Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust
by Robert S. Wistrich
The Postwar Situation
At the end of 1945 there were, at most, some 4,000 members of the Jewish religious community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde) who had somehow survived and were scratching out a living in a ruined Austria, which was itself hungry, despondent, confused, and now under Allied occupation. (The Red Army at that time controlled Vienna and the eastern half of the country. Soviet troops would leave only in 1955 after the signing of the Austrian State Treaty.) The British Labour MP, Richard Crossman, who visited Austria in February 1946 as a member of the Anglo-American Commission for Palestine, was profoundly depressed by what he observed. He described the Jewish communal leaders whom he met as “shrill and pathetic, self-assertive and broken”; he noted their conviction that there was no future for Jews in Austria and that emigration to Palestine was the only solution for them. They told him that anti-Semitism (despite the Holocaust) was as strong as ever; hence they advised against encouraging any Jews who had been driven out in 1938 to return.
This pessimistic assessment was confirmed for Crossman by what he heard from Austria’s first postwar president, veteran Socialist leader Dr. Karl Renner (who would remain in office until his death in 1950). Renner emphasized that there was no room for Jewish businessmen in Austria and he did not think that “Austria in its present mood would allow Jews once again to build up these family monopolies. Certainly we would not allow a new Jewish community to come in from Eastern Europe and establish itself here when our own people need work.” Renner’s manifest lack of empathy for Jews was echoed by his fellow Social Democrat and minister of the interior (he held the position until 1959), Oskar Helmer, who complained to Crossman about the American policy of giving special accommodation and rations to unemployed Ostjuden in the American zone of occupation “while hard-working Austrians starved,” a policy, he insisted, that caused justified Austrian resentment and anti-Semitism. The comments that Crossman heard from the aged bishop of Vienna were scarcely more encouraging. He apparently blamed anti-Semitism on the behavior of the Jewish community and on an alleged Jewish collaboration with the Gestapo! He assured his British visitor that the Catholic church did not fight Jews per se but only the “Jewish spirit of materialism”; he conceded that to drive out the Jews would be “unchristian,” but stressed that Austrian Catholicism would not lift a hand either to destroy or to assist the Jewish community. The church could only aid Jews who acknowledged Christianity.
It must be remembered that the Catholic church in Austria, at that time, was still relying on traditional notions concerning the responsibility of the Jews for Christ’s death. There was a widespread belief that Jews were an “accursed people” who had been punished with permanent exile for their rejection of Jesus. Similar attitudes could be found in the Protestant churches of Austria and Germany in the early postwar period. Even in 1950, when the Austrian Protestants in Vienna declared that anti-Semitism was incompatible with the Gospels, Jews and Judaism were still seen as having deviated from the true path by rejecting the Messiah. Such attitudes remained not only in the official theology but also in religious textbooks and Bible lessons at least until the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which finally lifted the charge of deicide from the Jewish people. In Austria, the Catholic “teaching of contempt” had been reinforced for decades by the ant-Semitic traditions of political Catholicism, so visible in the interwar period. While this legacy of Christian Social anti-Semitism had been seriously weakened by the shock of the Holocaust, it had not disappeared. Nor had blood libel traditions like the cult of Anderl of Rinn (the alleged victim of a Jewish ritual murder in the fifteenth century, canonized in 1752), in the Tyrolean village of Judenstein, lost their potency. Such archaic attitudes, alongside the more virulent Nazified anti-Semitism, were still common enough in Allied-occupied Austria at the end of the war.
In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that Richard Crossman concluded in 1947 that the shrunken Jewish community of Vienna would either have to totally assimilate (as urged by the conservative Chancellor Figl) or leave. There could be no room for Jewish communities with their own schools or separate organizations, let alone a thriving Jewish culture (in Yiddish) or a distinctively Jewish way of life. Nor was there any demographic prospect for a revival of Jewry as had occurred after 1918, since the surviving remnants were old people whose relatives had either permanently emigrated or been killed. Indeed, Vienna in 1945 resembled a phantom city or house of the dead (Totenhaus) for the 2,000 Jews who had survived as “U-Boote” (in hiding), in “protected” mixed marriages, or as Mischlinge (offspring of mixed parentage); there were another 1,727 Jews who had returned as camp survivors and a much smaller number who had trickled back from abroad. By the end of 1949 the numbers had risen to 8,038 Austrian Jews officially registered with the Kultusgemeinde (to which one can add a few thousand who may have returned without registering), split between a growing number of returnees and those who had survived the Third Reich. During the past fifty years, however, this number has scarcely increased. There are today about 12,000 Jews, still overwhelmingly concentrated in Vienna. This is indeed the single most important Austrian legacy of the Holocaust, for it fulfilled in the most macabre fashion the prophecy of the Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer, who in 1922 wrote a futuristic novel about the “city without Jews.”
