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Digging up the past: soil as archive

Jacob bronowski architectural review

The soil of Aflenz an der Sulm is a living archive, bearing testament to its egregious history as a concentration camp in southern Austria

Today, Aflenz an der Sulm, located in southern Austria in the municipality of Wagna near Leibnitz, presents itself to rare visitors as an idyllic hilly landscape covered with agricultural fields, patches of forest and few roads, with a growing number of single-family houses as the area increasingly transforms from rural to peri-urban. Almost nothing above the surface indicates that the patch of forest is the site of a mass grave, and that the corn fields used to be a concentration camp barracks. Next to it, the new houses are built on the site of a barracks for the workers at the Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG (SDPAG) arms factory, where nicotine seeds and pieces of Rosenthal porcelain were found. Given the spatial erasure, coupled with the resistance of the community since 1945 to acknowledge the existence of the concentration camp, it is the soil which keeps the record, not only of what took place at the very end of the Second World War, but also what happened between then and today. 

‘Soil not only holds memory, but it also holds a counter-memory’

The soil of Aflenz an der Sulm is an active archive, allowing us to read not only its history, but also the present in its aftermath. Investigative memorialisation, coined by artist Milica Tomić, is a non-commemorative, transdisciplinary and collective approach to memorialisation, keeping its distance from the forced and frozen reconciliation of conflicted sides, and understanding that any act of memorialisation of the site cannot be a static stating of the facts. Every memory the soil of Aflenz an der Sulm holds, both material and immaterial, is determined by the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden, which defined how the land was used and worked. 

Flotation may architectural review

Flotation may architectural review

Flotation june architectural review

Flotation june architectural review

SDPAG was a company which manufactured weapons and vehicles, founded in the 19th century, and one of the biggest armaments producers for the German army during the Second World War. After Austria’s annexation in 1938, Georg Meindl was appointed general director of the company on the direct orders of Hermann Göring, with whom he had private connections, leading to lucrative commissions from the Wehrmacht and the SS.

The company focused solely on supplying armaments to the war, resulting in an increase in production and capital gains of 700-800 per cent between 1938 and 1943. In early 1941 the SDPAG was the first armaments company to use concentration camp labourers on Meindl’s suggestion. From 1943 onwards, as the bombardments and airstrikes by the allied forces intensified, many companies in the Third Reich started to bring their production underground in order to protect them. In 1944, the production of the SDPAG was moved from Graz Thondorf to an ancient Roman quarry in Aflenz an der Sulm. Known as KZ Aflenz, the caves were adapted for machinery and a camp for workers, bringing 200 inmates from the Mauthausen concentration camp in northern Austria as well as 2,000 existing SDPAG workers.

Blut und boden architectural review

Blut und boden architectural review

Source: Ullstein Bild / Getty Images 

Central to the Nazi philosophy was Blut und Boden, which connected a ‘racially pure’ national body with the land. Their ideology aimed to purify territory above and below the surface of the land, inspiring colourful propaganda such as these decorated wagons from 1936, celebrating winemaking in the Third Reich

The founding of KZ Aflenz in 1944 was not the first encounter between this village and its surrounding landscape and the National Socialist ideology: the agriculture in Styria was restructured under German rule with a goal to increase yield, resulting in changed property relations, increased use of chemical fertilisers and investment in modern machinery. The ideological context of this seemingly harmless goal was, of course, the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden (‘blood and soil’), as articulated by the writer, agricultural expert and Nazi party member Richard Walther Darré, who in 1933 became the Reichsminister for Food and Agriculture in the German government. The ideology of Blut und Boden was based on the idea of the racial superiority of the Nordic-Aryan race – represented by Blut – which could fulfil its domination only in connection with the soil, land and territory – Boden

The ideology was implemented to create ‘racially pure’ territories both above and below the land’s surface. Above the ground this resulted in racial politics which ultimately produced the holocaust, as well as the reorganisation of German society into a more hierarchical structure with the production of a new agrarian identity, manifest in the figure of the Bauer (‘farmer’). Darré created the image of the Bauer in opposition to the US concept of the farmer and farmland, which he saw as thoroughly integrated and shaped by market forces. According to him, the Bauer must hold a special position in society and be protected by the state – especially from the capitalist market – through specific laws including the Reichserbhofgesetz from 1933, which defined what a Bauer is, under what conditions one could become one, and what this status provides, as well as defining the sizes of agricultural estates.

