Fri, May 30, 2008 - Page 22 News List

Vienna’s showpiece stadium hides dark secret from the past

AFP , VIENNA

Vienna, which chose to revamp a 77-year-old stadium rather than build a new one for Euro 2008, will host the June 29 final in a venue that was once the site of Nazi propaganda and racial experiments.

The Ernst Happel stadium, originally named the Prater stadium after the area of Vienna in which it is located, opened in 1931 for the second Workers’ Olympiad after 23 months of construction.

A “utopia made of steel, glass and concrete,” the sleek structure by German architect Otto Ernst Schweizer was then considered the most modern stadium in Europe.

The venue, which was home to the celebrated Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, originally held 60,000 spectators at a time when men still wore hats to games.

Its capacity was later increased to 90,000 in the 1950s, before standing places were abolished.

LANDMARK

Renovated in 1986, the stadium was renamed after legendary Austrian coach Ernst Happel in 1993 and is now a protected landmark.

But the affectionately nicknamed “Old Lady,” which underwent further restoration in preparation for Euro 2008 at a cost of 36.9 million euros (US$58.2 million), also served a more sinister purpose during the 1930s.

On May 1, 1934, marching schoolchildren paid tribute to Austro-fascist Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss at the stadium, in a pompous Labor Day spectacle during which he proclaimed a new constitution, effectively turning Austria into an authoritarian state.

Four years later, on April 3, 1938, the stadium hosted the so-called Anschluss Spiel, or “annexation match,” following Austria’s occupation by Adolf Hitler’s Germany on March 12.

PROPAGANDISTS

Staged by Nazi propagandists as a reconciliation between two parts of the Reich that supposedly belonged together, the game — one week before an April 10 referendum, in which Austrians would overwhelmingly vote to join the Third Reich — nevertheless saw Austria defeat Germany 2-0, before an array of high-ranking Nazi officials.

A year later in September 1939, the stadium took on a new role as the German Gestapo locked up over 1,000 Jewish men there on the ground that the prisons were full.

Josef Wastl, the then-director of the anthropology department at Vienna’s Natural History Museum, examined some 440 detainees, taking measurements of their bodies and features for an Anthropology of Jews report, with photos, hair samples and plaster masks of their faces.

The prisoners were susequently sent to Buchenwald concentration camp on September 30 and business resumed as usual on the following day, as the stadium once again played host to a soccer game.

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