combine a juridical with a socio-psy- chological approach. By doing so, the drama brings to the fore the question of Austrian collective gcult-an issue that had been raised publicly since the early '80s and par- ticularly after the election of Waldheim in 1986. While it would be fallacious to describe Heldenplatz as a courtroom drama in the tra- ditional sense, the use of legal terminology undoubtedly evokes aspects of a show trial. As Hannah Arendt notes in her analysis of the 1961 Eichrnann Trial, a trial that stresses theatrics has the potential to raise issues that fall outside the realm of jurisprudence, which is focused on individual autonomy and personal responsibility4 The same could be said for a staged trial, and Bernhard utilizes the slippage Arendt impugns to engage pro- ductively with the past. His play emphasizes the contiguous ethical issue of collective guilt by simulating a juridical framework. Hel- denplatz individualizes the Jewish victims, while the nameless and faceless audience is held responsible for their victimization. The Austrians en masse stand accused of relin- quishing the multi-cultural heritage of the country's imperial past, facilitatingits moral and political bankruptcy, and allowing fas- cism to resurface in the present (H 96,112).

Here Bernhard revisits a topic that tra- verses his aeuvre: the role ofjurisprudence in dealing with moral issues, including fascism. Bernhard's own intimacy with courtroom procedure finds its way into the ambivalent courtroom rhetoric of Heldenplatz. He had his literary beginnings as a "Gerichtssaal- berichterstatter" in Salzburg's criminal courts (Holler 51), and between 1951 and 1956 he covered the trials of lesser Nazi criminals for two newspapers, the Salzburg Demokratisches Volksblatt and the Catholic Furche (Moritz 32, Dittmar 259-78). The legal realm would figure prominently in Bernhard's life after he had achieved re- nown, when he was repeatedly sued for libel (Long 129-30). Judicial discourse has left a far greater mark on Bernhard's style than has generally been acknowledged. The con- voluted syntax, the meticulous recording of speakers (inquit phrases are used inces- santly), and the prevalence of indirect dis- course characterize a language that often sounds more legalistic than musical, the epi- thet most often found in secondary litera- ture on Bernhard.5 Bernhard's idiomatic de- scription of his early adventures as a court- room reporter-"Da hatte ich Blut geleckt am Schreiben" (qtd. in Scheib 146bre- markably echoes the lines from Heldenplatz about Frau Schuster's weakness for theater: "wer einmal Blut geleckt hat im Theater1 der kann ohne Theater nicht mehr existieren" (H25). This depiction establishes a correla- tion between the judicial sphere and theater. As I hope to show, Bernhard supplements the law's perceived inadequacy in adjudicat- ing ethical issues with the moral suasiveness of theater.

Act I1 of Heldenplatz in particular pres- ents evidence in a trial format. The evidence seems to allow nothing other than a forth- right condemnation of the Austrian public and a clear acceptance of the Schusters as the victims of National Socialism and contin- uing postwar anti-Semitism. Josef s daugh- ter Anna and his brother Robert, returning

through the Volksgarten from the hneral, air a litany of grievances against Austria's citizens. The drama takes place in the area between Burgtheater, Parliament, Ballhaus- platz (where the chancellor resides), and Hofburg (with the office of the president) and the spatial arrangement reminds the viewing public of its democratic ideal of equality before the law, rooted in Austria's lgth century liberalism. Jeanette Malkin has convincingly argued that the redolent spatial symbolism creates a reflexive geography, a "lieux de memoire" in Pierre Nora's sense, and a chronotope in Mikhail Bakhtin's. By way of set design and localization, the audi- ence is implicated in the events on- and off- stage, both past and present: "Heldenplatz stresses the simultaneity of fictive stage and social world, of past and present, of Helden- platz as diachronic and synchronic site of memory and identity" (Malkin 209-11). The set design by Karl-Ernst Herrmann for the Burgtheater premiere emphasizes the colli- sion of Austria's democratic ideals and the seemingly proto-fascist present (Steiner 226; cf. Beil26-29). The three Schuster charac- ters, Anna, her sister Olga, and the uncle Robert take their seats on a stark bench of Herrmann's stage set, amid the barren and highly abstracted chestnut trees of the Volksgarten. Facing the audience frontally, they state what amounts to testimony. Whereas Anna notes the presence of Nazis in the lower and middle classes (baker, cleaner, co-workers in the library), Uncle Robert con- centrates on the higher echelons in power: "Die Industrie und der Klerus sind die Drahtzieherl des osterreichischen ijbels" (H 62-63; 88).

