After decades in private hands, the former concentration camp Gusen, described by Bernard Aldebert as the “hell of all hells,” has finally been acquired by the Republic of Austria. Established in 1940 between the villages of St. Georgen and Langenstein, the former subcamp of the better-known KZ Mauthausen was operated by the Schutzstaffel (SS), who subjected inmates to forced labor in nearby quarries and arms production for Messerschmitt and Steyr-Daimler-Puch. Tens of thousands suffered starvation and mass executions, with the average life expectancy being just six months.
In total, 200,000 people were imprisoned in Mauthausen and its 49 subcamps, half of whom didn’t survive. Gusen alone held 20,000 prisoners at the time of its liberation by US forces on May 5, 1945, and 35,000 people met their death within its walls. After the war, Gusen was repurposed as a residential complex, and most of its concentration camp facilities were torn down.
The government decided to negotiate the purchase of major parts of what remains of the subcamp on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Mauthausen in 2020. Officially, the new owner will be the Burghauptmannschaft (Austria’s monument authority), who will put them at the Ministry of the Interior’s disposal.
“The negotiations have reached a positive conclusion,” Minister of the Interior Karl Nehammer said during a wreath-laying ceremony on the eve of the anniversary of Mauthausen’s liberation on May 5. Specifically, the government obtained the entrance to the tunnel system Bergkristall in St. Georgen, two SS administrative barracks, as well as the rock crusher and Appellplatz (assembly area) in Langenstein.
A Visible Sign of Remembrance
Nehammer also laid out the plan to turn the location into a “visible sign of remembrance,” with the Mauthausen Committee currently devising a concept in collaboration with international, national and regional stakeholders. “In a time where the voices of the survivors are becoming quieter, memorials need to speak louder. May the new memorial in Gusen serve as a remembrance of the victims and an admonition for the living,” Nehammer stated. The governor of Upper Austria, Thomas Stelzer, added that freedom and liberation didn’t just arrive in May 1945 but require continuous work.
While Mauthausen was given to Austria in 1947 by the allies for the purpose of establishing a memorial, Gusen fell into oblivion: only a small monument currently commemorates its victims, despite this forced labor camp occasionally holding more inmates and having a higher mortality rate than the main camp. The impetus for its purchase initially came from Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who expressed interest in buying the camp in 2019 as it primarily held Polish prisoners; this, along with pressure by international associations motivated the Austrian government to obtain the complex and turn it in a memorial.
According to local historian Martha Gammer, the purchase of Gusen doesn’t represent a trend reversal in the culture of remembrance, “but a chance to solve local conflicts, that formed after years of neglect.”