Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust
by Robert S. Wistrich
The Waldheim Affair produced two contradictory tendencies in the 1990s, both unintended by the parties to the dispute-one working to overcome the legacy of anti-Semitism, the other seeking its intensification.
Since 1987, the federal government and municipal authorities have sought to improve relations with Austrian Jews, world Jewry, and Israel. There has been a notable increase of support for Jewish museums, synagogues, research projects, and scholarly conferences on Jewish topics, as well as the start of a serious educational effort to counteract anti-Semitism and to improve understanding and knowledge about the Holocaust. Jewish-Catholic dialogue, which began belatedly in Austria as a result of Vatican II in the 1960s and the efforts of Cardinal Franz König, has also played a role in reducing Catholic prejudice against Jews and Judaism. In a speech in St. Pölten on September 26, 1987, Cardinal König implicitly accepted the fact of Christian and Austrian coresponsibility for the Holocaust, pointing the way toward more specific public apologies by Austrian political leaders that would come a few years later. New efforts for Catholic-Jewish understanding also followed from the initiatives undertaken by Pope John Paul II since the beginning of his papacy in 1978. The Polish-born pope laid a special emphasis on the Holocaust, the Jewish roots of Christianity, and the need to uproot anti-Semitism. Pope John Paul II was the first Roman pontiff to visit the synagogue in Rome (in 1986), though the positive fallout was somewhat tempered by his decision to receive Kurt Waldheim, as president of Austria, at the Vatican. On the other hand, the pope inaugurated diplomatic relations with the State of Israel on December 31, 1993, a dramatic breakthrough that has left its mark on Catholic-Jewish relations. The Vatican also supported the bishop of Innsbruck, Dr. Reinhold Stecher, in his 1994 decree finally terminating the cult of Anderl of Rinn, despite the opposition of local villagers in Judenstein (Tyrol) to removing the child’s bones from the church altar.
Another positive development was the stream of public statements and activities of younger Austrian writers, artists, and intellectuals who formed protest groups like Neues Österreich during the Waldheim Affair to try to change deeply ingrained Austrian attitudes. A new generation of Austrian politicians also emerged in the 1990s, more ready to revise older myths about Austrian identity and to acknowledge the mistakes of the past. In 1991 Deputy Chancellor Busek of the ÖVP admitted the need to recognize injustices that Austrians had committed against Jews. Busek, the chairman of the Austrian People’s Party, has been one of the most prominent voices in the Catholic intellectual and political elite to emphasize Austria’s special obligation to uproot the anti-Semitic Ungeist and work for reconciliation. Busek has consistently underlined the cultural and spiritual debt Austria owes its Jews, its burden of guilt for participating in the Holocaust, and the positive educational influence of the Jewish-Christian dialogue.
The Austrian Socialists, too, have played their part in accepting the need for a revision of older attitudes toward the Nazi past. In July 1991 the Socialist federal chancellor Franz Vranitzky publicly acknowledged Austrian coresponsibility for what had happened in the Third Reich. On a visit to Israel in 1993, Vranitzky repeated in the name of the Austrian nation that it acknowledged its complicity (Mitschuld) in the Holocaust. The present chancellor, Victor Klima, reaffirmed this position during a recent visit to Israel. Similarly, the Socialist mayor of Vienna, Helmut Zilk, initiated a series of concrete actions by the municipality to strengthen ties with the Jewish community and provide it with moral and material support.
Sometimes the new initiatives have been controversial, especially those relating to the artistic memorialization of the Holocaust. This was the case with Alfred Hrdlicka’s supremely figurative Monument against War and Fascism on Vienna’s Albertinaplatz (1988-91) which was marred by a somewhat chaotic composition. Hrdlicka had already designed a monument (in Hamburg, 1983) to commemorate Nazi war crimes and the sufferings of the civilian population that had compositional problems similar to those of the Albertinaplatz project. Some Viennese Jews, like Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, welcomed his Vienna project, which turned from conventional war memorials in the “heroic” mold to countermonuments starkly reminding of mass extermination and its victims. Others found the sculpted image of a Jew on his knees scrubbing the pavement of Vienna (a reminder of 1938) humiliating and offensive.
Hrdlicka’s warning against war and fascism grew out of an intense debate that began in Germany in the 1980s over what symbolic forms were appropriate for public monuments memorializing the victims of German militarism and its genocidal policies. The debate was initiated by a new generation of artists eager to develop original forms that could express national atonement. They felt challenged by the presence in Germany of more than a hundred thousand patriotic war memorials, and the absence, after forty years, of memorials to the Holocaust. They were also reacting against the rising German traditionalist-nationalist sentiment of the 1980s, symbolized by Chancellor Kohl’s “normalization” of the German past as embodied in the Bitburg Cemetery pageant with American president Ronald Reagan.
