From Historical Monuments to "Thought-provoking Sites" – Critical and Reflective Perspectives on "Turkish Memorials" in Vienna

(May 2011)

This study is one of three dissertation projects being carried out by an interdisciplinary DOC-team entitled "The Turks outside (and in) Vienna – Communicating and Recalling Historical Concepts of the ‘Ottoman Threat’ in Austria".

Its focal point is the multifaceted historical concept of "the Turks” that for centuries has been internalized and rooted in Austria’s (and Europe’s) collective memory. This concept has been manifested primarily in the repeated commemoration of the second Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1683.

Some 150 memorials in Vienna’s public spaces remind viewers in different ways of the Turkish sieges, thereby communicating and preserving images of the Turks as a national enemy. The monuments have a representative function and support a hegemonic version of historical events in 1683 and are thus part of a system of political symbols.

The significance of the second Turkish Siege of Vienna for Austria’s self-understanding is seen in the role of this victory in irrevocably saving the "Christian Western world" from the "threat from the East", which marks the beginning of "Austria’s heroic age", the rise of the Habsburg Empire.
Ever since the Turkish wars, prevailing power elites have repeatedly used stereotypical negative images of "the Turks", complementing them with topical elements to render them useful for contemporary goals. Especially the anniversaries of the siege in 1883, 1933 and 1983 were celebrated in grand style with parades and marches, religious festivities, exhibitions, and the erection of monuments. Warnings about a "third Turkish siege", which have been voiced for example by right-wing conservative parties in the context of current debates on migration and integration, highlight the retrospective projection of recent conflicts onto historical events and are a manifestation of discrimination and exclusion mechanisms.

To this day, more differentiated perspectives in commemorating the 1683 Siege of Vienna are still rare. Commemoration is manifested in a stable "place of remembrance" that offers a frame of reference for the formation of national and religious identities. This project intends to investigate the contexts in which historical myths and images of "the Turks" are created, to examine their potential for being instrumentalized, and to explore how they are rooted in societal practices of memory. This will include the study of latent modes of action and the often hidden forms of reproducing ressentiments.

The starting point of research is a "Turkish monument" depicting the "arch enemy" as defeated and ridiculed. It stands atop the entrance to the Türkenritthof housing estate in Hernals, Vienna’s 17th municipal district. From 1683 to 1783, the Türkenritt [Turkish ride] was an annual costume parade celebrating the feast of the patron saint of the Hernsals church. The parade centered on a man dressed as a Turkish pasha riding backwards on a donkey, making himself the laughing-stock of the people—a satire of the "humiliating" retreat of Kara Mustafa Pasha, commander of the Ottoman army, after he lost the Battle of Vienna. The memory of this Türkenritt parade was preserved into the twentieth century; until the end of the 1980s repeated attempts were made to revive the practice.

The Türkenritt parade, as both custom and memorial, is a particularly demonstrative expression of the construction and perpetuation of the concept of "the Turk" as an enemy. Based on an examination of the explicit symbolism of discrimination and degradation of a supposed "other", and with an eye to the repeated attempts to revive the Türkenritt tradition, the project will discuss possible critical and reflective approaches to (historical) images of Turks as the enemy.

Research will focus on questions about the perception, meaning, interpretation, usage, and function of memorials such as the Türkenritt monument, as well as how the Turkish sieges of Vienna are commemorated in general. How is the societal practice of commemorating the events of 1683 constructed? What references are made to contemporary discourse? How should or could one today deal with these monuments or with commemorating 1683? What potential could art in particular offer for critically reassessing the "memory of Turks"?

As a DOC team [Doctoral Group for Interdisciplinary Work in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Cultural Studies], the project is part of a funding program of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and has received a grant from the Austrian Ministry for Science and Research.