Like many of those whose parents were Jewish refugees from Vienna, I have a distinctly mixed attitude to Austria. As a boy, I learnt of the terror that had descended on my parents and their families when Hitler annexed Austria to the Reich in March 1938, of the jubilation of the Viennese, and of the despoliation and humiliation of the Jews. But I also learnt to appreciate Vienna’s charm and, in more recent years, the efforts of Austrians to face up to their country’s guilty past.
My maternal grandfather was one of the Jews forced to scrub the pavements of Vienna’s streets in the first rush of antisemitic excesses; he hid his damaged hands from my mother afterwards.My uncle was on one of the first transports of Jews to Dachau; a German SA-man commiserated with his group because their guard was an Austrian, who proceeded to prove the German right by beating a Jew to death on the train. My paternal grandfather had his firm ‘aryanised’, and the ‘Ariseur’ made sure that he was deported east, never to return. My mother left Vienna for London on an illegally obtained passport, but not before the concierge of the building where my parents lived had denounced her to the Gestapo (fortunately too late); when she returned to Vienna after the war, that same concierge greeted her with every appearance of delight.
So I give little credence to the image of Austria as the ‘first victim of Nazi aggression’, even though that phrase was used by the wartime Allies in the Moscow Declaration of 1943, when they announced their intention of restoring an independent Austria. Post-war Austria, however, traded successfully on that image, suppressing the substantial degree of its citizens’ active participation and passive complicity in Nazi crimes. Austria cherished its status as a neutral country, cultivating its image as an oasis of stability and peace amidst the tensions of the Cold War. It almost seemed to be aspiring to the status of a second Switzerland: the Austrian Schilling became known as the ‘Alpendollar’, symbol of a tranquil and inoffensive Alpine haven of prosperity buttressed by a reassuringly strong currency.
Having rid itself of its Jews, the creative cultural leaven throughout Central Europe, Austria seemed to be approaching Swiss levels of provinciality, as even its scandals demonstrate. Whereas the twilight of the Hapsburgs gave us the grand romantic suicide pact of Mayerling (1889), which saw the death of a crown prince, and the rip-roaring case of Colonel Alfred Redl (1913), a closet homosexual who was blackmailed into passing military secrets to the Russians and committed suicide when discovered, present-day Austria seems capable only of sordid and inverted domestic scandals like the Kampusch and Fritzl cases.
For several decades after the war, Austria’s self-image rested on a feat of collective amnesia. For there were three successor states to the pre-war Nazi Reich, one of which, West Germany, acknowledged its historical responsibility, while two, East Germany and Austria, did not. East Germany pronounced itself a ‘workers’ and peasants’ state’, by definition ‘anti-fascist’, and renounced any relation to Nazi crimes. Austria, separated from Germany in 1945, came to see itself first as a small, defenceless country occupied and divided into zones by the four victorious Allied Powers, then, after regaining full sovereignty under the State Treaty of 1955, as a demilitarised state outside both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and as the easternmost outpost of freedom and democracy in Central Europe.
But Austria was not just another small country that had suffered under Nazi rule. Of under 7 million Austrians, some 700,000 had been members of the Nazi Party and 1.2 million had served in German units in the war, while Austrians were notoriously over-represented in the SS, the camps and the implementation of the ‘Final Solution’. Austria remained broadly loyal to Hitler till the end, notably failing to produce a significant resistance movement. Denazification, which was carried out by the Austrians themselves from 1946, was very patchy: only 27 university professors were dismissed, though the universities had been notoriously infested with Nazi sympathisers.
As in the interwar years, post-war Austria was divided almost equally between the right-wing People’s Party and the Socialists, forcing both parties to woo the initially disenfranchised ex-Nazis, whose votes could decide elections. In 1947 a law was passed differentiating ‘less’ incriminated Nazis, 500,000 of whom were amnestied in 1948, from the ‘more’ incriminated, of whom over 40,000 were amnestied by 1956. The ex-Nazis were reintegrated into Austrian society, and Austria’s role in the Nazi years was conveniently forgotten. Austria settled down to a prolonged period of coalition government, peaceful social consensus and unprecedented prosperity.