The countermonuments of German artists used negative forms, immaterial rather than material messages, and installation-type memorials with minuscule visual openings to the outside world. Thus Miicha Ullman’s Empty Library (1995), on the Bebelplatz in Berlin, commemorated the Nazi book burning of 1933 in front of Berlin University. Sol Le Witt’s Black Form Dedicated to the Missing Jews (1987) featured a black cube (symbolizing mass death) in the forecourt of Munster Castle where the equestrian figure of Wilhelm I had stood before World War II. Against the festive Baroque atmosphere of the courtyard, it evoked the sharp rupture with civilization represented by the Nazi genocide and the black abyss of the Holocaust.
Austrian artists have also tried to transform conventional war memorials into statements against war and fascism while seeking new means to conceptualize their sense of the Holocaust as a “black hole” of civilization. Like their German counterparts, they have reacted against the prevalence in Austria of memorials to the fallen soldiers of the two world wars that celebrate their “heroic death” (Heldentod) and defense of the fatherland. The patriotic images of Heimat (homeland), Gemeinschaft (community), and Kameradschaft (comradeship) uncritically relay a mythical history that blends service in the Wehrmacht with the experience of World War I while obliterating the memory of the genocide.
Not until the late 1980s and the shock of the Waldheim Affair did memorials to resistance fighters and to the victims of Nazism emerge in Austria. Hans Haacke’s Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (And you have won after all) was a countermonument against Austrian fascism that grew directly out of the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss and the need to face the Nazi heritage in the wake of Waldheim’s election. The name of this work is sarcastically taken from a temporary monument erected by local Nazis in Graz in July 1938 to celebrate their “victory” (these Nazis were referring to the “martyrs” of the abortive Nazi Munich putsch of 1923!). Haacke reconstructed the high, black wooden pylon that the Nazis had erected, with a subscript enumerating the different categories of Styrian victims from 1938 on. His temporary installation provoked sharp controversy in conservative Graz, which had been a hotbed of Nazism in the 1930s. The local establishment paid lip service to the idea of atonement, but a vocal opposition soon manifested itself, including Austria’s largest circulation newspaper, the anti-Semitically inclined Neue Kronen-Zeitung. Controversy soon escalated into arson: Haacke’s monument was badly damaged, and eventually a neo-Nazi group was arrested, tried, and sentenced for the crime.
A different kind of controversy has surrounded the 1995 project of the British artist Rachel Whiteread for a Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s somewhat cramped Judenplatz. After much deliberation and many delays, the planned monument will feature a concrete cubicle exposing, on its outer walls, books turned with their backs inward. There is no functional access to the interior of the cube, so the book collection can neither be perused nor the interior visited. The empty library seems to echo the disappearance of the Jews: the books may have survived, but their legitimate owners and readers are no more. The Viennese monument is to be located on the historic site of a synagogue destroyed in the pogrom of 1421, facing the older bronze statue of Lessing, the eighteenth-century German poet, philosopher, and “philosemite.” Thus the memorial for 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered in the Holocaust stands opposite the illusion of acceptance and assimilation. Whiteread’s project stands out forbiddingly against its surroundings, a virtual photographic negative of the trappings of contemporary civilization, which, like the works of other German and Austrian artists grappling with the Holocaust, sees the catastrophe as a kind of gaping hole of nonexistence.
Just as these artists are acknowledging what was lost and trying to atone for it, Austrian political leaders have finally created an official historical commission of inquiry (headed by a judge who is Jewish, Clemens Jabloner) to investigate the issue of Jewish property in Austria confiscated during World War II. As we have seen, the failure of the Austrian authorities to return property and artworks to survivors of the Holocaust or their descendants did much to sour relations between Austria and the Jews. Recently, however, in response to demands by Ariel Muzicant, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Austria-who typifies the younger, more self-assertive generation of Austrian-Jewish leaders-the Austrian government is developing a new approach to correct the omissions of the past. This is particularly apparent in the new legislation passed by the Austrian parliament (Nationalrat) on stolen art objects still in Austrian museums and collections. After fifty years of doing little to return this Jewish-owned property, the new law is a belated example of Wiedergutmachung, the need to do justice. Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs Elisabeth Gehrer called it the signal for a new consciousness “in coming to terms with an inglorious chapter of [Austrian] history.” The legislation on looted art places Austria ahead of most other countries on this issue. It should be seen in the context of other acts of Holocaust compensation that Austria has recently undertaken. In 1995 it created a National Fund that makes direct payments to Austrian victims of Nazism. The next year Austria conducted an auction of the Mauerbach collection of art looted by the Nazis-mostly from Jewish owners whose heirs could not be found. Over $10 million raised from the auction went to needy Austrian Holocaust victims. Both the Fund and the auction, symbolic milestones in facing the Nazi past, engendered criticism: the Fund because the payments were small (about $7,000 per person) and the auction because the government could have acted years earlier.