Deutsch erde wener peiners architectural review

Deutsch erde wener peiners architectural review

Source: Dacs 2020

Werner Peiner’s Deutsch Erde exemplifies artworks depicting the Bauer working the land 

The lesser known implementation of Blut und Boden, below the ground, reorganised ownership of the agricultural land, introduced industrialised approaches to husbandry, and new types of animal breeds and strains of crops, developed in the laboratories with the aim of creating and sustaining the new racial and fascist regime. Following the annexation, this ideologically driven process of restructuring was also implemented in Austria. To support these ideas, a refinancing law was introduced in 1938, which removed financial pressure from the Bauer. Until 1939, the law refinanced the debts of 90 per cent of all agricultural operations in Austria into cheap long-term state loans, worth around 100 million Reichsmarks. The agricultural landscape of Styria was changed by these laws – not terminated until 1999. In 1939, 97 per cent of all land in Styria was owned by agricultural operations, half of which were operations under 0.5ha amounting to only 4 per cent of the land, while 4 per cent of the operations larger than 50ha amounted to half of the land owned. The Reichserbhofgesetz protected bigger estates while about a thousand smaller estates were auctioned off annually. Land owned by Jewish estates was all expropriated and aryanised by 1942. 

Interventions in the legal system to sustain the privileged position of the Bauer in the new society Nazis were creating, were not focused only on laws shaping property relations, but also on laws regulating labour relations, making sure that the new Bauer class had an ample supply of cheap workers to rely on. After the annexation of Austria, already short on workers, the obligation to work was introduced, withholding food stamps from those who did not, and removing limits to working hours per week for male workers. Under these laws, so-called ‘free’ SPDAG workers did not have any choice but to oblige to the relocation from Graz Thondorf to the labour camp in Aflenz an der Sulm. 

Today, it is imperative to understand the Second World War and National Socialism as an integral part of the European colonial project and not as the state of exception. Colonial practices, having spread across territories and soils, and once confined to the colonial context, continue to inform our ideas of minerals, species, race and gender, permeating our behaviour, institutions and imaginary to the present day. In 1945 the Second World War ended, but the agricultural estates in southern Austria created during the war stayed and continued to work the land despite what took place on it. And as the local community actively started to forget what took place during the war, its memory was confined below the ground and into the soil. The static form of commemoration that says ‘this happened here at some point in time’ is not enough to understand how KZ Aflenz, what led to its creation and how it unfolded in the landscape, continues to inform the present and the future of this site. The memory of the historical event which the local community wants to forget, grows out of the soil, but to be read as such, the soil has to be understood as an archive and the memorialisation as an active investigation, a process of assembling knowledge and simultaneously creating an intervention in both the existing and the new public sphere, by bringing the knowledge to interpret the event into the public realm.

Milica tomic aflenz architectural review

Milica tomic aflenz architectural review

Source: Simon Oberhofer 

As part of Milica Tomić’s 2018 project Aflenz Memorial in Becoming, the site of Aflenz an der Sulm was archaeologically excavated treating the soil as a living archive carrying traces of the past as well as its present 

Exhibiting on a trowels edge styria architectural review

Exhibiting on a trowels edge styria architectural review

Source: Simon Oberhofer

The findings of the Aflenz Memorial in Becoming project displayed at Exhibiting on a Trowel’s Edge, as part of the 2018 Steirischer Herbst arts festival held in Styria

The question becomes: how to produce and assemble knowledge and insights that are inherent and immanent to the future memorial? How can we think about the memorial, not in static terms of commemoration practices, but rather as changing, fluid and evolving? This is the background against which, during the summer of 2018, one of the unmarked sites of the labour camp in Aflenz an der Sulm was subject to an archaeological prospection, opening artist Milica Tomić’s project Aflenz Memorial in Becoming. Against the taxonomic flattening and colonial condition of the soil, this project approached the site as a living archive bearing all layers of violence, shifting between the labour of life and the labour of death. Archaeological excavation, through various findings like the remains of a waste pit from the Second World War, and small, almost invisible archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological residues and seeds, helped to understand and learn not just about the site of Aflenz an der Sulm and its past, but also about the space and time between the closing of the camp in 1945 up until today. 

The concept of investigative memorialisation, developed through Tomić’s 2018 project, began to emerge based on the premises initially developed by Grupa Spomenik (‘The Monument Group’), a Yugoslav-based art-theory group, whose focus was the politics of memorialisation, wars against Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the post-genocidal society. Grupa Spomenik states that: ‘There is no memory without politics, which means that there is no memory without a political subjectivation’, an idea crucial to the practice of investigative memorialisation. 

