At home with Hitler

July 30 2002 / The Guardian

The X-Large nightclub in the southern suburbs of the Austrian city of Linz has long been popular with young students, travellers and migrants from eastern Europe. It is one of the few places in Linz, the provincial capital of upper Austria, where immigrants regularly meet to dance and drink in what is, after all, a city not exactly renowned for its urgent nightlife. Nor is it renowned for its openness towards, and tolerance of, outsiders.

But until last weekend any suspicion of “the Other” had not yet found violent expression. All that changed when a bomb exploded as clubbers were leaving X-Large in the early hours of Saturday morning. The bomb wounded 27 people in what police believe was a politically motivated attack. It is too early to say whether the bomb was the work of a lone fanatic or a more sinister grouping. What is certain is that Linz remains, like much of Austria, deeply riven and troubled about its past and indeed its present in a unified Europe.

I have recently returned from a working trip to upper Austria and was surprised to meet so many people there for whom the European Union was not so much an enlightened organisation as a malign bureaucracy. They were deeply opposed to any further enlargement of the EU - after all, they said, the Balkans have already begun intruding into southern Corinthia, the Austrian province that borders Slovenia and is the power base of the rightwing populist Jörg Haider. Austria, said a group of students at the University of Linz, was already “full up”, which may or may not have been a deliberate echo of the rhetoric of the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands.

Linz lies in the Danube valley, surrounded by wooded hills. It is an oppressively closed, introverted city, as it has been for much of its history. Even in the late 19th century, when imperial Vienna was a great cosmopolitan metropolis, the predominant culture of Linz, with its proximity to the Bavarian and Czech borders, was a kind of provincial patriotism - conservative, folkish, agrarian, anti-Slavic and Judaeophobic.

Linz is also the home town of Adolf Hitler, the town he dreamed his whole life of rebuilding so that it would one day become not just an architectural rival to Budapest and Vienna, but the city on the Danube, a place of colossal dimensions. It was to Linz that he hoped to retire with Eva Braun, once his “work was complete”.

In the main square of the old baroque quarter of the city stands the Rathaus, or town hall, from where on March 12 1938 Hitler addressed an estimated 60,000 people on his homecoming after an absence of 30 years.

Later that night, exhilarated by the mood of celebration, he declared the Anschluss of Austria, which he saw as preordained, the fulfilment of his long-nurtured ambition of a romantic union of the German Volk.

Hitler later commissioned the architect Hermann Giesler to lead the design and rebuilding of Linz, which, as well as new bridges, galleries and opera houses, was to have its own 160ft gothic “Tower on the Danube”. “Budapest is by far the most beautiful city on the Danube,” he said. “But I am determined to make Linz a German town on the Danube which surpasses it, and by so doing to prove that the artistic sense of the Germans is superior to that of the Magyars.”

Today the Nibelungen bridge across the Danube, linking the old main square of Linz to the northern suburb of Urfahr, completed in the early 1940s before the catastrophic reversals on the eastern front, remains the chief monument to Hitler’s mission to rebuild Linz. There is also the iron and steel works built during the second world war as part of a wider process of industrialisation in upper Austria.

The economic transformation of Linz was one of the great successes of the Nazi period, as Jörg Haider often reminds his compatriots. What is never mentioned, however, is how much of the prosperity of Linz was built on the exploitation of slave labour from the occupied territories in the east, those same territories from which the young people injured in the blast at the X-Large nightclub, and others like them, are arriving every week in search of work.

One of the police investigating the nightclub blast told me he was confident that there would be no further attacks. In truth, however, there was nothing but doubt in his voice. “We live in very uneasy times,” he said. “I hope, I really hope, that this will not be the start of something.”

The right is increasingly in the ascendant throughout Europe, adept at exploiting unease about asylum seekers, globalisation, multiculturalism and the perceived failure of pro-EU centrist consensus politics. One hopes, in such an environment, that the police officer was right and that there will be no further outrages in Linz. But having visited the city, and spoken to so many of its disaffected young people, I fear the worst is still to come.