Austria as "First Victim"

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

Austria as "First Victim"

But Allied attitudes to the two countries differed significantly, and this played a key role in shaping the respective positions of Germans and Austrians toward the legacy of the Holocaust. The Germans knew that their behavior toward the Jews would be seen as a test of their maturity and their democratic credentials by the Western Allies. Both the American government and American Jewish organizations made clear the link between German-Jewish relations and the moral legitimacy of the new Germany in the postwar world. Some degree of “philosemitism” was required if Germany were to regain its political sovereignty, and that undoubtedly played a part in the positive German decision on Wiedergutmachung to Israel and world Jewry. A combination of political prudence, moral scruples, and a healthy respect for Jewish influence in America marked German chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s attitude on these issues. So, too, was the principled position of the chairman of the SPD (German Social Democratic Party), Kurt Schumacher, who demanded the payment of restitution to the Jews as early as 1946. In speeches and interviews, he repeatedly referred to Nazi guilt toward the Jews. Without the firm support of the Socialist opposition for Wiedergutmachung, Adenauer could never have pushed through the historic legislation in 1952 against the resistance he encountered in his own Christian Democratic Party and among a majority of the German population.

In Austria, however, there was no political parallel to the efforts of Adenauer and Schumacher, nor was there any comparable Allied pressure insisting that its attitude to the Jews be a “touchstone” of progress toward democracy. Thus, unlike the situation in Germany, philosemitism never became integrated into Austrian domestic and foreign policy as part of its effort to achieve sovereignty and integration into the West. To be sure, the gulf between Germany and Austria was visible more at the level of political elites than in public opinion. In Germany as much as Austria, there was a strong desire to forget Nazism, to deny any guilt for the Holocaust, to reject the premises of de-Nazification, and even to believe in the myth of “Jewish power.” But for West German political culture after 1949, a positive attitude to Jews had become an essential element of international respectability, a kind of collective Persilschein (clean bill of health) for the new German state. This official, state-ordained philosemitism did not prevent many Germans (like the Austrians) from brushing over Jewish concerns and sensitivities, disclaiming personal responsibility, and limiting their empathy to their own POWs, refugees, and deportees. In Austria, however, there were no countervailing pressures, internal or external, either for restitution or for developing a more positive image of Jews.

The consequences of this situation were complex and often contradictory. After 1945 anti-Semitism in Austria, as in Germany, could no longer be expressed too openly. Cabinet ministers understood that displays of anti-Jewish prejudice would have negative repercussions on international public opinion and adversely affect their standing with the occupying Allied powers. Though Austria did not-in contrast to Germany-have to prove its democratic fitness by developing special relations with the Jews or Israel, it did, out of self-interest, either vehemently deny the existence of Austrian anti-Semitism or else downplayed its importance. Thus, the Socialist mayor of Vienna, Theodor Körner, ridiculed in February 1947 “the fairy-tale of anti-Semitism” in his city, calling it “totally alien to the Viennese. Sharply criticizing unfriendly reports in the foreign (especially the American) press, he claimed, in opposition to known historical facts, that “Vienna had never witnessed anti-Semitic outrages of the kind found in other countries . . . since the Viennese is a cosmopolitan and thus from the word go not an anti-Semite.” In a letter to the World Jewish Congress in April 1947 Körner stressed that the Austrian Socialist Party stood as the best guarantee against the revival of anti-Semitism. He evoked the names of its former leaders Victor Adler and Otto Bauer (both Jewish in origin) and other prominent Jews associated with them-Robert Danneberg, Wilhelm Ellenbogen, Prof. Julius Tandler, Hugo Breitner, and Julius Deutsch. He did not, however, mention that the post-1945 Socialistleadership was not at all interested in inviting such Austro-Marxist Jewish emigrants to return to Austria.

The conservative Austrian chancellor, Leopold Figl, similarly denied that Austrians were anti-Semitic, and in June 1947 he suggested-either mendaciously or naively-that sympathy with the persecuted Jews had eradicated whatever traces of anti-Semitism had lingered in Austria. “I don’t think this question will ever acquire even the slightest significance.” Figl (who was himself in a concentration camp for several years) believed that there was a simple answer to Nazism and the Holocaust-namely, to restore all Austrians to “their former rights without distinction.” Figl’s refrain was that since all Austrians had suffered, there could be no grounds for differentiation on the basis of race or religion. The law should be applied “even-handedly for everyone who returns from the camps and prisons.” In one of the rare public statements ever made welcoming back returnees to Austria, Figl declared: “They are Austrians like all of us. The Jews, too, of course. If the Jews who emigrated return, they will be just as welcome as all other Austrians. They have the same right to be reinstated to their former rights as all the others.” Figl spoke in the name of equality before the law, but at the same time he was also rejecting any notion of “special treatment” for the Jews after the Holocaust, which Figl and other members of the government considered unfair. Such arguments would be widely used by all political parties in Austria to resist Jewish demands for moral and material restitution.

As we have seen, Austrian authorities claimed that the “privileged status” given to Jewish DPs by the American authorities with regard to food and accommodation was fueling popular anti-Semitism. But no Austrian politician, whether of the right or the left, saw it as his task to try to counteract the anti-Semitic opinions of the population. Nor did any see fit to express any remorse about the fate of the Jews, or to confront unpalatable facts about the Austrian role in the Holocaust. Significantly, when a prominent politician-Leopold Kunschak-made anti-Semitic speeches against the acceptance of Polish-Jewish refugees in Austria, his political career was not adversely affected. In a speech on April 16, 1946, he declared: “The Polish Jews should not come to Austria; we Austrians don’t need the others either! . . . Austrian industry should not fall into Jewish hands.” Kunschak had been a radical Catholic populist and anti-Semite long before 1938, and had also been interned for seven years in a concentration camp as an anti-Nazi. He was one of the founders of the Second Austrian Republic in 1945 and was even elected president of its National Assembly. Chancellor Figl excused his anti-Semitic remark by saying that Kunschak was an economic, not a racial, anti-Semite.

In the 1945-50 period, then, it was becoming evident that, despite official lip-service to democratic ideals, there was no real Austrian willingness to confront the anti-Semitism of the man in the street, to acknowledge Austria’s own share in Nazi guilt, or to encourage the Jews to return, let alone to pay them restitution. On the contrary, Austrian authorities often obstructed the return of Austrian Jews from abroad and refused them the status accorded to political victims of the Nazis. Moreover, they resisted Jewish claims to restore homes, businesses, and other property that had been “Aryanized.” Survivors often found themselves greeted with indifference, hostility, and bureaucratic obtuseness. In striking contrast, great efforts were made to integrate the former Nazis, the bulk of whom were amnestied in 1948 and who represented potential voters for the major political parties. The Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ), no less than its conservative rivals, was corrupted by this “electoralism,” renouncing any ethical principle in its bid for ex-Nazi votes, which, after 1949, amounted to about 1 million in a population of 7 million Austrians.

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