Watch Rarely Seen Footage of Life in Nazi Austria, Thanks to a New Video Archive

The Ephemeral Films Project offers the public a chance to see what Jews experienced during the Anschluss

Women observe anti-Semitic graffiti in Vienna in a film shot by an American in 1938. Lafayette P. Monson, courtesy of Getty Images

It’s 1938 in Vienna, Austria, and ecstatic men, women and children assemble on the sidewalks. They watch a procession of military vehicles drive down the cobblestone streets, raising their arms in the Nazi salute as Adolf Hitler passes by in the motorcade, saluting them back. They eagerly accept flags decorated with the swastika, the symbol of the Third Reich, from Nazi soldiers who have come to greet them. In other parts of the city the swastika’s presence is inescapable; it can be seen on banners hanging on every type of landmark from cafés and hotels to the Josefsplatz, a monument at the palace formerly occupied by the Hapsburg dynasty. 

Though these chilling images set the ideal opening scene for a Hollywood-produced drama, they were actually shot in 1938 by an amateur cameraman. This film and the others embedded here are just a selection of the 50 movies that make up the “Ephemeral Films Project: National Socialism in Austria”, a collaboration of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Austrian Film Museum and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute. The project is pulling together films that focus on the rise of Nazism and its role in Jewish and non-Jewish life in Austria. Some of the 50 films were home movies, others were donated by families of the filmmakers who were curious to know what was on the film, but lacked the resources to actually watch it.

These raw movies aren’t called ephemeral because they may soon not exist (though without proper conservation, they won’t). They are given that name because they weren’t created to be entertainment, art or propaganda – they were never meant to stand the test of time. The project includes footage from home movies, advertisements, newsreels and other unofficial films. And the filmmakers included in this collection represent several nationalities, including Americans.

Lindsay Zarwell, archivist at the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive at the Holocaust museum, led the charge here in the United States. 

“The idea was to represent the subjects of the time period and challenge the perception of what it was like to be in Nazi Austria,” says Zarwell.

As a part of the project, the archival team repaired each film to its original state, then transferred them to a machine that scanned and photographed individual frames of each film, finally stitching them all together in a single digital video file that lives on the project’s website. Rather than just being a staid archive, the site offers detailed information about each frame, including the precise location and an approximate date of the scene. By cross-checking what is known about the period from newspapers and official documents, the archivists were able to add great detail and expand what viewers can glean from watching the historical footage.

Beyond that, the project team made it possible for users to overlay photos of what the locations look like today, giving an added relevancy to the films. Anyone looking for footage of a specific person or a particular location can search all the films with one click.

Ross Baker was an American professor on sabbatical at the University of Vienna when the Nazis occupied the city. In between shots of his family, he filmed marching Nazi soldiers and buildings defaced with the word “Jude,” German for Jew. In one scene a Nazi soldier questions Baker’s wife, who was not Jewish, as she tries to enter a building.

Though the focus of the project is the Holocaust and the World War II period, some of the films depict Jewish life before the war and some, though not any of the ones embedded here, show the liberation of concentration camps in Austria. Many of these films, such as the one from the Baker family, were already part of online and accessible film archives, but this project unites them with films from other institutions’ archives and independent individuals in a way that focuses and contextualizes them in a more complete story. And because several of these films show similar scenes from different perspectives, this collection opens the door to new analysis of Austria’s history to supplement current knowledge.

In a sense this collection of amateur films, some of which have never been viewed by the public, offers a window into an evolving Austria from the perspective of everyday people.

“We do have quite a number of films that represent, chronologically, the period so we can really examine just this particular location over time. And part of the tool that we built is a way to look into these films with a contemporary perspective, says Zarwell.”

In the late 1930s, despite several attempts by some leaders to maintain Austrian independence, Nazi influence within the Austrian government and among the populace was too strong. The Nazis entered Austria on March 12, 1938 and absorbed the country into Germany the following day; the annexation was known as the Anschluss. A manipulated plebiscite administered a month later indicated that over 99 percent of Austrians were in favor of the situation. And though questions persist about the Austrians’ willingness to be a part of Nazi Germany, the raw footage in these films presents at least one side of the story.

The Monson Collection, captured by Dr. Lafayette P. Monson, a physician from San Francisco, is full of images of buildings defaced with the crude drawings of the Star of David and “Jude” graffiti, reveals the brewing anti-Semitic attitude in Austria. 

“It’s pretty controversial. Austrians have for the most part perceived themselves as Hitler’s first victims, and as you can see through a lot of these films it was really not entirely that way. There was a lot of immediate sort of acceptance of the Nazi philosophy,” says Zarwell. “And so we are in that sense contradicting the idea that Austrians themselves were not willing to be taken over by the Nazis.”

The acceptance of the anti-Semitic Nazi philosophy is clear in one of the scenes from the first video shown above in which two Jewish people are forced to kneel on their knees and scrub the streets (about 6:46 in). Holocaust researchers had photographs, documents and oral histories about the oppressive street scrubbing practice, but this ephemeral film is the only known moving image evidence of the act.

These films, although ephemeral because they were not intended to be preserved for historical study, have the potential to not only supplement but also challenge our knowledge of this horrific event.

“The films are really offering us a view into Vienna and Austria that counters what we had perceived beforehand,” says Zarwell. 

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