For Robert, the recurrence of anti-Semi- tism is a wider societal problem, part of a general and ongoing decline. He indicts the contemporary Socialist People's Party, echo- ing criticisms of the Socialists from the early thirties:

die Sozialisten sind heute die Ausbeuter die Sozialisten haben ~sterreich auf dem Gewissen

die Sozialisten sind die Totengraber dieses


die Sozialisten sind heute die Kapitalisten

die Sozialisten die keine Sozialisten sind

sind die eigentlichen Verbrecher an diesem

Staat [...I

Wenn es heute in ~sterreich wieder fast

nur Nationalsozialisten gibt

so sind daran nur die Sozialisten schuld


The anaphora, though indebted to the musical principles according to which the Mozarteum-trained Bernhard structures his texts, evoke a prosecutorial tone (we need only think of p mile Zola's '3'accuse" or Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism"). This judicial flourish musters indignation against Austria's social democracy and its perceived pernicious outgrowths-name- ly the capitalist criminalization of politics and anti-Semitism. According to Uncle Robert, the indictment has already led to a verdict. The Austrian public is found both morally and politically guilty:

Die Osterreicher sind zum


wissen das nur noch ficht

,ie haben das not-, ficht zur ~ ~ ~ t f i ~


das brteil ist lhgst gefdt

die Hinrichtung ist nur eine Frage der Zeit

meiner Meinung nach steht die Voll-

streckung unmittelbar bevor


The audience, seated vis-a-vis the speak- ers, is not only defendant in this case-it is also placed in the position of judge in an Austrian courtroom, i.e., across from the witnesses. It is perhaps this conflicted sub- ject position that accounts for the bedlam in the court of public opinion and the origi- nally dismissive reaction on the part of in- fluential critics6 The imperative to judge is made difficult by the lack of an articu- lated defense since no differentiation of guilt and hence no exculpation becomes possible. The most effective way to contain the discomfort evoked by this contradic- tory subject position is to reduce the drama to simply yet another display of Bernhard's angry and aggressive rhetoric. As Karl Jaspers argued half a century ago in Die Schuldfrage (19461, the difficulty in accepting a verdict from a member of a cul- tural community stems from the fact that the accuser imposes a sentence concerning moral guilt and does not suspend it in mu- tual understanding (41). Bernhard's de- monization, by the tabloid press in partic- ular, ostracizes the renegade member. By postulating an identity between author and characters, the "Nestbeschmutzer" -as Bernhard was called (Pfabigan 30)- is censured: he has not included another voice in Heldenplatz to mitigate the im- pact of the charges.

However, it appears that the anger di- rected at the author is misguided. If we ex- amine the play's juridical discourse more closely, we realize that Bernhard's figures face a quandary-while seeking judicial amends on the one hand, they come up against the intrinsic limits of the juridical process in ethical matters on the other. Bernhard's ceuvre itself problematizes the adequacy of the legal realm in adjudicating moral issues. In the autobiographically-in- flected parable entitled "Exempel" from Der Stimmenimitator (1978), the opening state- ment outlines the difficulties of being a courtroom correspondent and the inelucta- ble insanity produced by such a profession: "Der Gerichtssaalberichterstatter ist dem menschlichen Elend und seiner Absurditat am nachsten und er kann diese Erfahrung naturgemB13 nur eine kurze Zeit, aber sicher nicht lebenslbglich machen, ohne verriickt zu werden" (St 29-30). The narrator recounts the story of Justice Ferrari who, after sentencing a blackmailer to a long prison term and an astronomical fine, shoots him- self with theatrical bravado to set an exam- ple ("ein Exempel statuieren"). The short text sheds light on the judicial issues raised by Heldenplatz. For the narrator, Ferrari's action seems to be the result of an unusually "beschhende[s] Verbrechen", and it is this adjective which gives pause: it implies that some crimes warrant shame but not neces- sarily legal retribution. It also suggests that there are limits to justice in moral matters pursued by legal means. "Exempel" inti- mates that it is impossible for law to be pre- cisely coterminous with judice--particu- larly in cases involving feelings of shame. While Ferrari is perhaps guilty of a crime more severe than the meat exporter he has just condemned to twelve years' hard labor, his suicide is also motivated by the fact that the punishment cannot be commensurate with the disgraceful crime. It is not difficult to imagine him as a predecessor to Rudolf, Chief Justice and former SS-officer in Bern- hard's Vor dem Ruhestand (1979). Rudolf bemoans the curse hanging over the one who judges: "ich frage mich auch wie man Rich-

ter sein kand es ist ein Fluch iiber diesem Amt" (7917

While "Exempel" denies us definitive an- swers concerning the relationship between judgment, morality, and law, it does indicate that violence inhabits the law and even turns against the one speaking on its behalf? The parable, when seen in conjunction with Hel- denplatz, intimates that victims seeking moral justice, as Robert and Anna are, will quickly hit upon the limitations of the legal system. Redress for ethical grievances along such avenues has the violence inherent in the law ricocheting back at the protagonists. This is intimated in Robert's words towards the end of Act 11, when he says: "in 0ster- reich Jude zu sein bedeutet immer / zum Tode verurteilt zu sein" (H 114). The vio- lence of the sentence he has proclaimed for all Austrians ("Die ~sterreicher sind lbgst zum Tode verurteilt") returns, presumably felling him in the process.