‘The physical labour of archaeologists resembles the physical labour of peasants, enabling them to feel the soil in their bones’

In the context of Aflenz an der Sulm, where repressed memory is deposited in the soil, it is particularly important to approach the problem of memorialisation from the vantage point of political subjectivation, activated through the investigative political capacity of both human and non-human agents alike. Ross Exo Adams writes in Landscapes of Post-History how landscape can be understood as an ‘as-found archive of social and cultural history’, but that, despite the political potency that knowledge embedded in the landscape can have, engagement with the landscape-as-archive can often have a depoliticising effect. Following Exo Adams, it is not enough to acknowledge the agency of landscape as an archive. Instead, it is as important to engage with the knowledge sedimented in the landscape in a continuous cognitive process, especially in a context where there is little political will to deal with the troubled past – the historical memory of KZ Aflenz persists only due to the effort of one person, Franz Trampusch, who has been challenging the active suppression of the memory by the local community for decades, and whose efforts have been supported recently by the municipality of Wagna. To avoid the apolitical pitfall of post-history of which Exo Adams warns, it is important to look at soil in its complex materiality and not as an abstraction. 

Aflenz an der sulm architectural review

Aflenz an der sulm architectural review

Source: Luftbilddatenbank Ingeneurbüro Dr Carls

Before the structures of the camp at Aflenz an der Sulm were reclaimed by nature and committed to the soil in an aerial photograph from 1945 

The concept of soil as a counter-memory – developed by Alfredo González-Ruibal, an archaeologist working on slavery and the Spanish Civil War, in his presentation at the conference Life of Crops in Graz in November 2019 – enables that change of perception. González-Ruibal sees the fascist totalitarian perspective of soil, connected to the ideology of Blut und Boden, as dematerialised, intangible and aestheticised with little mention of its real substance. For González-Ruibal, the approach to soil developed by archaeologists is material – the properties of the soil tell them where to put the trowel when starting to search for something and what to expect. The physical labour of archaeologists resembles the physical labour of peasants, enabling them to feel the soil in their bones. But there is value to soil which is much more than just an envelope of the historical artefacts waiting to be dug out. The soil itself is both an ecofact and an artefact and it transcends the divide between nature and culture: it is both things at the same time. It is a past but it is also present. 

González-Ruibal stresses the connection between the work of the archaeologist and the peasant or craftsperson, as the differences in soil are crucial to all three. Archaeologists are able to distinguish different layers, construct archaeological sequences and build a history out of the ground. González-Ruibal describes an approach to soil which is the antithesis to the conceptions of Blut und Boden, a good position from which to deconstruct fascist, seemingly, ethereal and metaphysical conceptions tied to the hypernationalistic and racist ideas of the soil and of the land. As such, soil not only holds memory, but it also holds a counter-memory, presenting a challenge to suppression, erasure and repression. This approach to soil brings to the fore the politics embedded in the soil as an archive, which is activated by the process of investigative memorialisation. This process shows how the soil of Aflenz an der Sulm is not just any soil, and not any memory, but that it is the soil defined, produced, informed and grown by Blut und Boden ideology.   

Aflenz an der sulm robert grissinger architectural review

Aflenz an der sulm robert grissinger architectural review

Source: Archiv Der Kz-Gedenkstätte Mauthausen

Aflenz an der Sulm concentration camp captured in 1967 by survivor Robert Grissinger 

Through investigative memorialisation, the particular site of Aflenz an der Sulm can be read as a nod to the entanglement of larger, global networks of socio-economic conditions revealing the ways nature, agriculture, labour laws, property regulations and everyday life are continuously written into a place. Through the means of transdisciplinary practice, especially learning from post-processual, reflexive archaeology, the ways in which these networks were hidden and suppressed throughout history and the present are revealed. Ultimately, the concept of investigative memorialisation brings into question the notion of a temporally contained event. Instead of inert historical closure, the event is understood as a spatial and temporal continuity, which positions not only landscape, but specifically soil (both what it contains and what it sustains) as the crucial and active agent in the process of knowledge formation, opening space for the unknown. 

Lead image: ‘Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people’, Jacob Bronowski states in this scene of his 1973 BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Man, crouching in the mud at Auschwitz

This piece is featured in the AR February 2020 issue on Soil – click here to buy your copy today