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Europe

Hitler's Austria Through the Eyes of the Press

On March 12, 1938, Hitler's native Austria was annexed by Germany. Austrian newsstands this year are selling papers published during the time of Nazi rule. The project shows how local and foreign press saw the era.

Adolf Hitler enters the city limits of Vienna, Austria on March 14, 1938

Austrians, here in Vienna, welcomed Hitler's assumption of power

A grainy image of a procession of uniformed Nazis marching somberly through the center of Austria's capital covers the front page of the daily Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt above the headline "The 'Day of the Legion' in Vienna."

"Everywhere heart-felt rallies were given for the legionnaires, the self-sacrificing pioneers of the National Socialist movement in German-Austria," the caption reads.

The legionnaires had indeed had their day, as they could finally admit publicly to their allegiance to the previously banned Nazi party without fear of reprisals. The National Socialists were fully in control and Gleichschaltung, the forced coordination of Austrian society, was well underway, just three weeks after Nazi Germany's annexation of its neighbor, on March 12, 1938.

An edition of NachRichten

The newspapers are accompanied by explanatory texts

The Neuigkeits-Welt-Blatt may no longer exist, but it's received tens of thousands of new readers due to a newspaper project running throughout 2008, the 70th anniversary of the Nazi power grab in Austria. In 52 weekly editions, "NachRichten" aims to show how the domestic and international media portrayed Austria under the National Socialists.

Eyewitness insights

Each edition of "NachRichten" is made up of two facsimiles of original newspapers, which are folded into an oversized cover printed with explanatory texts that provide background and context to understand the papers' articles.

The name "NachRichten" is a play on the word for "news," Nachrichten. Taken separately, nach means "after" and richten means "to judge."

But the idea isn't that people should pass judgment, said Fritz Hausjell, the project's head of research and a professor of communications history at the University of Vienna. It's meant to give people a sense of how the contemporaneous press interpreted Nazi Austria from both inside and outside the country.

"We want to show how the media was used to facilitate this system, how the construction of reality was facilitated by the media," Hausjell said.

The initiative stems from British publisher Albertas Ltd, which has done similar projects in Denmark, Finland, Greece and Spain, and puts out "NachRichten" in cooperation with Austria's National Library and the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance.

Little need for coercion

One of the Nazis' first steps in consolidating power was to take control of the media, which happened overnight, as they occupied editorial offices throughout the country. By June 1939, journalists could only work if they were certified "Aryans."

Fritz Hausjell

Hausjell and his team choose a different topic for each issue

Austrians had largely welcomed Hitler's Wehrmacht when it marched into the country in 1938. And the press could already look back on a well-developed anti-Semitic tradition, Hausjell pointed out.

"It was striking that the Austrian journalists were especially ruthless even to the point of being counterproductive," Hausjell said. "The readiness to comply [among the press] was amazingly high."

Around 125,000 Austrian Jews fled the country to escape the Nazis. Many ended up in Mauthausen, the country's biggest concentration camp, where nearly 200,000 people were held prisoner between 1938 and 1945, around half of whom were killed there. About 65,000 of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust were Austrian.

Foolhardy Allies

But after the war, the country was slow to acknowledge its embrace of Nazi Germany and its complicity in Nazi crimes.

"The Austrians were given a convenient let-out as the 'first victims of Hitler,'" explained historian Robert Knight, a specialist in Austria as a "post-Nazi" society at Loughborough University in England.

The Allies had, in 1943, declared Austria "the first victim of Hitlerite aggression." Their aim had been to encourage Austrian resistance. Instead they provided the country with an excuse to live in denial.

Survivors of Mauthausen at a 2002 memorial function

Only half of the almost 200,000 people held in Mauthausen survived

It took decades, and both international and domestic pressure, for Austria to own up to its past. Nowadays, though, the notion that Austria was an accessory to Nazi Germany has become generally accepted.

"There are still pockets of reluctance," Knight said. "But the consensus has moved in a critical direction. The mainstream has changed. In some ways it is a catching-up process with West Germany."

Unexpected demand

The interest in "NachRichten" so far indicates that Austrians do want to know more about their dark past.

Initially published in an edition of 50,000, Albertas had to print an additional 8,000 copies of the first issue to satisfy demand. Although after six weeks it's still too early to say whether the project is a success, the fact that Austria's two largest supermarket chains ordered it to complement their sales mix, suggests it is.

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