Guests in the Present

Bernhard, however, shows not only the inadequacy of the legal sphere in moral mat- ters, but also the problems accompanying an identity built around the signifier "victim." He does this by subtly undermining the evi-

dence that the Schusters present. Upon hr- ther examination, the indictment against the Austrian public crumbles, the charac- ters' victim status blurs. Their inconsistent accounts of the dead man-who is, after all, Exhibit A in the case being built up to prove the Austrians' culpability-alls into ques- tion their reliability. Anna's allegation: "Der Vater hat schon alles richtig gesehen 1 der Vater ist immer konsequent gewesen" (H 89) is contradicted directly by Robert, who main- tains that his brother could no longer inter- pret the "Zeichen der Zeit" (H104). Some witnesses renege on their own testimony; Olga's having been spat upon in the street is ultimately downplayed and denied (H 11213). In light of the conflicting evidence, the play shifts into a parodic gear; the actors' di- gressive speeches juxtapose the most caustic denunciations and lugubrious outbursts with material concerns. The claim that all Viennese are National Socialists stands side by side with a calculation of the house- keeper's job benefits which are to be cut in spite of the family's wealth (H64-65; cf. 74). The harangue against Catholicism and or- ganized religion is followed by discussions about fine pgte (H105-07); later, the declara-

tion about Austrian anti-Semitism immedi- ately precedes a comment about Frau Zit- tel's soup (H114).

On closer analysis, the Schusters' style of argumentation injects an ominous note into the drama. Their language can neither be ad- equately compared to the bickering about politics by rural bar regulars ("liindliche[r] Stammtisch," Pfabigan 751, nor to the in- flammatory writing of the tabloid press (Kie- buzinska 383). Anna and Robert list their grievances in an additive rather than a logi- cal manner. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy describe this language of ac- cumulation:

It's an often confused pile-up of the obvi- ous (or at least what is passed off as such), a tireless repetition of certitudes. They hammer at an idea, supporting it with whatever might seem to fit, without any analysis, without any discussion of objec- tions, without any references. There is neither knowledge to establish, nor thought to overcome. There is only an al- ready acquired, already available truth to declare. (304)

Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, though not speaking about Bernhard's figures, char- acterize the Schuster family's speech to an extraordinary degree. They are analyzing the language of Nazi ideologue Alfred Ro- senberg's Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts and Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf: A dis- quieting sensation arises: the Schusters are victims who themselves tend toward the absolute rhetoric of fascist ideology.

Following Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy in their investigation of "The Nazi Myth," I propose that Bernhard reveals the logic that makes possible the persistence of fascism and its inscription into a tradition of high culture. Bernhard reveals that the cultural (rather than philosophical) tradition abets a dangerous mythologizing and mobilizes "identificatory mechanisms" much in the same way as fascism does (Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger 95). For Bernhard, the mytho-po- etic creation of a specifically Austrian iden- tity-a national identity imperative to the nation's founding in 1945, effectively indoc- trinated in the 1950s, and finally probed dur- ing the '80s (see Bunzl19-3514s at the fore- front in a play about the repressed ghosts haunting this very identity. Heldenplatz, with a cast of characters indebted to Vien- nese culture around 1900, examines the uti- lization of Austrian modernism in the fash- ioning of an identity that avoids historical re- sponsibility.

As Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy argue, the lack of a German model around which an identity could be constructed occasions a double-bind situation, one not entirely dif- ferent from the one Heldenplatz's protago- nists face. The French philosophers main- tain that the German double bind-the need for a model to imitate and the lack of a pro- totype not already appropriated by others -led thinkers to devise both an zesthetic solution and a theoretical one. That is, they

valorized the Dionysian side of Greek culture together with the Apollonian Greece "of virile, heroic rigor, of law, of the City," and dia- lectics enabled them to reconcile the two ("the logic of conservation and suppression, of elevation into a higher identity," [Lacoue- Labarthe and Nancy 300-011). In Helden- platz, the Jewish protagonists confront a similar dilemma: how do they constitute and affirm an Austrian identity and still distance themselves from a culture and country that expelled them most brutally? As Benjamin Henrichs wrote in Die Zeit, focusing on the issue of language in particular: "Die Leute, die im 'Heldenplatz' mit ~sterreich hadern, ~sterreichhassen [...I sind osterreichische Juden. Als Juden haben sie das Recht der Opfer. Als ~sterreicher sprechen sie die Sprache der Tater" (134; qtd. in Honegger, Making 29619 Bernhard's "diabolical ge- nius" lies less in restoring the "empty core" left in Viennese culture by the Holocaust (Henrichs 134; Konzett 50), than in showing how the need for an identity in the double bind allows perfidious ideological elements to insinuate themselves into a cultural tradi- tion. The problem, as we willsee in the case of the Schusters, lies in their inability to tran- scend dialectically their cultural-ssthetic de- terminants.

