At Augarten, a Hapsburg-hunting-lodge-turned-public-park, there looms a flakturm, an anti-aircraft bunker built during the Nazi regime. Most of the people at Augarten describe it as a bleak and unwanted reminder of darker times. But when I asked an older gentleman, he responded, “Well, they would come in their planes and bomb us. We had to defend ourselves.” His words surprised me; had he lived through the war? “Of course. I served as a German soldier against the Russians.”
The ethnically German veteran was born in Silesia, an ever-contested region of Poland: “my people… we were displaced people. We were not allowed a home.” He was seventeen when he joined the army and was subsequently wounded in Russia. After the war, he came to Vienna to study civil engineering. Now, he visits Augarten to exercise his injured leg and “see the young people” who frequent the park. He was delighted to discover that I attend “Prinsch-uh-tihn”, and thanked me for listening.
We have always learned that in the Second World War, Germany was the “bad guy.” With this perspective, it’s easy to view the people as the machines of an evil institution, rather than as complex individuals. But as this veteran has shown me, nothing is ever that simple. In my hour with him, I was the recipient of fascinating stories from a beautiful human being. He and Vienna have reminded me that the more we see of the world, the more we realize how much there is to learn.