Vienna council shifts Luftwaffe hero from plot of honour to pauper's grave
By Clare Chapman in Vienna
The ashes of a daredevil Luftwaffe pilot who shot down more than 250 Allied planes in the Second World War are to be exhumed from a grave of honour in Vienna after the council stripped him of his status as a war hero.
The campaign to remove Major Walter Nowotny's remains from the city's Central Cemetery and move them to a pauper's plot has been led by the grandson of a British RAF pilot who was shot down over Belgium in 1940 and died of his injuries.
David Ellensohn, a Vienna city councillor whose maternal grandfather was RAF acting pilot officer James Gillespie, successfully argued that Major Nowotny - the first fighter pilot in history to bring down 250 enemy aircraft - had been serving the Third Reich and did not deserve his heroic status.
"He was not fighting for this country, for Austria, he was fighting for the Third Reich," said Mr Ellensohn, a Green Party councillor. "If they had won the war, there would be no Austria as such. Therefore, we should not be forced to give special credit to this man."
Major Nowotny, who had shot down 258 enemy aircraft by the time of his death, aged 24, had been awarded the Third Reich's highest military honour, the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, by Hitler himself.
When the major died in 1944 when his fighter crashed in flames, his ashes were buried with his medals in his home town, Vienna, alongside Austrian resistance fighters and Beethoven, Schubert, Johann Strauss and Brahms.
Mr Ellensohn asked: "What did he do that earned him a place alongside those who really earned their places in the cemetery, such as resistance fighters Rosa Jochmann and Paul Speiser?
"He was placed in that section of the graveyard by the Nazis, not by the city of Vienna, and although it has taken 59 years for the city to recognise that he does not deserve to be there, we are pleased that action is finally being taken."
The council's decision has been denounced as "cultural barbarianism" by Johann Herzog, a councillor for the opposition Freedom Party (FP), which has launched an appeal.
Opposition councillors argue that relocating the major's ashes would contravene the war graves welfare law, from 1948, that says war graves - regardless of the nationality of their occupant - must remain undisturbed.
Mr Herzog said: "The necessity to dishonour Nowotny's grave, and therefore his person, almost 60 years after his death, is evidence of a distorted understanding of history and moreover a lack of deference for a fallen soldier. And that's all he was - a soldier.
"He was not a member of the National Socialist Party and he certainly was not a war criminal. If he were, I could understand the removal of his status. In fact, he was respected not just by his own side but by RAF pilots as well."
Sascha Gasthuber, of the far-Right Germania group, said protesters carrying flaming torches to show their contempt for the vote would march against the council's decision. "Nowotny gave his life to make sure the future was worth living in for us and our children. We cannot sit back and let them dishonour his memory like this."
Mr Ellensohn, however, insisted that the plan to move the grave away from the cemetery's section for heroes was perfectly justified. "As far as I am aware, there is no rule in Catholicism that says a grave cannot be moved, not like in Judaism," he said.
Major Nowotny, who joined up when he was 19 following the invasion of Poland, was renowned even among Allied pilots and during the summer of 1943 became a virtual one-man air force in the skies over the Eastern Front. In June 1943 he shot down 41 aircraft, 10 in one day. He crashed on November 8 1944 and was buried with his medals a few days later.
Hello, This is a response that I received from the Vienna City Administration, Austria, regarding the grave site of Maj. Walter Nowotny. Although he fought for the other side, he was still a soldier who died fighting for his homeland, and I found it disturbing that anyone would consider disrupting his grave some many years after the war. Anyway, this is the reply.
Rob Bailey / USA
V i e n n a c i t y A D m i n i s t r a t i o n
Municipal Department 7 – Cultural Affairs
1082 Vienna, Friedrich-Schmidt-Platz 5
Ref.: MA 7 - 2782/03 Vienna, 23 July 2003
Mr. Robert A. Bailey
Dear Mr. Bailey,
With regard to your letter addressed to Mayor Dr Michael Häupl regarding the tomb of honour of Walter Nowotny, we would like to inform you as follows:
The Vienna City Council decided to disallow the tomb of honour in its sitting on 23 May 2003. This means that the City of Vienna will no longer take care of the tomb. The tomb will, however, be maintained as war grave. In Austria, the Federal Ministry of the Interior is responsible for war graves.
We hope this information proves helpful.
Case Officer: Herbert Drexler
Tel: 01-4000/ext. 84766
Dr. Bernhard Denscher