This new approach by Austria, backed by both of the main parties, signals their abandonment of the myth that Austria was Hitler’s first victim. It also reflects a generational change. The new leaders of Austria have a growing European consciousness that strives for a pluralism respectful of both universal values and specific cultural identities. The desire for “reconciliation” with the Jews points also to the impact of modernization on Austrian society. Whatever the combination of forces that impel it, there is now, for the first time in postwar Austria, a serious commitment to fighting racism and anti-Semitism. As part of this, there is even the beginning of a movement to discuss the Holocaust critically and openly, to recognize its barbaric uniqueness, and to seek to learn its lessons.
There are also signs that Jewish culture may be reviving in Vienna. The constant influx of immigrants has reinvigorated the Jewish community’s cultural and religious life, even if the numbers are still far removed from the critical mass required to duplicate the brilliant creativity of Viennese Jewry a century ago. This renewal, like the changed attitude of Austrian society, also owes something to Austria’s opening up to Europe and to a more tolerant, self-critical notion of democracy.
But if the establishment has become more liberal in the wake of the Waldheim fiasco, the reservoir of provincial conservatism and of radical-populist protest remains formidable.
The most negative development in Austrian society since 1986 has been the rise of the radical right Freedom Party under Jörg Haider’s leadership to a position of real political influence. The FPÖ elected the energetic and photogenic Haider as chairman in the same year that the Waldheim Affair began, a move that signaled an abandonment of its “liberal” orientation of the early 1980s in favor of radical nationalist populism. A leader of considerable political acumen, charisma, and demagogic talent, the youthful Haider-then not yet forty-presided over a spectacular increase in the FPÖ vote, which today represents about a quarter of the Austrian electorate.
Haider came from Carinthia, traditionally a stronghold of Austrian Pan-German nationalism, and grew up in a family with impeccable Nazi credentials. The penchant for prewar Germanic values instilled by his upbringing explains his fondness for addressing former SS, Nazi, and far-right Kameradschaften. Haider’s statements at such gatherings often slide into an overt or covert apologia for Nazi crimes, praise for the German armed forces during World War II (which, he says, laid the foundation for “peace and freedom” in postwar Europe!), and defense of the Waffen-SS. When convicted war criminal Walter Reder was returned to Austria in 1985, Haider naturally supported the decision of his FPÖ colleague, Defense Minister Friedhelm Frischenschlager, to receive him warmly at the airport in Graz, as a soldier who had “done his duty” during the war.
Haider’s electoral successes are built upon a populist appeal to “Austria for the Austrians,” directed against foreigners who now represent about one-tenth of the total population. But he also draws on widespread disillusionment with the corruption of the two main political parties, which, as late as 1983, could still count on the support of 90 percent of the electorate. The ÖVP-SPÖ oligopoly relied on the traditionally strong party allegiance of Austrians, but this has been eroded, opening a space for Haider’s right-wing populism. The FPÖ had always been a bizarre alliance of ex-Nazis and European-style liberals of a German nationalist persuasion. These “National Liberals” were the heirs of the Pan-Germans who had been committed to the concept of a Volksgemeinschaft (German national community) and Anschluss with a powerful Germany, ideas that were traditionally closely linked to racist anti-Semitism. The FPÖ grew out of this tradition and from the League of Independents, which, between 1949 and 1956, provided an electoral home for former Nazis. The Waldheim Affair, by demonstrating once again the potential electoral benefits deriving from xenophobia and prejudice, provided a valuable springboard for Haider. Since the early 1990s he has focused on the “foreigner problem,” linking it to crime, waste of taxpayers’ money, cultural conflict, and social anxieties.
By the mid-1990s the FPÖ was firmly established as the third force in Austrian politics, with an illiberal, authoritarian nationalism at its core. Striking features of the movement’s literature are whitewashing the Nazis, blurring the uniqueness of National Socialist crimes, and implicitly questioning, banalizing, or trivializing the Holocaust. Especially in the provinces, FPÖ propaganda often verges on Holocaust denial.
Haider and his party oppose the educational efforts aimed at getting Austrians to take national responsibility for their “brown” past. They ridicule notions of Austrian guilt and attempts to “criminalize” Austrian history or to deny 1000 years of Austrian linguistic and cultural community with the German Volk. On the contrary, they seek to rehabilitate the generation of the fathers and stress the positive sides of National Socialism-eliminating unemployment, creating an effective social policy, and building the autobahns.
