Academic journal article German Quarterly

Dialectic as a standstill: The discourse of victimhood in Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Dialectic as a standstill: The discourse of victimhood in Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz

Article excerpt

A photo in the Burgtheater playbill accompanying Thomas Bernhard's drama Heldenplatz (1988) shows the eponymous square fifty years after the Anschluss, this time devoid of crowds cheering a triumphant Fuhrer.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 admonishing us to "never forget" dangles beneath the small plaque. While the call to remember pertains to the Jewish victims of the Third Reich, a commemoration symbolically effected by renaming the Heldenplatz, the photo allows a more insidious reading. Its lack of specificity could be seen as an injunction to remember others who perceive themselves 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 victimhood and its relation to historical responsibility. 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 zuruck?" and "Nie wieder Pflichterfullung fur fremde Grossmachtinteressen!" (108-09; 33), 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 conjures what will be the crux of the play: the pervasive rhetoric of victimization and victimhood among heterogeneous groups. Heldenplatz ultimately undermines stark oppositions 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-ethical 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 nonsynchronous and non-dialectical thinking of the drama's Jewish protagonists and the connection between this logic and their selfperception as victims.

Staging a Show Trial

There seems to be an inverse relation between the magnitude of the scandal Heldenplatz generated and the amount of close attention expended on the piece (see Pfabigan 14-15). The uproar surrounding the play-- commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Austria's premier stage, the Burgtheater, and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss-reached unprecedented heights and continued from June well into December of 1988. The coup de theatre attending Heldenplatz exposed fissures in society regarding Austria's historical responsibility, and the typically querulous Bernhard was taken to task for his vituperative attack on postwar Austria and its citizens.2 Closer scrutiny has only recently revealed the drama's contradictory aspects and the nuances intrinsic to Bernhard's hyperbole.3

Heldenplatz centers on the Jewish Schuster family, which, lured by academic positions 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 antiSemitism. 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' apartment on the Heldenplatz, incessantly discussing Josef s act and the man himself

I would argue that one reason for the furor caused by Heldenplatz was Bernhard's use of juridical discourse to address ethical questions of historical accountability Underlining the non-synchronisms between Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany, where a juridical discourse about National Socialism and the Holocaust preceded theological, historiographical, and social-psychological ones (Koch 7), Bernhard's drama seeks to combine a juridical with a socio-psychological approach. …

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