Leo Baeck 1


Apr 2003 Journal

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Hitler’s willing victim

An Austrian Government commission of independent historians which has examined the country’s wartime role - the first such investigation since 1945 - confirmed that between 1938 and 1945 the Austrian people commonly plundered Jewish property, motivated by antisemitism, social factors and greed. It also denounced Austria’s lack of generosity to Jewish victims and concluded that restitution had been made grudgingly. The commission’s work took four years to complete and involved 160 historians and other experts on the Nazi persecution of the country’s Jewish population and the expropriation of its property.

For half a century Austria claimed that it was Hitler’s ‘first victim’, a myth suited to the agenda of the Western powers at the end of World War II. When Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, to an enthusiastic reception by the general public, Austria’s Jewish population was some 200,000-strong. While about half were forced to flee the country, they, as well as those destined for extermination in concentration camps outside Germany’s borders, had to pay a special ‘flight tax’ and a ‘Jewish property levy’ to leave the Third Reich. A total of 65,000 were murdered in the death camps and, by the end of the war, just 1,000 survived on Austrian soil.

Of some 25,000 Jewish businesses that existed before World War II, the report indicates that two-thirds were closed down, private banks were sequestered by the state, and others were taken over by ‘Aryans’. Jewish homes and properties also were systematically looted by the authorities, Nazi Party factions and private citizens, and at least 59,000 Jewish tenants were driven from their homes, says the report.

Reliable historical records show that a disproportionately high number of Austrians were identified as having played leading roles in the Nazi death machine, and that thousands of Austrians enriched themselves. Hitler, of course, was an Austrian, as was Adolf Eichmann.

In 2001 the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany negotiated a restitution and compensation agreement, worth approximately $500 million, with Austria’s government and industry. This covered payments for stolen assets, including businesses, apartment leases and household items, and welfare benefits for needy and aging former Austrian Jews. The Claims Conference’s executive vice president, Gideon Taylor, welcomed the report: ‘For decades, Austria did not attempt to right the wrongs done to its former Jewish community. There now seems to be a new outlook on this matter and we welcome the change.’

The commission’s report could open the way to previously unmet restitution claims from Jewish victims of the Nazis and their heirs, which, some speculate, may amount to £6.3 billion. The historians warned, however, that the idea that compensation might bring the matter to an end for Austria could well be ‘mistaken’, as it might lead to a ‘conversion of guilt into debts’. The commission concluded that it was impossible to quantify either what had been lost by Austrian Jews or what had been paid back over the years.
Ronald Channing

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