Ellie first lived in Zell-am-See, her husband Michael’s home town. It was and is a major tourist centre for people who like the mountains and winter sports. Nowadays it has a population of around 10,000. Ellie got a job in the town hall, under Julius Grabner, head of the housing department. He was to cause her some considerable trouble.
Amongst historians there is a lot of focus on the Anschluss, on the persecution of Jews, resistance to the regime, bombing, Vienna and the ending of the war, but not much on rural Austria and very little on life in small towns during the Nazi period.
An exception is Ingrid Böhler’s fascinating study of Dornbirn, a town in Vorarlberg in Western Austria, with a population of nearly 18,000 in 1939. Dornbirn was not a major tourist centre, but was important in the textile industry and what happened there will have been repeated across Austria in many small towns. This case study was the basis for describing Ellie’s experiences in Zell am See.
This whole region, Böhler explains, was very pro-Nazi. After the Anschluss there were a lot of changes to the town administration. Paul Waibel became the mayor. He had been a member of the NSDAP (the Nazi party) since 1933, but had never been arrested in the period in which the Party was illegal (after 1934) and was not as radical a supporter as his deputy, Josef Dreher.
Dreher had been jailed for a total of one and a half years between 1933 and 1938 for pro-Nazi activities. After a year as deputy mayor, in 1940 he ousted Waibel and took over. Dreher’s new deputy was a man called Alfons Mäser, who had spent fifteen years in jail for his political activities. With Dreher, he had been responsible for setting up the town’s SS branch.
In charge, these two made sure that the heads of department below them were all NSDAP members, dismissing their predecessors where necessary. Some of these people weren’t very well educated or experienced in administration. At least one had to be demoted after a while because of his ‘ignorance and indolence’. It was recognised that, occasionally, experienced people who were not Nazis had to be kept on if the departments were to run effectively.
This kind of regime change was a common experience across Austria in small towns after the Anschluss. But in one respect Dornbirn was a little different. Most towns used the money pouring in from Germany to build new social housing. Dornbirn took longer to do this, concentrating at first on planning buildings that conveyed prestige or power, or provided for festivities or leisure activities, including a square for parades, an extension to the existing city hall, a town swimming pool. Waibel himself turned up at the opening of the pool and was pictured in swimwear, flanked by town officials in suits.
Only later did they get around to building houses, for which (as in most small towns in Austria) there was a pressing need. Forced labourers were used to build them and they were then allocated to people relocating to the region from Germany or other parts of Austria and were only given to local people if they were well connected. Applicants also had to prove their ideological commitment by, for example, withdrawing from the Catholic Church, which was regarded with suspicion and contempt by Nazi leaders.
Böhler does not say what happened to these people after 1945. The efforts to ‘deNazify’ Austria by the Western Allies will have removed some of them, but others may have stayed on. Just as Dreher knew he had to keep some people whose politics were not to his taste, the occupation authorities after the war had a country to run, and made many compromises. Martin Herz explains this to Louis Nicholson in Interrogating Ellie when he describes the situation in the Steyr industrial complex, where Nazi managers were kept on by the Americans in order to keep the plant running, much to the disgust of the anti-Nazi trade unionists there.
Source for this page: Böhler, I. (2009) Alte Kämpfer and new houses in Dornbirn: a case study of a small- to medium-sized Austrian city under the Nazi regime. In Bischof, Gunter., Plasser, Fritz. (eds) New Perspectives on Austrians and World War II. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. pp. 157-181