Another important consequence of the disappearance of the Jews was the negative impact on postwar Austrian literature. Already before 1938-39 writers of the caliber of Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Franz Werfel, Hermann Broch, and Elias Canetti had been forced to flee Austria. After the Nazi takeover others were forced into exile, were murdered, or committed suicide. At one stroke, a vital source of radical, avant-garde modernist writing was eliminated. The impact of the loss was reinforced by the illiberal and antimodernist tone of the critics and journalists of the Nazi era, who continued to write in the first years after the war.
The strategy of cultural repression insisted on screening out any memory of entanglement with National Socialism by reconstructing an ideology of traditional “Austrianism.” Ironically, two of the most prominent purveyors of this myth of an eternal Austria were Jewish intellectuals who returned after 1945, Hans Weigel and Friedrich Torberg. Both played down Austrian anti-Semitism, lauded Austrian patriotism, and were militantly anti-Communist. Austria, they wrote, was the easternmost bastion of Western democracy.
The Holocaust had destroyed the historic continuity of Austrian Jewry, which, though predominantly German in language and culture, had fused together Bohemian, Moravian, Hungarian, and Galician Jews with their Viennese-born coreligionists in a uniquely colorful and innovative multicultural melting pot. This diversified Austrian Jewry had been significantly different from its German counterpart-more pluralistic, loyal to a supranational concept of “Austrianness” (Österreichertum), and more willing to embrace a sense of Jewish peoplehood. Large sections of pre-1918 Austrian Jewry had been primarily Jewish in their self-identification rather than German, Czech, Austrian, or anything else. Religious traditionalism was stronger than in Germany (as was support for Zionism), and the Reform movement did not strike deep roots. However, under the first Austrian Republic (1918-38) the similarities with German Jewry became more apparent as both communities had to face the same problems of inflation, depression, rising anti-Semitism, and Nazism in the framework of what had now become a decaying nation-state. Moreover, after 1918 Galician Jews in Austria were perceived for the first time as “foreigners,” and tension between them and the assimilated Viennese Jews increased.
This tension did not altogether disappear after 1945, but the context changed. In the immediate postwar years the leadership of the aging and decimated Kultusgemeinde (IKG) had passed to very assimilated, secular left-wing Jews who had little interest in the religious needs of the community. They were “Austrian patriots” ready to work to reconstruct a “new Austria,” looking in particular to the Communists (KPÖ) and the Social Democrats (SPÖ) to protect their rights as survivors and to fight against any resurgence of neofascism or anti-Semitism. In the first democratic elections after the war, David Brill, a Communist journalist, was chosen president of the IKG, and the Communist list Jüdische Einigkeit won 65 percent of the vote-a result that would have been unthinkable in the 1920s or 1930s. Until its dissolution by the Nazis, Kultusgemeinde politics had been dominated by the struggle between the liberal, integrationist Union (originally the Austrian Israelite Union) and the Zionists, with the latter finally emerging victorious in 1932. At that time the Socialist list was weak and the Communists played no role in communal elections. (In municipal and national elections during the First Republic, it should be noted that a majority of Viennese Jews voted for the SPÖ, but the Kultusgemeinde elections were not at all representative of the general political orientation of Jews in Vienna.)
After 1945 this changed dramatically. The Union had been obliterated by the Holocaust, along with the emancipated, liberal-assimilationist aspirations and hopes of Viennese bourgeois Jews. It was now the Communists and above all the Social Democrats who held high the banner of assimilation. But Communist influence waned as a result of the cold war, the negative impact of the Soviet occupation of Austria, and the pressures of the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) on whom the Vienna Kultusgemeinde was, at first, financially dependent for more than half of its budget. The Soviet invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) destroyed any remaining Communist credibility in the community. Between 1952 and 1981, the Bund Werktätigen Juden (Alliance of Working Jews), closely connected with the SPÖ, came to dominate Jewish communal elections. Among the various opposition factions, the Zionists were prominent until the early 1970s, but never achieved anything like their high-water mark of the 1930s. There had been, however, intensive Zionist activity in Austria between 1945 and 1948 among the more than 100,000 East European Jews who passed through the country. These foreign Jews did not participate in communal life, and Austria was, for them, essentially a Transitland. They despised the “Yekkes” (German-speaking Jews) as much as the latter looked down on them as uncouth, Yiddish-speaking, and provokers of anti-Semitism. As had happened in Austria after World War I, divisions between Westernized Jews and Ostjuden continued, though they were probably less acute than similar divisions in Germany after 1945.
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