For the deceased Josef Schuster, self-fic- tioning-by way of amythic type with whom one identifies-takes place by means of the figure of the Austrian fin-de-si6cle gentle- man. A professor of mathematics, having "ei- nen mathematischen philosophischen Kopf / durchaus eine osterreichische Geistesspezi- alitat" (H911, Professor Schuster is indebted to the lifestyle of Vienna's turn-of-the-cen- tury haute bourgeoisie, with its privileging of high culture and individualistic self-con- sciousness, its unstable mixture of "an older aristocratic culture of sensuous feeling" and a "liberal culture of reason and law" (Schor- ske, Vienna 7). Wealthy, refined, hypersensi- tive and always on the verge of a nervous breakdown (note his high regard for Otto Wagner's modernist sanatorium Steinhof; H 46-47), Josef s character reflects the stereo- type of the fin de sikcle's assimilated urban Jew. He is repeatedly described as anti-Aus- trim in his opinions; he even wishes he were French: "Franzose w5re ich gern gewesen / hat er gesagt / nicht Englhder nicht Russe / Franzose / da13 ich ~sterreicher bin / ist mein grijfites Ungliick" (H 25). His negative ap- praisal of all things national and his cosmo- politan outlook (as indicated in his pattern of consumption-shoes from England and It- aly, shirts from Portugal-and his artistic taste-Sarasate, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy) link the departed man with the Vien- nese gentleman around 1900. His usual Anglophilia, expressing itself in everything from his love of English suits to his yearning for the intellectual climate he left behind when he gave up his Oxford professorship (H 16, 24, 124), further recalls a bygone era. Among Austrian liberals of the late 1800s and the emergent modernists of the fin de siecle, the adulation of the upper-crust Eng- lishman, the embodiment of bourgeois prac- ticality and aristocratic bearing, prevailed (Schorske, Thinking 165).1° It stands to rea- son that Josef sees another quintessentially 19th-century institution-the museum-as a metaphor for his life (H52-54). Josef care- fully cultivates a Blochian "Ungleichzeitig- keit;" his mode of being is purposely foreign to the present he inhabits.ll Josef s non-syn- chronism is emphasized by his friend Herr Landauer in Act 111: "Wir leben doch immer in der falschen Zeit hat er [Josefl gesagt / wir wollen alle nur in der Vergangenheit leben" (H 144).

The carefilly constructed non-synchro- nism of the Schuster patriarch is an essential component of a new postwar identity that envisions past and present in terms of conti- nuity rather than disjuncture. The myth- ico-poetical possibilities of imitating the un- tainted figure of the cosmopolitan gentle- man offer a spatial and cultural solution to an historical and political impasse. The syrn- bolic space provided by the setting on the historicist Ringstrde gives Josef Schuster a place where he and his family "provide themselves with a representation of what

they are and what grounds them as such" (Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger 64).12 Ironical- ly, Josef and his family members mimic the national discourse, which conjoins a superior cultural pedigree with economic and political weakness. It skips over the Austro-fascist and National Socialist decades and furates on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a tendency Robert Menasse generally finds in the Sec- ond Republic: "Die Losung [zur gesuchten Identitat-EN.] war einfach und revolutio- n&: Hauptaufgabe des nun so kleinen und schwachen ~sterreich [...Ikonne es nur sein, sein groljes kulturelles Erbe aus stolzer Zeit zu pflegen und zu erhalten-mit anderen Worten, man beschlolj ein republikani- sches Museum der Habsburgermonarchie zu sein" (Menasse, "Welt" 171; cf. Long 192). This solution also enables the Schusters to merge the political with the aesthetic, leading to an aestheticization of politics in the Ben- jaminian sense and making art not just "a political stake, but the political stake itself" (Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica 17). Josef s cul- tural obsessiveness stems from the belief that the political is produced by way of the ar


However, the identification with canon- ized high culture and high cultural figures ante-1938 does not make the protagonists immune to the less palatable aspects of the period. Precisely because of this self-fashion- ing in the spirit of 1900, Josef takes on prob- lematic elements of that earlier culture. The "gestaute Wut" that Ernst Bloch locates in the lower-middle class of the 1920s and 1930s is part and parcel of Josef s non-syn- chronism (122). Josef s anger is directed not at a loss of economic but rather of social sta- tus (H 43). At moments, his speech resem- bles that of the members of the Vaterlan- dische Front, the Austro-fascist political or- ganization founded in 1933. Otto Bauer, statesman and theoretician of the Social Democratic Party in the First Republic, por- trays the Vaterlandische Front as a "Sammelsurium von jiidischen Bourgeois, die den Antisemitismus Hitlers fichten, von monar- chistischen Aristokraten, klerikalen Klein-

biirgern, von Heimwehren, [...I von einem groljen Trolj armer Teufel, dessen eine Hdfte Nazi und dessen andere Hdfte Sozialdemo- kraten sind" (qtd. in Binder 203). Bauer's description from 1934 lists many of the traits Josef exhibits. Furthermore, Josef s frustra- tion with circumstances and his inability to deal successhlly with the family's history, including psychosomatic illness, feed into his own autocratic conduct.14 He refers to his family members with the Nazi-epithet "Un- termenschen" (H 501, looks down on handi- capped "Kriippel" and blind people (H 551, and demands absolute subjugation from those around him (H 26-27, 42-43). Josef projects his fears eastward, just as Vienna's manifold problems of the interwar period were projected onto the Eastern European Jews emigrating to the city from the outer reaches of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Albrich 322-27). In doing so, he ech- oes diatribes against the 'Asiatic menace': "China wird eines Tages die Welt beherr- schen [...I 1das asiatische Zeitalter hat schon begonnen" (H 23). His latent racism, directed at Vienna's current multiethnic pop- ulation, obviously stands in marked contrast to his personal experiences of exclusion and


