Wöllersdorf detention camp

First, tribute must be paid to Nik Harty, whose researches into correspondence apparently to and from inmates of a fireworks factory uncovered much of a long-forgotten part of Austria's history. Now-a-days, instead of fighting your way along farm tracks and through thorn bushes you can spend an hour trawling the internet and find almost too much information. Nik wrote up his work in Austria issues 107 and 111; in earlier issues the problem was described - and some of our oldest members wrote of their own experiences.

The Feuerwerksanstalt

From 1815, plants for the production of rockets and explosives were built on a site between Wiener Neustadt and Wöllersdorf, initially under the name Feuerwerksanstalt: "Fireworks factory" is an unfortunate mistranslation! Housing blocks were built to accommodate the production staff. During WWI, the site expanded to become the largest munitions factory in the monarchy. There were frequent explosions; one on 18 September 1918 killed at least 382 people, and the worst was in September 1914 when more than 500 workers lost their lives. At its peak, up to 40,000 people worked in the region's military industry. The railway network within the factory and the adjacent area was over 100 km. The factory seems to have been abandoned in 1918, although the houses were lived in, partly by widows of officers. Numerous photograph and postcards can be viewed here

The Ständestaat era

In 1933, the government of the Austrian corporate state set up a detention camp in some halls of the Wöllersdorf works. In October, the first prisoners - nine National Socialists and one Communist - were brought to Wöllersdorf. In January 1934, a second detention camp was opened at Kaisersteinbruch in Burgenland. At first it was only used for National Socialists, but after the February 12 riots, arrested members of the Social Democratic and Communist parties were also added. However, the Kaisersteinbruch detention camp was closed in May 1934 and the remaining prisoners transferred to Wöllersdorf. With the civil war in February 1934, hundreds of members of the Schutzbund and Social Democrat officials were sent to Wöllersdorf. On May 1, 1934, there were 831 political prisoners in the camp, 508 Social Democrats and Communists and 323 National Socialists, in segregated buildings. After the failed July Putsch in 1934, the Wöllersdorf detention camp expanded to detain thousands of National Socialists. The peak was reached in October 1934 with almost 5,000 people, of whom 4,256 were National Socialists and 538 Social Democrats and Communists. An amnesty in 1936 reduced the number of prisoners to around 500 people. After the Berchtesgaden Agreement between Federal Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg and Adolf Hitler in February 1938, the camp was closed. Shortly before the closure, 114 people were still being detained in Wöllersdorf, including 45 National Socialists, 11 Social Democrats and 58 Communists.

The conditions in the camp are described as comparatively pleasant, all things considered. The different groups of prisoners each developed their own Wöllersdorf narrative. In the Nazi memorial literature, imprisonment in Wöllersdorf was stylized as "martyrdom" in order to establish the heroic myth of the illegals before the Anschluss. In the memoirs of left-wing opposition prisoners, the detention in Wöllersdorf is overshadowed by later persecution by the National Socialists. Everyday life in the camp in Wöllersdorf appeared to be relatively mild compared to the prisons and even more so in comparison to National Socialist concentration camps. Several people who were both in the Wöllersdorf detention camp and later in Hitler's concentration camps, irrespective of their political views, agreed with this. Nevertheless, the arbitrary arrest and internment of political opponents was a serious breach of human rights and civil rights, which were still guaranteed by the constitution.

In the course of the annexation of Austria to Hitler's Germany in March 1938, the camp was reactivated by the National Socialists for the imprisonment of officials of the Corporate State. As part of the propaganda of a so-called liberation, the camp was closed on 2 April 1938 and the barracks burned down (the housing blocks remained). The prisoners were taken to the Dachau concentration camp.

In 1973, based on a design by A. Kirchner, a memorial was erected on the site of the former detention camp and unveiled in February 1974 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the February fighting. Numerous photograph and postcards showing the camp, and the memorial, can be viewed here

© Andy Taylor. Last updated 4 April 2023