Haider’s glorification of the Waffen-SS as an “elite” force and a “model for youth,” the repeated calls to amnesty Nazi war criminals, the commemoration of the war generation but never of the victims of genocide are also part of a consistent pattern. Not surprisingly, anti-Semitic attitudes are far more rife among FPÖ supporters than among those of the SPÖ or the ÖVP, and anti-Semitically tinged statements appear more frequently in the FPÖ press. Haider never rebukes his henchmen or apologizes for any such remarks.
At the same time, it is clear that xenophobia has superseded anti-Semitism both as an ideological cement and a source of electoral appeal in the FPÖ. Haider’s rhetoric on the Ausländerfrage plays on fears that Austria may be swamped by refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants from the Slavic East, the Balkans, and the Third World. These groups represent a more immediate threat to the German character of the land, to the ethnic integrity and self-preservation of Austrian Germans, than Jews do. The vocabulary here is often redolent of the biological racism of an earlier era, with its talk of defending the Lebensraum of the Austrians against the dangers of ethnic transformation (Umvolkung).
If postwar Austria exhibits “anti-Semitism without anti-Semites,” then the FPÖ (and those publicists who support it) might be described as espousing a post-Nazi neo-Nazism “without neo-Nazis.” A particularly influential and revealing example is the work of journalist Richard Nimmerichter, better known as “Staberl,” whose columns in the mass circulation Neue Kronen-Zeitung reach over 1 million readers daily-a huge audience in a small country like Austria. “Staberl” is very sympathetic to Haider’s movement, and his journalistic approach to social and political issues mirrors the FPÖ’s populism. He has a history of trivializing the Holocaust, attacking concessions made to Jews on the issue of reparations, minimizing Nazi crimes, and appealing to the cruder prejudices of his mass audience. This tendency increased during and after the Waldheim Affair, even canceling out the sympathy he had once manifested for the State of Israel.
An example of “Staberl’s” technique was an article he published in May 1992 about the methods of mass murder. In this piece he managed, through false symmetries, half-truths, and a pseudoscientific style, to blur entirely the ideology, the aims, and the huge scale of the Nazi murder of the Jews. He claimed that the Holocaust was no different than the Soviet Gulag, that most Jews died from hunger and only a relatively small number from gassing; he dissolved the distinction between concentration and death camps; ignored the mass shootings on the Eastern front and the systematic, racist anti-Semitic motivation of the killings. He also suggested that the Holocaust had only happened to poor Jews, those not wealthy enough to emigrate in time. Moreover, taking seriously the fantasies of the so-called Leuchter report (which claims that it was technically impossible to gas so many Jews in Auschwitz), Nimmerrichter slid very close to outright Holocaust “revisionism.” Reading his account, one could gain the impression that Jews in World War II had simply died of natural causes as “prisoners of war” or victims of hunger and disease rather than as dehumanized victims of a ruthless killing machine.
Such “revisionist” fantasies are staple clichés of radical right and neo-Nazi literature in Austria-as in Germany, France, Britain, America, and many other parts of the world. In themselves they would scarcely be worthy of comment except that they find more than an echo in the publications of the Fpö and also in the mass circulation tabloid press, notably the Neue Kronen-Zeitung. This “soft” variety of Holocaust denial falls on receptive ears in a climate of xenophobia and deliberately fostered feelings of panic that Austria may be flooded by guest workers, asylum-seekers, and refugees. This is the strength of national populism, and it may well survive both Haider and the current political constellation.
On the other hand, there is room for cautious optimism. The collapse of Communism, the end of the cold war, and Austria’s integration into the European Union have not undermined its stability or cohesion, but they have encouraged a rethinking of its domestic and foreign policies. Its contemporary elites appear to identify strongly with the democratic pluralism and tolerance that the new Europe has enshrined on its banners. There is no reason to doubt their commitment to the struggle against racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. The subject of the Holocaust has not only ceased to be treated as a taboo, but growing numbers of Austrians are ready to relate to it in more positive terms as part of the battle for democracy. Recognition of the historic role of Jews in the cultural and intellectual history of Austria was a first step, along with the new understanding between Jews and Catholics that has developed in the past three decades. Improved relations with Israel and support for the Jewish community in Austria have reinforced these trends. Efforts at achieving a more equitable material restitution, however belated, also indicate goodwill and a desire for warmer relations with the Jewish world. Austria, by more honestly confronting the ghosts of its Nazi past, can begin to face the new millennium with a cleaner conscience.
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