For Ernst Bloch, analyzing the non-syn- chronism present in the diverse strata of German society during the Weimar Period in Erbschaft dieser Zeit (1935) serves a specific goal: it liberates a productive legacy from ideological occupation by the National So- cialists. Examining the decaying bourgeoisie of the '20s and '30s, Bloch is determined to read the signs of the time for their positive, albeit irrational, content which can be mobi- lized in opposition to the Nazis (Rabinbach 5-21). While Bernhard is not interested in offering a Marxist assessment, his ideologi- cal critique is not entirely dissimilar from Bloch's. By portraying characters' mentali- ties as a fusion of past and present, of upper and lower class, Bernhard's drama seeks to free the national discourse from its legacy, which the Schusters replicate. This legacy includes a preoccupation with the victim- perpetrator binaries at the forefront of de- bates in the 1980s about Austria's status as Hitler's first victim. Heldenplatz is a kind of "Stiickwerk," which also reads the "Zeichen der Zeitn--the title of Josef s unfinished and highly fragmentary three-volume opus (H 162). The drama does so through the re- peated invocation of the Anschluss and the montage of 1938 and 1988. Since the charac- ters experience past and present as a seam- less whole, they cannot reflect on the distinc- tions separating the then from the now.

There seems to be an element of malice in having the Jewish figures evince a non-syn- chronism that blinds them to the differences between the First Republic's Anschluss to the Third Reich and the Second Republic's evolution, just as there was in the novel Aus- loschung (1986). There, the odious inheri- tance, namely the castle of Wolfsegg (site of a mass grave and hiding place to high-ranking Nazis), is a gift to the Jewish religious com- munity in Vienna.16 After all, the populist politician Jorg Haider, rising to national prominence in the mid-'80s despite pro-Nazi statements, is not Hitler; the Neonazis of Obenvart and the Bayuwarische Befreiungs- armee (responsible for numerous bombs and the deaths of four Roma in 1995)17 and the anti-Semitism evident in the Waldheim cam- paign are, of course, not identical to Austro- fascism and National Socialism of the '30s and '40s.l8 However, the montage serves to highlight a fundamental discrepancy be- tween the perception of the Jewish victims, for whom the sufferings of WW I1 belong to a private sphere inseparable from the public one, and the perception of those who, like President Waldheim, would appropriate the "victim" label for themselves in the public sphere. The suffering of the Jews leads to what Tzvetan Todorov calls a "sacralization" of the Holocaust-to a view of the Holocaust asthe signifier of absolute evil and a percep- tion of the past which underlines its unique- ness.lg The montage underscores the contin- ual presence of pain inflicted a half century ago. Drawing on Jean Arnbry's definition in Jenseits uon Schuld und Siihne, Jeanette Malkin argues that the Schusters, as "antihistorical reactionaries," retain an active memory of the harm they have endured. In this manner, they prevent the equalizing of all victims of National Socialism thatcan occur with the passage of time (213). The pres- enceand presentness --of the past for oth- ers such as Waldheim, who assimilate their suffering to that of the Jewish victims, can in comparison only seem superficial, appearing to be a "banalization" of the historical record (Todorov 85-103).

Bernhard's Heldenplatz seems problem- atical on another count: the similarities to another drama would confirm Alfred Pfabi- gan's statement that Heldenplatz plays a cruel joke on the victims of the Holocaust (428). In Vor den Ruhestand (1979), the structure, characters, and themes mirror those of Hel- den plat^.^^ Vor den Ruhestand is based on the scandal surrounding Karl Filbinger, the head of the government of Baden-Wiirttem- berg. Filbinger was a marine judge during the Third Reich and enjoyed a successful po- litical career after 1945 until his forced re- tirement (Holler 110-11). One of the protag- onists is Rudolf, once Obersturmbannftihrer at a concentration camp and the youngest judge on the Eastern front (79), and now suc- cessful judge on the verge of retirement. For the characters in both plays, high culture be- comes a legitimizing tool, a self-assurance of distinctness and superiority, a means to divert attention from the present toward a more glo- rious past, and an indicator of subjective un- timeliness. The sense of victimization felt by former high-ranking fascists in Vor den Ruhestand and by Jewishvictims of Nazi ag- gression in Heldenplatz shows the high mo- bility ofvictim and perpetrator labels in Bern- hard's textual world. No character traits or self-reflexive statements distinguish former Nazis from their Jewish victims; all perceive themselvesas "Opfer des Krieges" (VdR 78). The lack of a clear distinction between per- petrators and victims gives Heldenplatz, when seen together with Vor den Ruhe- stand, its dangerous double edge.

Here, too, we can find a method to the

madness: the equalizing of Jews and Nazis reveals a static and ultimately catastrophic logic. It is the logic of a community which shares the fatalism of the Schusters: "Es ist die Logik ganz einfach in der Schicksals- gemeinschaft 1 ersticken zu mussen" (H 118). The "Logik [...I der Schicksalsgemein- schaft" depends upon a sense of coherence and belonging generated by an identity as victim. Bernhard describes this manner of reasoning in his autobiographical account, Die Kalte (1981), which follows the first-per- son narrator into the sanitarium Grafenhof. His wish to be accepted by the other invalids is so strong that the young Bernhard is over- whelmed by the paradoxical desire to be part of this terrible community:

