On Friday, February 6, I traveled with our Vienna Study Abroad group to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, and then we visited the Benedictine monastery in Melk. Geographically, the distance is not so great (about an hour bus ride), but the emotional distance is huge if not traumatic.
Mauthausen was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Austria after their annexation of country in March 1938. From its beginnings in August 1938 to its liberation by the U. S. Army in May 1945, the camp worked people to death (mining granite), and the regime summarily executed thousands (including a gas chamber). Over 100,000 people died at Mauthausen.
The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and its religious devotion is evidenced by fact that it was the center of Austrian monastic reform in the fifteenth century. The present Baroque facilities were erected in the early 1700s, and its church is the burial place of St. Coloman, an Irish monk who was martyred near Vienna in the early eleventh century. The Abbey survived both Joseph II’s confiscation of monastic property in the late eighteenth century and barely survived Nazification even though most of its property was used for state education at the time.
The camp has a serene setting on a rise of above Mauthausen which presently has less than 5,000 people living on the Gusen river that flows into the Danube, and the abbey sits at the head of the beautiful Wachau Valley situated on the Danube above the village of Melk which is also about 5,000. Both the concentration camp and the abbey overlook their villages and sit on high points that offer magnificent views of their valleys. Their settings are similar, but their intents are radically different.
Mauthausen was a labor camp designed to kill its inmates. Their daily diet was only half the calories necessary for subsistence. They were literally worked to death, and certain groups were simply executed. For example, Jewish inmates were sometimes, to the amusement of some of their SS guards, “parachuted” over the granite cliffs to their deaths.
Melk Abbey was an educational institution designed for life. It was a refuge on the borders of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria in the eleventh century, and it conducted a school from the twelfth century forward. The Abbey has been a center of service, education, prayer, and worship for almost ten centuries.
The two compounds, rising above their Austrian villages, represent two very different intentions. One arises out of a hatred for non-Germanic people groups (Jews, Slavs [including Soviet prisoners and Czech/Polish intelligensia], Roma), perceived social threats (same-sex orientation and Jehovah’s witnesses), and political dissenters (Social Democrats, Communists). The other arises out of a love for God and neighbor that devoted itself to St. Benedict’s Rule of work and prayer.
The two represent very different conceptions of human life. One uses forced labor and violence to secure its ends. The other practices humble submission and service to secure its ends. While they may share some similar ends, that is, security and community, the means by which these are pursued are very different–one by violence and the other by prayer.
Mauthausen and Melk symbolize–only miles apart–the “two ways” of biblical wisdom literature. There is a way that leads to death and destruction, and there is a way that leads to life. The foolish choose the former while the wise choose the latter.
Nevertheless, there was something uneasy about seeing the two back-to-back. While the contrast in intention and work is stark and illuminating, the contrast between austerity and wealth was also shocking.
Melk’s Baroque buildings, golden reliquaries, and magnificent church pointed to the wealth of the eighteenth century empire that enriched it. The church and the majestic art, floors, and ceilings of the monastery reflect the glory of the empire (the Holy Roman Empire) as well as God.
I have no doubt that this wealth was dedicated to the glory of God, though it was also a testimony to the glory of the empire. The two were not easily separated in the minds of most in eighteenth century Austria. So, I do not question the intent (to glorify God) as much as the means.
We could raise all kinds of questions about how the empire acquired this wealth, how it was distributed, and what the life of the poor was like. We could question a hegemony where ethnic Germans ruled politically disenfranchised Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Italians, etc. The empire enriched this monastery. So, even as I admire the beauty of Melk’s art and architecture, I pause to wonder about the roots of this wealth.
Coming from Mauthausen, I wonder abut the origins of the wealth that created this beauty at Melk. The Nazi empire (the Third Reich) created a monstrous and unambiguous evil–labor camps and death camps. The Holy Roman Empire, through the Habsburgs, created beauty, though it also had its share of atrocities in its history.
Nevertheless, I am amazed by the beauty of the art, the craftmanship of the woodwork, and the genius of the architect. In that beauty I see the reflection of the God who created beauty and loves beauty. I see the giftedness that enabled such art. The glory of God surely shines through it.
Whatever its origins, beauty–whether created by the Colorado river flowing through canyons for millions of years or Baroque buildings designed and built by Jakob Prandtauer over a thirty year period–testifies to the beauty of God’s own life and God’s love for diversity within the creation.
At bottom, is it possible to appreciate and enjoy beauty when places like Mauthausen exist in the world? Can we laugh and enjoy the good when evil surrounds us? Can we go from Mauthausen to Melk in one day without feeling sick to our stomachs?
I think so, but only with care. Indeed, an ancient Hebrew sage wrestled with this very question. We call his work Ecclesiastes.
Qoheleth saw oppression, folly, and death in the world. He lived with a sense of frustration about how evil and senseless the world really is. Indeed, his motto was that “everything is absurd!” Life does not make sense!
At the same time, he saw goodness within the creation. He believed that God created the world and, though it is filled with evil, there is nothing better to do than to love, work, and enjoy creation’s gifts. He confessed that there was yet “good” in the world even though life was absurd.
I felt the same way on Friday.
Mauthausen bears witness to the absurdities of humanity! But Melk–both in terms of its medieval origins and its present beauty–testifies to the reality that beauty and goodness still exist in the world.
Melk and Mauthausen contrast–prayer and service battle violence and oppression.
I am grateful that Melk can serve as a response to Mauthausen, though we must be careful that Melk does not also lead us to sanctify empires.