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Jan 2003 Journal

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Germany and Austria send out mixed signals

Since 1945 the paths of Austria and Germany – two countries which had merged ecstatically seven years earlier – have diverged quite a lot. The Austrians, building on the wartime fiction manufactured by the Allies that they had been Hitler’s first victim, largely managed to shuffle off co-responsibility for Nazi atrocities and pillage. The Germans – for all that they made adroit use of the Cold War to blunt the impact of Allied punishment for their crimes – were more thoroughly denazified.

The perfunctory nature of Austria’s postwar makeover became notoriously manifest twice over: first by the proven liar Waldheim’s two-term presidency, and latterly by Jörg Haider’s meteoric rise to national, not to say Europe-wide, prominence. Happily, the ultra-right demagogue’s heyday as spokesman for a quarter of the Austrian electorate is over. The downside of this welcome development is that in cutting his erstwhile coalition partner down to size, Chancellor Schüssel has moved to the right and adopted some of Haider’s xenophobic policies.

The decline of Haider’s political fortunes has gone hand in hand with initiatives in expiating Austria’s wartime sins which deserve to be more widely reported. The recent Kristallnacht anniversary was marked by the unveiling of a memorial to the country’s 65,000 Shoah victims at the Seitenstetten synagogue. On the same day, Cardinal König conducted a service culminating in a confession of Christian guilt and culpable indifference during the Holocaust. Attention was also drawn to the deep historic roots of Austrian Judeophobia by the unveiling of a plaque in Vienna’s third district, where in 1421 200 Jews accused of collaboration with Hussite heretics were burnt in public.

Germany, for all that its Vergangenheitsbewältigung (encounter with the past) has always been more thoroughgoing, has over the past 15 years evinced somewhat schizophrenic tendencies. The shameful ‘Historians’ Quarrel’ had barely died down when Martin Walser demanded a ‘statute of limitations’ for Auschwitz. This was followed by the regional FDP leader Möllermann’s antisemitic outbursts during last year’s elections. The German voters punished the FDP, but rewarded Chancellor Schröder, who had seen fit to weaken NATO ties (as well as EU cohesion) in pursuit of electoral advantage. Although Schröder’s record on Jewish issues is unimpeachable, his pledge to abstain from action against Iraq even if the UN decrees it, amounts to support for Saddam, the sworn enemy of Israel.

This was, admittedly, offset by the fact that more recently, when the Jewish state, threatened by Saddam’s rockets yet again, asked Germany to supply it with Patriot anti-missile missiles, the Chancellor responded positively, calling the strengthening of Israel’s security ‘our moral and historical duty’.

Meanwhile, in another area of German public life there has been a totally unrelated development giving cause for grave concern. The historian Professor Jörg Friedrich has published a book whose ultimate aim is the relativisation of Germany’s wartime guilt. In bringing (and superficially substantiating) the charge that British bombs killed thousands of innocent German civilians, the author pursues the aim of tarnishing not only Bomber Harris but Winston Churchill himself as a war criminal. From this misrepresentation it would be a relatively short step to asserting that the Allies were not all that different from the Axis powers during the Second World War. This would amount to a stomach-turning rehabilitation of Hitler and erode the still fragile cohesion of the European Union.

One is entitled to ask if Professor Friedrich is a truth-seeking historian or one with a hidden agenda of perverse German patriotism. So while we welcome the - hopefully permanent – demise of Jörg Haider, we must register alarm at the rise to prominence of his German namesake, Jörg Friedrich.
Richard Grunberger

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