Da ich nun einmal da war, wollte ich in diese Gemeinschaft gehoren, auch wenn es sich um die scheuljlichste und entsetz- lichste Gemeinschaft handelte, die sich denken lat. (12)

The hermetic group presents itselfas his des- tiny, the conclusion to his life's trajectory:

War es nicht folgerichtig, da13 ich hier ge- landet war? War nicht mein ganzes bishe- riges Leben auf dieses Grafenhof hin kon- struiert gewesen? Auch ich war ein Kriegsopfer! (12)

The narrator, looking back at this experi- ence, sees his thinking as symptomatic of a general postwar malaise. He masochisti- cally and completely submits to the sys- tematic logic: "Einer verbliiffend klaren Logik folgend, hatte ich mich gefugt und aufgegeben und unterworfen" (17). How- ever, this reasoning, which damns him to suffer like all civilian victims ofwar (cf. 20) and to accept his extinction according to the laws governing Grafenhof, can be in- verted at a moment's notice:

Aber diese Logik hatte ich gleich wieder gegen die ihr entgegengesetzte einge- tauscht, ich betrachtete auf einmal alles wieder hundertprozentig verkehrt. (19)

It is this contrary logic, manifesting an ability to think dialectically, that eventu- ally guarantees the narrator's survival.

The Schusters, in contrast, lack this dia- lectical ability Emulating the same high cul- tural rhetoric of Viennese modernism as the Nazis in Vor dem Ruhestand, their self-cre- ation in the spirit of 1900 lacks the flexibility necessary for psychic survival. Their solu- tion to the double bind of a difficult Aus- trimJewish identity has been too faithhl to its historical model. Transcribing a bygone mentality with many prejudices into a changed postwar landscape, they resign themselves to fatalism in a society with which they seem out of step. The effort to create a sense of identity that would serve as a basis for a community falters since it is predicated on victimhood (cf. Lacoue-La- barthe and Nancy 299). In Bernhard's aeuvre with its building-block principle (cf. Pfabigan 30-36), categories of victims and perpetrators are continually rearranged; ac- cording to this composition principle, the Jewish characters of Heldenplatz are one permutation where the mobility ceases.

The cessation of movement can be seen in the issue of inheritance. The elaborate dis- cussion of this topic reveals the untimely mentalities of figures caught in a deviously constructed trap of their own making. In Heldenplatz, bequeathed possessions indi- cate psychic continuities: because the son is condemned to wear the father's shoes (H 47), he will have to tread in his footsteps. The daughters, both of whom have become pro- fessors, also echo Josef s narrow-minded- ness (cf. H 11,631. In his daughters, Josef recognizes the problematic aspects of his own beliefs, which once proved incapable of offering resistance to the Nazis (and even colluded with them) and which presumably will be incapable of stopping the rise of anti- Semitism in the present (cf. H 36-37). Since the Schusters cannot reverse directionality like the narrator in Die Kalte, life in Austria becomes a dead-end street for them.

The Return of History as Farce?

For this drama, Bernhard refrained from a more precise generic designation, in con- trast to his preceding drama Elizabeth 11, which he called "Keine KomodieV--or his 1986 novel Alte Meister, which he labeled a comedy. Commentators suggested a number of possibilities, ranging from "spatbiirgerli- ches Trauerspiel" and intimate "Kammer- spiel" to "offentlich[es] Spektakel" (Haider- Pregler 224; Hochhuth 218; Frank 64). Stark juxtapositions of comical, cabaret-like interludes (e.g. H 72) with tragic elements bring Heldenplatz into the vicinity of Fried- rich Durrenmatt's concept of tragicomedy, which in Durrenmatt's estimation is the only suitable genre for a world in which there is nothing but collective guilt and no possibil- ity for individual heroic action.

Perhaps the most appropriate designa- tion for Heldenplatz would be a "farce" in the sense intimated at the beginning of Marx's Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bona- parte (Kopnick 19). Marx, paraphrasing En- gels and commenting on Hegel, states the oft-quoted lines about tragedy in history re- turning in the fonn of farce. Heldenplatz garbs the Austria of 1988 in the guise of 1938, demonstrating that an unmastered history has returned. Again it is March, and again a Jewish family is vacating the premises be- cause of what it feels is rampant anti-Semi- tism. According to the housekeeper Frau Zittel, Josef saw the Schusters' move as an- other forced emigration, a second capitula- tion to Hitler iH 29 1. His suicide immediately preceding his planned departure -he throws himself from the window of his apart- ment onto the Heldenplatz below- parallels that of his 19-year old brother, who had like- wise jumped to his death fifty years earlier (H41). Rousing the specter of Nazism lends the play parodic overtones:

Die Totenerweckung in jenen [fruheren biirgerlichen-FN.] Revolutionen diente also dazu, die neuen Kampfe zu verherrli- chen, nicht die alten zu parodieren, die ge- gebene Aufgabe in der Phantasie zu uber- treiben, nicht vor ihrer Losung in der Wirklichkeit zuruckzufliichten, den Geist der Revolution wieder zu finden, nicht ihr Gespenst wieder umgehen zu machen. (Marx23)

According to Marx, then, the resuscita- tion of history as presented in Heldenplatz -which overtakes the characters in the last scene as the mounting screams of the masses on the Heldenplatz drown out their conversation-represents a flight from re- ality and a blindness to social change. The Austrian government was in a state of flux, with the broadening of the political spectrum and the diminution of the social partnership's sway, and an unprecedented discussion about Austria's fascist past ac- companied Waldheim's election (Menasse, "Land" 9-19). Ifthe farce evokes laughter, as it does in performance, it is an uneasy laughter that remains caught in our throats. We, like the characters, have in- deed walked into a trap, since, in Robert's words, the Burgtheater's 99- year lease on seriousness has come to an end with Heldenplatz (H152-53 1.