Austria’s politicians had not forgotten the disastrous events of the interwar period, when irreconcilable conflicts between the predecessors of the People’s Party and the Socialists had led to civil strife and had fatally undermined Austria’s ability to resist Hitler. After the war, when neither party could govern on the basis of a stable, long-term majority, they decided to govern together, in a grand coalition that lasted until 1966. Throughout the public administration, which included the very sizable public sector of the economy, the system known as Proporz was introduced, under which jobs were divided up equally between the adherents of the two big parties, at all levels from director to night watchman. Though open to corruption and abuse, this system of two-party co-operation did provide the underpinning for the remarkable growth of the Austrian economy, for the resolution of social and economic conflicts by negotiation and compromise, and for the emergence of the stable and successful, if overly complacent, Austria of the 1980s.
The 1980s appear in retrospect as a watershed decade in post-war Austrian history. For with the election of the controversial figure of Kurt Waldheim as president and with the emergence of the extremist demagogue Jörg Haider as leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), both in 1986, Austria was forced to confront its Nazi past. This, combined with the debates provoked by the fiftieth anniversaries of the Anschluss (1988) and the end of the war (1995), led to a re-evaluation of attitudes to the past across most of mainstream Austrian opinion, though it took a spell as a coalition partner in government, from February 2002, to puncture the FPÖ bubble.
Over the past 20 years, the entire discourse surrounding the Nazi period in Austria has changed. In 1987 it was still possible for the leading journalist Thomas Chorherr to publish a history of Vienna in which Jews were airbrushed out of the chapter on the Nazi years and in which the ecstatic acclaim showered on Hitler on the Heldenplatz in 1938 was downplayed by being compared to the crowds who greeted Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia on the Mariahilferstraße in 1954 (self-irony not being Chorherr’s strong point). At that time, many Austrians were indignantly decrying the anti-Waldheim campaign as an attempt by American Jewry to dictate their choice of president, while studiously averting their gaze from the implications of Waldheim’s attempts to gloss over his wartime record.
But after the Gedenkjahr 1988 came Chancellor Franz Vranitzky’s formal statement before the Nationalrat in 1991 acknowledging Austria’s share in responsibility for the suffering visited on individuals and groups by the Nazis, the creation of the Nationalfonds in 1995 in recognition of Austria’s obligation to compensate the victims of Nazism, and the establishment of a commission of historians in 1998 to investigate the looting of Jewish assets. Both Vranitzky, in 1993, and President Thomas Klestil, in 2004, chose to make strongly worded statements about Austrian guilt in Jerusalem, a location whose significance could not be overlooked.
That such views are now representative of a new mainstream consensus in Austria, which no longer denies Austrian complicity in the Third Reich and which questions the suppression of that complicity in the post-war decades, is demonstrated by the increasing marginalisation of voices from the unreconstructed right. For example, the controversial remarks made during the anniversary year 2005 by two FPÖ Bundesrat members, John Gudenus, who appeared to question the existence of the gas chambers, and Siegfried Kampl, who appeared to equate the sufferings of Austrians subject to post-war denazification measures with those of the victims of the Third Reich, provoked overwhelmingly critical reactions across a broad spectrum of mainstream opinion. Twenty years earlier, that opinion would have divided far more equally.
One can also point to the many initiatives by institutions like schools and municipalities that have invited back their former Jewish students and citizens respectively as an apology and an attempt at reconciliation. A ‘Night of Silence’ was organised on the seventieth anniversary of the Anschluss by the Catholic youth organisation and the action group ‘A Letter to the Stars’; on 12 March 2008, 80,000 candles were lit on the Heldenplatz in memory of the 80,000 Austrian victims of Nazism, mostly Jews, and a list of their names was projected onto four white screens in a ceremonial act of commemoration that lasted until dawn.