A visitor to the House of Austrian History, the country's contemporary history museum, located in the curved colonnaded Neue Burg wing of Vienna's imperial Hofburg Palace, can walk right up to doors that lead to one of the most infamous balconies in Austrian history: the site of Adolf Hitler's speech on March 15, 1938, in which he announced to cheering Austrians that his birth country had been incorporated into the Third Reich, an event known as the Anschluss.
Yet the doors stay closed, making it impossible for a visitor to step out onto what is sometimes called the "Hitler balcony."
Monika Sommer is pushing to change this. The director of the House of Austrian History is calling for the balcony to be incorporated into the contemporary history museum's collection and made open to the public as a way to strengthen both the country's collective historic memory and its democratic present.
"We know that we will break a taboo by doing this, since up until now, this balcony simply hasn't been publicly accessible," she told DW.
Though referred to as a balcony, it is architecturally more similar to a terrace, as it sits directly atop a covered entrance leading to the palace from Heldenplatz, or Heroes' Square, the site of political protests and gatherings, both past and present.
For Sommer, opening up the balcony would be part of a longer process that the museum, which is housed in the Neue Burg, would like to undertake. "The first step would be to open the balcony to the public and allow registered tours to access it," she told DW, explaining that further developments or installations could follow.
The site of Austrian history
The balcony has long been one of Austria's most prominent symbols of its Nazi past, though its role in history extends beyond that era.
It was built in the late 19th century as part of the Habsburg monarchy's residence, just as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was enjoying its last glory days before WWI and its eventual dissolution.
In the early 20th century, rival political ideologies of the interwar years played out on Heldenplatz, with pan-German nationalists, anti-war international socialists and Austrofacist politicians all giving speeches from the balcony to crowds gathered in the square below. Guests of honor were often also seated on the balcony.
On March 15, 1938, roughly 200,000 Austrians gathered on Heldenplatz to cheer Hitler as he announced "the entrance of my homeland in the German Reich" from the palace balcony. Crowds also gathered in subsequent years to celebrate the anniversary of the Anschluss.
A second speech and a turning point
After WWII, the balcony was closed off. Austria styled itself as the "first victim" of Hitler and refused to bear responsibility for both the Anschluss and the subsequent Nazi crimes. It was only in the early 1990s that the nation began to critically examine its role in that era.
The balcony was made publicly accessible only once in its post-war history: In 1992, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel gave a speech from it, calling on listeners to fight racism and confront the country's past. "The balcony is nothing. It is a symbol, nothing more. The purification, the change cannot come from the balcony. It must come from below," he said.
While it is the only other speech to be made from the balcony since WWII, Sommer said it is not very well known. "Interestingly, this speech is not deeply anchored in collective memory," she said. The potential to expand the balcony's meaning therefore exists, she added: "It could also be a symbol for Austria's new political understanding of its history … which critically analyzes contemporary Austrian history."
"The national self-understanding that we bear joint responsibility absolutely dominates. A lot has changed in this respect," Sommer said, explaining how present-day Austria has discarded the "first victim" theory and instead acknowledges and addresses its complicity in Nazi crimes. "That's also precisely why I think it would be good to underline this with a strong sign," she added, referring to the balcony's opening.
A view of democracy
Some of Austria's most important political sites are visible from the balcony: Along with Heldenplatz, the Greek-columned Austrian Parliament, the neo-Geothic Viennese City Hall and the government and presidential chancelleries are all visible, as well.
"It's a wonderful view you have from up there, and a very, very good opportunity to speak to a group about the meaning of democracy," Sommer said. She would like to combine guided visits to the balcony with democracy-building education initiatives that the museum offers.
To try and gather support for the balcony's opening, the House of Austrian History lets visitors vote on whether they support the initiative. As of mid-March, more than 60,000 people had voted, with nearly 51,000 in favor. The museum also hosts an online site, "The balcony, a site in construction," where people can upload their ideas for the balcony's potential future appearance.
Sommer doesn't know if her push to open the balcony will be successful; there structural and security concerns that must be taken into account, for instance, avoiding the possibility that the site could become a destination for neo-Nazis. Yet she is committed to spurring public discussion onward and remains confident that a solution can be found: "If there is political will, then there will be a way."