The Schusters' histrionic tone is not solely a joke at the expense of the victims, whose verbal attacks on Austria and Austri- ans are a projection of their interfamilial troubles onto the imagined national con- sciousness." The reversal of roles from ac- cuser to accused, from persecuted to perse- cutor, a reversal sustained from act to act, from drama to drama, is a warning signal: where the burden of the past weighs heavily upon the living ("Die Tradition aller toten Geschlechter lastet wie ein Alp auf dem Gehirn der Lebenden," Marx 211, self-identi- fications as "victims" or categorizations as "perpetrators" occlude an analysis of the rhetoric these positions engender. Such bi- narisrns inhlbit critical judgment and even political action; the immobility that arises from this Manichean view seems to be the primary lesson offered by Helde?zplatz's pro- tagonists. Robert Menasse has described how polarizations regarding the right-lean- ing Freedom Party's and Jorg Haider's as- cent quickly led to paralysis among the coun- try's left-leaning intellectuals ("Land" 1119). Describing the intelligentsia's sudden legitimization of the victim-thesis contained in the Moscow Declaration after Haider's elec- toral successes, Menasse writes:

Nun wird diese Luge auf einmal als sinn- volle und notwendige Stiirkung der Iden- titat der Zweiten Republik verteidigt- ausgerechnet aus Angst vor einer Wieder- holung der Geschichte. Aber sind es nicht Lugen wie diese, die zur Wiederholung ge- radezu herausfordern, weil sie prasump- tiven Wiederholungstatern geradezu ei- nen Freibrief ausstellen? Der Freibrief lautet: ~sterreicher konnen sich, wie man gesehen hat, in der Geschichte auf- fuhren, wie sie wollen, am Ende werden sie nicht als Tater bestraft, sondern als Opfer exkulpiert. ("Land" 19)

In Heldenplatz, a simple application of the "Logik [...I der Schicksalsgemeinschaft" without the possibility of a dialectical rever- sal leads to resignation and stagnation ("das ist ja vollkommen gleichgiiltig was das f%r eine Regierung ist 1 [...I es sind immer die- selben Interessen / [...] die mit jedem Tag den Staat mehr zugrunde richten," H 120). It also evokes disgust ("Dem Denkenden kann in der Friihe nur iibel werden," H 119) and even a longing for death: "ich [Robert] warte nurmehr noch darauf endgiiltig und ganz tot zu sein" (H 125). But perhaps we can see the standstill of dialectical thinking -the Schuster's predominant problem-as an indicator of Walter Benjamin's "Dialektik im Stillstand" (576 N2a, 3; 577-78 N3, The dialectical image that occurs when the past meets the present frees both from the dictates of linear causality, of chronological imperatives. The montage of 1988 and 1938 at the end-which engulfs the audience privy to the deafening cheers from the Hel- denplatz-illuminates both junctures in the final instants of the play. The past suddenly is endowed with historical readability for the viewers; the dialectical standstill lends the characters' willed non-synchronism a newly synchronous aspect.


11would like to thank my anonymous readers and Christoph Holzhey for their helpful sug- gestions.

2Only a short resume of the uproar Heldenplatz caused shall be attempted here (see Kie- buzinska, Daviau, Honegger, Starkman, Wo- dak). Sections of the unpublished text were leaked to tabloids, and the Burgtheater's art director Claus Peyrnann gave the weekly Die Zeit an incendiary interview. The scandal led to threatened boycotts by political figures and res- ignations by Burgtheater actors, as well as libel suits on the part of aggrieved Austrian patriots. Self-described angry taxpayers called for cen- sorship. The right-leaning mass circulation pa- per,Die Kronen Zeitung, depicted a Burgtheater engulfed in flames with the caption "nothing is too hot for us" on the 4thof November, a disqui- eting image during a commemorative year marking the Reichskristallnacht. Heldenplatz: Eine Dokumentation, published by the Burg- theater in the controversy's wake, collects many of the newspaper and magazine articles, pro and contra, and reprints various letters of support and ad hominem attacks.

3See, for example, Gitta Honegger's chapter entitled "The Staging of a Nation" in Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian and Jeanette Malkin's "Thomas Bernhard's Re- sentment and the Politics of Memory" in Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama; see also Konzett 49-52 and Pfabigan 418-31.

41n her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, AReporton the Banalit-yofEuil, Hannah Arendt describes the House of Justice in Jerusalem, where the trial against the SS-lieutenant colo- nel Eichmann took place, as a theater. Arendt argues that the boundary between art and law should remain clear and deems the prosecutor's showmanship unfit for a courtroom, since his theatricality diverts attention from legal issues. The "tragedy of Jewry as a whole" is to be dem- onstrated before an international audience, raising issues of collective guilt (2).

