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Austria faces up to Nazi past

Julia Hitz
October 12, 2021

Austria's new National Exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial underscores one main point: the country has dropped its victim myth.

Adolf Hitler waves to crowd
After Austria's annexation in 1938, Hitler toured the country and was celebrated in many placesImage: picture-alliance/Keystone/Photopress-Archive

It has taken Austria a long time to decide on how to narrate its history during the Third Reich.

"The time had to be ripe first," said Hannah Lessing, the secretary general of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism, during the opening of the new Austrian National Exhibition at former concentration and extermination camp and the present-day Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial on October 4.

Titled "Far removed — Austria and Auschwitz," the exhibition refers not only to the geographical distance between Austria and Auschwitz, but above all to how Jews were removed from society, deported, forgotten and eventually annihilated.

In contrast, Austria's first national exhibition at the memorial in 1978 saw the country portraying itself as "Hitler's first victim."

Current National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka emphasized that it was a more than inadequate portrayal at the opening of the recent exhibition. "The portrayal of perpetration, complicity and collusion remained largely ignored in previous exhibitions — and especially in the 1978 exhibition," he said. "The perpetrators are now cast into the light here."

'Ostmark': A realm of Nazi Germany

"Austria has the peculiarity of having been part of the German Reich," said historian Heidemarie Uhl. "This makes it the only European country besides Germany that has an explicit history of perpetration." After Austria's "annexation" on March 12, 1938, what is now Austria had been incorporated into the National Socialist state under the name "Ostmark."

Opening of the new Austrian country exhibition, "DISTANCE - AUSTRIA AND AUSCHWITZ"
Austria's new national exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial casts the perpetrators into the lightImage: Parlamentsdirektion / Thomas Topf

Austrians became citizens of the German Reich, and quite a few actively participated in the National Socialists' policy of attack and extermination. However, with the end of World War II and the proclamation of Austria's independence on April 27, 1945, Austrian heritage once again played a role.

Victim myth and identity in the second republic

Even Austria's declaration of independence in 1945 referred to the Moscow Declaration of 1943, which described Austria as "the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination."

At the same time, however, the declaration also stated the following: "Austria is reminded, however, that she has a responsibility which she cannot evade for participation in the war on the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation."

A shop window in Klagenfurt in 1938 highlights the persecution of Jews in Austria
After the annexation, Jews in Austria very quickly faced persecutionImage: picture-alliance/akg-images/P. Almasy

Nevertheless, Austria continued to style itself as Hitler's first victim. This victim myth was used in the 1955 State Treaty negotiations, after which Austria regained full sovereignty, in restitution debates — and served not least to exonerate the Austrian population morally. Serious debates about its Nazi past and antisemitism were thus avoided for decades. Even up to the 21st century, central representatives of politics and history argued about Austria's exact contribution to Nazi crimes.

Insensitivity to injustice

It was the Waldheim Affair of 1986 that proved to be a turning point. Former Austrian diplomat, statesman and one-time president, Kurt Waldheim, began his career in 1947 as a member of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), later becoming foreign minister, and eventually secretary-general of the United Nations.

When he ran for the office of Austrian president in 1986, the weekly news magazine profil published research into Waldheim's Nazi past, including his membership in the Wehrmacht, or German armed forces. His biography also made no mention of the fact that he had been involved in the deportation of Jewish people in Greece in 1942.

Kurt Waldheim, former Austrian president from 1986 to 1992
Kurt Waldheim was Austrian president from 1986 to 1992Image: Getty Images/AFP

His insensitive approach to his past was evident in statements like, "I did nothing else in the war than hundreds of thousands of Austrians, namely I fulfilled my duty as a soldier." In 1987, for example, Waldheim was placed on a US watchlist that prohibited his entry into the United States as a private person until the accusations against him were clarified.

A commission of historians initiated by Waldheim himself was unable to prove any direct involvement or complicity, but it did establish that Waldheim — contrary to his statements — must have known about the war crimes in the Balkans.

Simon Wiesenthal, a founder of the Documentation Center of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime, then demanded Waldheim's resignation. But Waldheim remained in office, even though the criticism never died down and the international isolation continued. The affair made it clear that Austria had not come to terms with its own Nazi past. The controversial federal president polarized society, and thus acted as a catalyst for a public discussion about the victim myth.

Crowds celebrating Austria's annexation in 1938
Enthusiastic crowds welcomed Adolf Hitler to Vienna during the annexation of Austria in 1938Image: picture-alliance/IMAGNO/Votava

Pressure from within and outside

After the fall of communism, the political conviction grew in Austria that the recognition and reappraisal of the injustices of the Third Reich had to be addressed. An important milestone was a speech by Chancellor Franz Vranitzky in 1991, in which he acknowledged the complicity of Austrians in World War II and its consequences before the Chamber of Deputies of the Austrian Parliament.

A commission of historians was formed in 1998 to conduct a thorough reappraisal of the looting of Jewish property, and it presented its 49-volume final report in 2003. Internal discussions were just as important for the process as external pressure.

The right-wing FPÖ, which was in government between 2000 and 2005 and from 2017 to 2019, found this particularly difficult. Time and again, FPÖ politicians attracted attention due to antisemitic lapses. "In the meantime, the FPÖ has changed its strategy," said Heidemarie Uhl.

"Expressing positions that are directed against commemoration is no longer even possible in the FPÖ."

Locally challenging

Overall, it's not possible to speak of a straightforward or constant process. For example, the anniversary year of 2005 was viewed critically. While Europe focused on liberation from Nazi rule in 1945, Austria celebrated the success story of the Second Republic.

Furthermore, while the political will to confront the past — especially in recent years — is clear, the challenges lie in penetrating the deeper layers of society.

A poster of a Holocaust survivor in Vienna
Portraits of survivors were desecrated several times at the 2019 exhibition 'Against Forgetting' in ViennaImage: DW/N. Ismail

"Where there are the emotional and generational ties, there can be great tensions between the national commitment to coming to terms with the past and personal or institutional perpetration," said Uhl.

The current Austrian national exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial has undergone historical revision for 10 years. "The exhibition is a very important sign that Austria has come to terms with its past," said Uhls, adding that this memory should remain front and center within both the German and Austrian society, and with every new generation.

This article has been translated from German