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Austrians lack crucial Holocaust awareness

Cristina Burack
May 2, 2019

Most Austrian adults do not know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, according to a new survey. While some described the findings as disturbing, an education expert at Yad Vashem also sees reasons for hope.

Hitler gives a Nazi salute to a group of women in an Austrian village in 1938
Image: picture-alliance/Keystone/Photopress-Archive

The majority of Austrians adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, according to a study released Thursday.

"We are seeing disturbing trends pointing to the lack of Holocaust knowledge," Julius Berman, the president of the Claims Conference, said in a statement.

The survey, commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or Claims Conference, comes against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and far-right movements gaining footholds across Europe, including in Austria, which long downplayed its role in the Holocaust and where a right-wing populist party is part of the national governing coalition.

Austrians' Holocaust awareness

The survey focused on knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust, Austria and its annexation by Nazi Germany, as well as views on contemporary neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism and Holocaust education. It polled 1,000 Austrian adults aged 18 and older between February 22 and March 1 via phone.

  • 87% of respondents said they had definitely heard or seen the word Holocaust
  • 58% said the Holocaust referred to the extermination of the Jewish people
  • 69% identified the Holocaust as having taken place in Germany
  • 62% identified annexed Austria and 48% also Nazi-occupied Poland as places the Holocaust took place
  • 56% did not know 6 million Jews had been killed in the Holocaust; 10% said around 100,000 Jews were killed
  • While 98% of respondents were familiar with Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Nazi Germany, only 51% knew Adolf Eichmann, an Austrian who was one of the main organizers of the Holocaust
  • 21% did not know Hitler originally came from Austria; only 14% knew Eichmann was Austrian
Vienna's memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust
A memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust was built in 2000Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Recognizing Austria's role

Annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, Austria was regarded as the Nazi's "first victim" following the end of World War II — a label that was used as late as the end of the 20th century — which slowed national Holocaust awareness and education efforts.

Read more: Holocaust Remembrance: It's not about guilt, but about responsibility

In the survey, 13% of those polled saw Austria solely as a perpetrator of the Holocaust, 12% saw it solely as a victim and 68% said it was both victim and perpetrator.

Richelle Budd Caplan, director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, described these numbers as "mixed results."

"This is an indicator that progress in the positive sense has been made and Austrians are not looking at themselves as the 'first victim' alone, whereas perhaps 25 years ago that would have been much more of a prevalent public opinion," Budd Caplan told DW. "On the other hand, there is still much of the need to address Austria's, shall we say, welcoming of Nazi Germany in 1938 as a historical fact."

Importance of Holocaust education

Since 1999, Yad Vashem has been working with Austrian education officials to train teachers on the subject of Holocaust education.

For Budd Caplan, the survey helps point out areas where there is a lack of knowledge that educators need to be aware of in order to meet challenges going forward. She stressed the importance of younger generations expanding a "shallow knowledge" of the Holocaust to learn about the complex situation that enabled it to take place.

95-year-old Holocaust survivor helps educate youngsters

"It is very consistent … this perception that Adolf Hitler is the one who is only responsible," she said. While saying it was indisputable that the Nazi leader played a key role, she asked: "What about the collaboration that goes on? What about the parts of society that were involved?"

Read more: 'Auschwitz did not begin in Auschwitz'

She said getting students to understand these more complex relations, as well as increasing their familiarity with other key figures of the Holocaust, like Eichmann, was a key challenge for educators today.

She welcomed the survey's finding showing that respondents believe more efforts should be made to teach students about the Holocaust. Of those polled, 76% said Holocaust education should be compulsory in schools.

Holocaust could happen again in Europe

As the number of living survivors continues to dwindle, some have worried that memories of the Holocaust will fade and the event will recede in public importance.

Some 31% of respondents said something like the Holocaust could happen in Austria; 58% of those polled said it could happen again somewhere in Europe.

At the same time, three out of four respondents said it was important to continue teaching people about the Holocaust to prevent it from happening again.

"As we go further from the event, there are positive indicators in that interest in the Holocaust is not waning, but rather increasing," Budd Caplan said.

While she said she takes heart in the increasingly digital accessibility of witness testimony, nothing can replace teachers. "Our efforts cannot be abated," she said.

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