5See Daviau 41 and Honegger, "Bernhard" 499; see also Long 11-15.

6A number of critics voiced negative opin- ions, among them Sigrid Loffeler (Fialik 21), Renate Wagner (cited in Daviau 331, Norbert Tschulik (Dokumentation 2251, and Irmgard Steiner (Dokumentation226).

7In Vor dem Ruhestand, Vera considers the- ater inferior to a criminal trial in terms of elicit- ing a response from the spectator and engen- dering intense emotions (a sexually charged lust in this instance): "Jetzt kommen die in- teressanten Prozesse / Friiher hattest du [Cla- ra, her sister-F.N.] immer Lust dazu 1 Kein MordprozeB ohne dich / du warst ganz gierig danachl [...I Was ist das Theater1 gegen ein Schwurgericht" (45 ).

8"Exempel" validates Derrida's reflections on the violence inhabiting the law, both in the moment of its performative institution and in every "fresh judgment," when a judge speaks the law in a new case (3-67).

gThe fact that Jewish figures are facing this double bind makes it no less imperative for them to find a model and a mechanism of cultural identification. Lacoue-Labarthe argues that the Nazi ideologues saw Jews as people liberated from myth; as a result, they have no type and cannot enter into a process of self-fictioning (Heidegger 95-96).

lOAs Alfred Pfabigan has pointed out, accesso- ries, inherited goods, and personal taste play a crucial role in Bernhard's oeuvre, signifying an implicit hierarchy. The Schusters are located at the bottom of Bernhard's scale; they cannot divorce themselves from their material posses- sions, and they inhabit a destructive place (Pfabigan 35,418-31). Successful protagonists such as Franz-Josef Murau in Ausloschung free themselves from their problematic ances- try by giving away their inherited properties. As if to remind us of the alternative, the Scher- maier episode from Ausloschu~zg is alluded to in Act I11 of Heldenplatz (130-31).

llFor a detailed discussion of Bloch's concept see Anson Rabinbach's article "Bloch's Theory of Fascism." My use of Bloch's "Ungleichzeitig- keit" is to be distinguished from Regine Mey- er-Arlt's study of Bernhard's dramas in terms ofpost-histoire (137-72).

12Lacoue-Labarthe uses this phrase when commenting on Jean-Luc Nancy's concept of "immanentism" (i.e., the aim of a community is to produce their essence as their work and to produce this essence as community).

130nly in this way can Robert's metaphors be understood, about actresses causing their lov- ers' demise (making them "victims") and about theater leading to "aufregende Familienan- schliisse" (H 124; 158). The political expresses itself through and in art. Robert's apocalyptic vision of Austria is also couched in theatrical terms: "~sterreich selbst ist nichts als eine Biihne / auf der alles verlottert und vermodert und verkommen ist / eine in sich selber ver- hal3te Statisterie / von sechseinhalb Millionen Alleingelassenen [...I /die ununterbrochen aus vollem Hals nach einem Regisseur schreien 1 Der Regisseur wird kommenl und sie endgiiltig in den Abgrund hinunterstoBenw (H 89).

14Act I is filtered through the eyes of the housekeeper Frau Zittel, who is the product of a conformist mindset that made unquestioning acceptance of Hitler possible (cf. Honegger, Making 300). The admission of her own decep- tiveness in the course of Act I relativizes her statements about Josef's tyrannical personal- ity. However, other figures later corroborate many of her evaluations (H 68, 72, 80).

l5The changing ethnic population is demon- strated by the Persian carpet vendor and the many Yugoslavian superintendents (H 16,136; 33; cf. Honegger, Making 298).

16Bernhard's use of the Jewish figures in Hel- denplatz occasioned debate. Peter Sichrovsky senses injury: "Hier lMt ein Bochumer Theater- direktor [Claus Peymann] mit Hilfe eines oster- reichischen Schriftstellers einen Wiener Juden bellen wie einen deutschen Schiiferhund" (187; cf. Honegger, Malzing 291-93). Michael Olson maintains that the Jews embody high-ranking virtues in Bernhard's universe: they are anti- establishment and non-conformist (4144; cf. Daviau 32). Matthias Konzett claims that "the conscious reintegration of what the fascists had artificially demonized as a cultural Other is by it- self a remarkable feature" (50).

17Investigations of the BBA revealed a sole in- dividual at work, Franz Fuchs. 180n the Waldheim campaign see Ruth Wo- dak's Wir sind alle urlschuldige Tater.

IgTzvetan Todorov uses the concepts of "sac- ralization" and "banalization" to discuss the danger of comparing Stalinism and Nazism. Sacralization occurs when an event is held to be singular to the extent that no analytical dis- course on the subject is allowed. Banalization, on the other hand, occurs when the event is me- chanically assimilated to others, by, for exam- ple, weighing the number of dead against one another. The result is the same, argues To- dorov; both approaches lack specificity.

20See in particular Malkin (192-214) and

Ingen. 21Pfabigan argues that the Schusters project

their ruined state onto the whole of Austria (418-31, specifically 428).

220n Benjamin see Michael W Jennings, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism.

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