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Austria’s Attempt to Confront its Nazi Past

Updated: Jan 27

Recent Holocaust Remembrance Projects in Contemporary Vienna

By Lee Morrow

The statue of a man holding up his hands, his head bowed.
Image courtesy of Leonhard Niederwimmer via Pixabay.

On the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), I would like to reflect upon the memory of the Holocaust in the Austrian capital. While it can be said that there has been an alteration in attitude in Austria towards confronting its National Socialist past, there are still deep, systematic attitudes that must be challenged. Austria was a part of Nazi Germany from March 1938 (following the Anschluss) until April 1945. Throughout the Second World War, over 950,000 Austrians fought for the Nazis, while many other Austrians took part in the administrative aspects of the regime. These roles include Nazi death camp personnel to senior Nazi leaders, with most Austrians recognising Adolf Hitler as their leader.

Following the Moscow Declaration of 1943, Austria was deemed to be the ‘first victim’ of the Nazis, thus allowing the nation to avoid the confrontation of its past and active participation in the war. This was the attitude that was widely adopted until the late 1980s during which the presidential elections in Austria began to take place. During 1986 Kurt Waldheim, former diplomat and Secretary-General of the United Nations, caused great controversy as he ran for the role of Austrian president. His dark past and role during the war sparked a grand public debate around the world. Despite this, Waldheim won the election and served as president until 1992. His success was a kick in the teeth to many who had suffered and the debate and confrontation of Austria’s involvement in the war began to spark for the first time.

Public memorials are indicative of how a nation perceives its own history and actions. And so here we will take a closer look at the emergence of Holocaust memorials in Vienna, the ways in which these memorials have evolved, and the extent to which they confront the country’s involvement in the Holocaust.

It is important to note that the vast majority of Austrian Jews lived in the capital. Vienna has been a long-standing centre of Jewish culture, with many individuals contributing to the social and academic spheres during the wake of Viennese Modernism. It is important that one first considers the role of Austrian antisemitism and the involvement of the Austrians in the Holocaust. Prior to the events of the Anschluss, the country had an extensive history of antisemitism which manifested into discriminatory laws, social stereotypes and religious prejudices. Propaganda and negative stereotypes perpetuated false principles which then created a hostile environment. Jews were scapegoated for economic competition throughout history due to being disproportionately represented in some professions, particularly in finance. In the years leading up to the Anschluss, discriminatory laws were enforced against Jews, resulting in the limitation of their rights and opportunities. With the arrival of the Anschluss came even more violence towards the Jewish community.

Prior to the 1980s, prevalent remembrance projects across the city were widely referred to as Kriegerdenkmäler (war memorials) which indicates the country’s attitude towards its own past, commemorating the dead of the Second World War as heroes. Since the Kurt Waldheim election scandal, there has been a shift in public discourse in the city of Vienna and wider Austria. This shift has been marked by increased awareness and a growing acknowledgement of the country’s responsibility for the Holocaust.

The growing emphasis on human rights, justice and historical accountability on the global stage has also prompted Austria to begin to address its wrongdoings.

Initiatives involving survivors of the Holocaust, their descendants, and those committed to preserving memory have played a crucial role in pushing for remembrance projects. The remaining survivors are placing their stories into the hands of the young so that these stories can be passed down while pressuring the government to do more to preserve history and to place higher value Holocaust education.

There has been development in museums dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and the role Austria played in the events, but still to this day, in Vienna, one will not find a dedicated Holocaust museum. The Jewish Museum of Vienna can be visited but is focused specifically on the history of the Jewish people in the city across the centuries, and not solely on the Holocaust. A remembrance project that has been recently in the news has been the renaming of streets, squares and a variety of other public spaces in order to honour victims. As one can imagine, this has sparked a growing public debate within the city. However, this is not led by the Austrian government, but rather by protesters and other groups. Just over two years ago, the Austrian Union of Jewish Students protested having street signs named after Nazi leaders, soldiers and SS members known for their involvement in the Holocaust by pasting over them with signs to pay tribute to the resistance leaders. In total, these activists ‘renamed’ 23 streets in Vienna. The group emphasised that Austria has, in theory, a strong remembrance culture towards the Holocaust, but that the words and actions taken by the government are infrequently matching.

Das Mahnmahl gegen Krieg und Faschismus (The Monument against War and Fascism) has stood since 1988 on the Albertinaplatz following years of debate by supporters and opponents of the monument. It aims to commemorate the victims of war and fascism, including the sculpture of the “Gates of Violence”. It is supposed to serve as a reminder of the darkest times in Austrian history. However, the monument itself is controversial as it depicts Wehrmacht soldiers and Jewish victims who seem both symbolically equated. The effectiveness of the memorial in conveying its anti-fascist message and whether it appropriately grapples with the atrocities of the Holocaust is heavily debated. This lack of commemoration has led to the unveiling of several projects that aim to better commemorate the victims of the Holocaust such as the Mahnmahl für die 65.000 ermordeten österreichischen Juden und Judinnen der Shoah (Monument for the 65,000 Murdered Austrian Jews in the Shoah). However, the reception of the memorial depends on visitors’ prior knowledge of Austria’s dark past. There is indeed a need for further contextual information to make it more accessible to a broader audience without the need to visit the underground exhibition that can only be accessed at certain times of the day.

There has been a shift in attitude towards Austria’s past, but more must be done. If more educational sites were erected these memorials could be spaces which educate on what is immensely important in Austrian and world history. After all, a memorial presents an insight into how a country perceives its own history at a given time. Thus, it becomes clearer as one takes a look at the current memorial projects in Vienna that Austria has progressed and made active efforts to better commemorate those who were victims of the Holocaust.

The past and the present will always coexist with one another in Vienna. The city should not be forever deemed ‘the city of remembering and forgetting’, like it has widely been referred to throughout contemporary media, but rather it should strive to be a city that acknowledges wholeheartedly the dark shadow that lingers over it and should aim to shine a light on it, illuminating its past and opening it up for the educational benefit of everybody.


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