The Holocaust in Austria

Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust
by Robert S. Wistrich

The Holocaust in Austria

The Jews of post-Holocaust Austria were no more than a pale shadow of the great Jewish community numbering 2.25 million that inhabited the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of World War I. At that time there had been 175,000 Jews living in the imperial capital of Vienna (9 percent of the city’s population) and they were a driving force both of modern capitalism and of Austrian social democracy. The Jews of Vienna dominated the cultural life of the city, providing a brilliant galaxy of talent in the arts and sciences that helped shape the contours of twentieth-century culture.

The Jewish presence was also heavily felt in the free professions. Most Viennese lawyers and doctors were Jews, a situation that would continue until the Anschluss in 1938. Jews also dominated journalism-especially the liberal and socialist press-and were disproportionately represented in commerce, banking, and entrepreneurial capitalism. This preponderance had not even been changed (let alone reversed) by the anti-Semitic Christian Social administration of the city after 1897. Anti-Semitism in Vienna was indeed stronger than in any other Central or West European city, but as the city’s moderately anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, fully realized, Jews were an indispensable element in the life of the metropolis.

Following the collapse of the empire in 1918 and the postwar peace treaties, Austria suffered a massive loss of territory, population, and national self-confidence. The Jewish community, reduced to a tenth of its former size, was overwhelmingly concentrated in Vienna. In 1923 the Jewish population peaked there at 201,513 (10.8 percent of the total), which made Vienna the third largest Jewish city in Europe, after Warsaw and Budapest. Anti-Semitism had been exacerbated by a massive influx of Galician Jewish refugees during World War I and in the early 1920s, and by the loss of empire, the postwar inflation, high unemployment, and the endemic status anxiety of the Viennese “little man” (Kleine Mann). It could be found in virtually all social classes, age groups, and political parties, especially in the ruling Catholic-conservative Christian Social Party and the more virulently racist Greater German People’s Party (Grossdeutsche Volkspartei), which favored union with Germany. Its strongest single constituency was among German nationalist university students, who, by the late 1920s, had also become the avant-garde of the growing Nazi movement in Austria. The “inviolable territory” of the universities, where police could not enter, transformed them into “Brown Houses” with open season on Jewish students long before the Anschluss. In the Austrian countryside, too, anti-Semitism was strong, fueled by time-honored religious prejudice, hidebound provincialism, and resentment against “Red Vienna” (identified with Jews) as well as by German nationalist propaganda.

The brief interlude of the “clerico-fascist” dictatorship in Austria under the Christian Social chancellors Dollfuss and Schuschnigg (1934-38) had mixed results for the Jews. In contrast to Nazi Germany, Jews were protected from physical assaults, open slander and insult, and ef-forts to systematically impoverish them. Neither Dollfuss (who was assassinated by Austrian Nazis in July 1934) nor Schuschnigg had any sympathy for National Socialism. Both sought to preserve Austrian independence, and to this end they imprisoned Nazis as well as Social Democrats and Communists. But their authoritarian Christian state ideology did bring with it a quiet discrimination against Jews and the first erosion of Jewish emancipation in seventy years for the 191,000 Jews still living in Austria in 1934.

With the Anschluss of March 1938, the destruction of Austrian Jewry began in earnest as the accumulated social and political discontent of the indigenous population exploded with elemental force. As the historian Gerhard Botz has put it: “The attacks consisted mostly of symbolic acts and historic rituals aimed at the destruction of a sense of identity-humiliations, abuse and arrests-but there were also physical attacks, beatings, murders and also robberies on a mass scale. It was as if medieval pogroms had reappeared in modern dress.”

The pogrom-like atmosphere was accompanied by a swift, large-scale “Aryanization” of Jewish property (i.e., the economic expropriation of Viennese Jews, mostly without compensation), including well-known Jewish businesses and department stores. Nearly 70,000 Jewish dwellings were seized, partly as a way to alleviate the housing shortage in Vienna and also as a way to reward “citizens” and party comrades who had served the Nazi movement. The enforced exodus of Jews proceeded apace. By November 1939, 126,445 Jews, about two-thirds of Austrian Jewry, had emigrated to the United Kingdom, the United States, Shanghai, Palestine, and other destinations. This was a “tribute” to the brutality of Viennese anti-Semitism, which was far more radical than anything hitherto seen in the “Old Reich,” Nazi Germany before the Anschluss. During the war years, the remaining third of Austrian Jewry would be deported to death camps in Poland, where approximately 65,000 would meet their deaths.

The Austrian “contribution” to the Holocaust was far greater than even these figures might suggest. Not only was indigenous Jew-hatred in pre-1939 Austria greater than in Germany, but Austrians were disproportionately involved in planning and implementing the “Final Solution.” Apart from Adolf Hitler himself, the Austrian-born architect of the Holocaust, there were Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of Jewish deportations from the Reich and most of occupied Europe; Odilo Globocnik (formerly gauleiter of Vienna), who supervised all the death camps in Poland; Ernst Kaltenbrunner from Linz, who succeeded Heydrich as head of the Reich Head Security Office and effectively coordinated the bureaucracy of the Final Solution; and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Reich commissioner of the Netherlands and responsible for the deportations of Dutch Jews. And this is not to mention the fact that 40 percent of the personnel and most of the commandants of the death camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were Austrians, or that 80 percent of Eichmann’s staff were recruited from his Austrian compatriots. Simon Wiesenthal was not exaggerating much when, in a memorandum of October 12, 1966, sent to the conservative Austrian chancellor Josef Klaus, he asserted: “The Austrians who were participants in the crimes of National Socialism bear the responsibility for at least three million murdered Jews.” Austrian Jews, it must be remembered, unlike their German coreligionists, suffered the devastating consequences of Nazi rule in one fell swoop, leaving them in total disarray after 1938. Nevertheless, despite the rapidly shrinking Jewish population, they participated on a quite remarkable scale in the Austrian resistance, especially in the clandestine activities of the outlawed Socialist and Communist parties. They were also active in the Allied armies fighting the Germans and played a conspicuous role in the Belgian and French resistance.

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