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Protesting the Denial of the National Socialist Past in Contemporary Austria

An Overview.

By Lee Morrow

A black and white picture of two people walking towards a building with German lettering over the entrance.
Image Courtesy of the Austrian National Library on Unsplash

The process of confronting the National Socialist past in Austria has been long and perplexing.

Since the Moscow Declaration of 1943, Austria was deemed to be the first ‘victim’ of the Third Reich following the Anschluss of March 1938, seen to have been annexed by the Nazi regime entirely unwillingly. What is often forgotten about however, is the cheering crowds of everyday individuals as Adolf Hitler took centre stage at Heldenplatz in Vienna, and the widespread desire to be an active part in the regime. This article poses the questions; Can Austria truly be considered a ‘victim’ of the Third Reich? And how much can Austria be said to have played a role in National Socialism and the Holocaust? What has contemporary Austrian society learned of its past, and how can the nation continue to develop its consciousness while being a lesson for the rest of the world? Hopefully while exploring Austria’s past readers will begin to reflect upon the history of their own countries, subsequently introducing the reader to a brief history of the complex case of Austria.

It was decades after the Second World War that the widespread support of the Austrian people for Austro-fascism and National Socialism gradually came to light, alongside the extent to which Austrians had played an active role in the Holocaust. It is tough to say for certain, but it is estimated that Austrians made up 8% of the Third Reich’s population, with an estimated 950,000 Austrians fighting for Nazi Germany’s armed forces. Many Austrians were not on the front, however, but rather taking part in the ‘administrative’ elements of the regime. These include death camp personnel and bureaucrats. It can be said that the antisemitism against Austrian Jews has had a long pre-existing history in the country, but the experiences of antisemitism and antisemitic violence grew with the influence of Nazi Germany. After the war in 1945, many Austrians found comfort in being deemed the first ‘victims’ of the regime, able to escape their own offences, but a closer case study would find that the nation was anything but a victim of the Third Reich. If anything, it was one of the regime’s biggest assets. Nevertheless, from the very outset, highly broadcasted events and controversies thwarted initial attempts to repress the past.

Confronting the wrongdoings of its past began with Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007), a former Austrian diplomate and statesman who launched a presidential campaign in 1986. During his campaign, questions about his involvement in the German army and the role he played in war crimes arose. Waldheim published an autobiography in 1985, claiming that after being injured on the Eastern Front, he returned to Vienna and spent the rest of the War in recovery. However, upon further analysis by several overseas governments, it was found that Waldheim had been involved in the transportation of civilian prisoners to the SS for exploitation, together with the mass deportation of civilians (mainly Jews) from Greek islands to Banja Luka in Yugoslavia. Despite the masses of evidence coming to light, Kurt Waldheim won the election, denying any involvement and merely claiming that he was carrying out his duty as a soldier. Nonetheless, according to Professor Ruth Wodak, his ‘duty’ was not what shocked and startled the nation, but rather his evident covering up of his actions and involvements in the war. He remained in office until 1992. This period of Austria’s contemporary history is referred to as the ‘Waldheim Affair’.

The affair became a symbol of how Austria confronted its own past and acted as a symbol of the latent anti-Semitism that remained in society.

Responses to the National Socialist past and the Holocaust in contemporary Austria have been mixed. Although, it must be said that the general shift from being viewed as ‘victims’ of the Third Reich to complicit partakers of the regime has taken place. Writers and artists lead the way in confronting the dark past and the protest largely came from those belonging to the generation of Austrians whose parents were in some way associated with the crimes carried out by the Nazis. Those growing up in a post-war Austria knew very little of the nation’s history, struggling to identify a sense of ‘self’ due to a lack of history and education.

Generally speaking, the topic of the Holocaust was an unwelcomed discussion amongst Austrians, but during the scandals of the 1980s, the conversation could no longer be avoided. After all, the collective history that Austrians were victims had at this point been proven false. Writers such as Ingeborg Bachmann, Elisabeth Reichart and Thomas Bernhard shook standard societal discourse on the past by openly depicting the Austrian wrongdoing in the Holocaust, detailing the trauma that the war caused, and the distinct lack of ‘self’ that they had due to their histories being significantly blurred. Austrian editors and publishers could no longer steer clear of manuscripts apt to cause controversy. The cataclysmic effect of learning about the hidden past after having been raised with the myth of victimisation is evident in the works of Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. In the case of Bachmann, her father was an early member of the Austrian National Socialist Party, and this became a predominant image in Bachmann’s novel, Malina. In an attempt to distance herself from her own country, prior to her death, she moved to Italy. A recent documentary film by Ruth Beckermann investigated the erasure of Austria’s Nazi-era past by the likes of Kurt Waldheim, previously serving in the Wehrmacht. The documentary film has since been viewed around the globe. It establishes a point that by not learning of the past, one is merely deemed to repeat it, establishing more borders and segregation amongst ourselves.

While the process of confronting the National Socialist past in Austria has been difficult, it must be noted that Austria’s gradual acknowledgment of its wrongdoings has largely stemmed from the arts (most predominantly literature post 1945, as well as film).

Those leading the protest of the denial of the past are largely female writers and filmmakers who have grown up in generations with a distinct lack of history or identity. It can also be concluded that a grave importance must be placed on learning of the past, especially in dark times of division and corrupt government. We learn that those who led the Third Reich regime were not born with the power that they held, but rather were ordinary people with ordinary lives who bought into an idea.

History and literature invoke the capability to better avoid repeated mistakes, as well as create a positive path ahead within one’s respective society.


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