The Restitution Issue

The Restitution Issue

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

The Restitution Issue

Why were Austrians so intransigent over the issue of restitution (Wiedergutmachung) and compensation for Jewish survivors and victims of the Holocaust? Why were the negotiations so protracted, the results so paltry, and the bad feeling so persistent? And what impact did this have on the legacy of the Holocaust in Austria?

The history of the restitution negotiations cannot be recounted here except as it directly affected postwar Austria’s attitude to the Jews and its own Nazi past. At the root of Austria’s official post-1945 position on compensation lay the assumption that it had been the “first victim” of Nazism, a claim enshrined in the 1943 Moscow declaration of the Allies. In Austrian eyes this was a kind of founding document for the country’s postwar independence and a powerful incentive for it to abandon all lingering political and ideological ties to Germany. A revealing personal account of this distancing from Germany can be found in the reminiscences of George Clare, born into a Viennese Jewish family that fled Austria in 1938, who was a British officer stationed in Berlin in 1947. Returning to Vienna that year for a visit, Clare was struck by Austrians’ determination to differentiate themselves from the Germans at all costs. The Hitler years had suddenly disappeared as if into a black hole. Tyrolean and Styrian peasant hats sprouted everywhere in place of the brown or black caps of the SA and SS. Instead of Hochdeutsch one heard only the inimitable Viennese dialect. Weg vom Reich (Away from the Reich!) had replaced the old Nazi cry of Heim ins Reich, so popular at the time of the Anschluss. Clare detested the “inexhaustible self-pity in defeat” of both the Germans and Austrians, now posing as victims rather than as executioners bearing the mark of Cain. But he acknowledged that the Germans were slowly becoming aware of their responsibility for their national past. Not so the Austrians, who were busy filling the hollow void of 1945 with an inflated local patriotism that disclaimed all connection with things German and pretended to a lamblike innocence concerning the Third Reich. Clare also noted that in Austria, unlike Germany, the Allies restricted themselves to a purely supervisory role and de-Nazification did not figure so prominently in their policy.

Not only did the Western Allies tend to accept the proposition that the Austrians had been raped by Hitler, but by early 1947 they were rapidly losing interest in de-Nazification. The onset of the cold war and the anti-Communist ideology that accompanied it meant that the issue of compensation for Jewish victims would be pushed into the background. The Allies considered it counterproductive to dwell on Austria’s Nazi and anti-Semitic past at a time when Soviet Communism was rapidly engulfing neighboring countries in East-Central Europe. This in turn enabled the Austrians to use their geopolitical position as a Western bulwark against the USSR to reject any claims arising from their complicity in Nazi policy. Moreover, in order to resist Soviet claims on German property in Austria, it was vital to the Austrians to emphasize that the Anschluss had been coerced. Since neither America nor Great Britain wanted to offer ammunition to the Russians on this issue, they went along with this claim. Even so, some bureaucrats in the Austrian Foreign Office were concerned that the Jews might mobilize international opinion against Austria. A memo from the State Chancellery for Foreign Affairs in 1945 commented:

The Jews play a big role in world foreign policy, firstly because they control a large part of the press through which they exert their influence on world public opinion, and secondly because they have managed to induce the governments of other countries to champion their claims. In this the Jews have succeeded more easily, as international finance capital is largely in Jewish hands. Among pro-Jewish governments are, above all, the British and American governments. . . . It is not for nothing that Jewry has been described as the fifth world power against whose opposition Hitlerite Germany was destroyed.

Since the Austrian government required Allied support for the State Treaty, these officials advised that Jewry be formally placated on the international front. At the same time, government ministers, in private discussions, expressed resentment against American or Jewish pressure about restitution, considering it an “outrageous” intervention in internal Austrian affairs and an unacceptable Diktat from abroad.

Restitution negotiations with the Austrian government were in the hands of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims, an international Jewish body acting on behalf of Austrian Jewry. The vast majority of Austrian Jews lived outside Austria, mainly in the United States and Great Britain. The tiny Jewish community of survivors in Vienna was scarcely equipped to play a role in the bargaining between the Austrian government and representatives of world Jewry and of the Austrian Jews in exile, and the Austrian government exploited Jewish disunity in the negotiations. Moreover, the Jewish organizations worked under the disadvantage that they themselves had recognized the validity of the Allied declaration of 1943 that had designated Austria as the first victim of Nazi aggression. It was not easy to claim reparations from a “victim,” and increasingly difficult to obtain Allied support for such claims. Both the United States and Great Britain had decided at the highest level that Austria was not responsible for the actions of the German government on its soil after March 1938, and Austria itself, unlike Germany, felt no moral obligation for Wiedergutmachung.

This became apparent during the Austrian Treaty negotiations of 1947 when Jewish claims for restitution were rebuffed by Austrian foreign minister Karl Gruber, himself a former resistance fighter. Gruber maintained that it would be “unfair that these Austrians [i.e., Jewish ex-Austrians of British and American nationality] who had escaped should receive better terms than those who had remained and been placed in concentration camps.” Gruber convinced the British and Americans that accepting the demands of foreign Jewish organizations would simply revive “the embers of anti-Semitism in Austria.” Gruber was right about this, though he chose to ignore the elements of cynical self-interest and dishonesty in official Austrian policy. Since the protracted dealings revolved around money and blood, anti-Semitic stereotypes about greedy and vengeful Jews quickly emerged. When WJC officials complained about delays over Wiedergutmachung, they were met with warnings about the dangers of reviving “open anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.” On the American Jewish side there were some calls at the end of 1953 for an economic boycott of Austria, and the press and some politicians in Austria began to raise the bogey of Das Weltjudentum. These recriminations coincided with the beginning of negotiations in June 1953 over the issue of “heirless property” (das erblose Vermögen)-a process Austria had agreed to only grudgingly under British and American pressure. The Austrians made it plain, however, throughout these and later negotiations, that they were not engaged in Wiedergutmachung (compensation) but only in “aid for the politically persecuted,” humanitarian “relief,” or “donations of honor” of a charitable character. They were discharging a “moral” but not a legal responsibility to those who had suffered. There was no question of admitting Austrian responsibility for crimes the nation persisted in claiming it had not committed.

The great majority of postwar Austrians defined themselves as victims of German Nazi rule. Had they not suffered bombing raids, hunger, loss of life, Russian captivity, numerous war widows, and all the other ravages of war? Even though they honored the fallen Austrian soldiers of the Wehrmacht with war memorials as “defenders of the fatherland” who had “fulfilled their duty” and still spoke of the “lost war,” Austrians clung to their constructed image as victims of Nazi Germany, without even perceiving the anomaly.

Between 1945 and 1966, Austria was governed by a grand coalition of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Socialists-a situation having no parallel in Germany and one that contributed to political stability. But with regard to the “Jewish Question” the grand coalition had a muffling effect, encouraging a cozy, expedient consensus based on the Lebenslüge (life-lie) of Austrian victimhood. Both of the main parties had developed a vested interest in repressing the history of anti-Semitism in Austria and the Austrian role in Nazism and the fate of the Jews, whose presence, whether as DPs, survivors, or returning refugees, remained a source of potential embarrassment. Under the mantle of “equal treatment” and opposition to “privilege,” conservative and Socialist ministers, in effect, equated the victims with their persecutors. Thus Interior Minister Oskar Helmer rejected giving even a modest financial advance to the needy Vienna Kultusgemeinde because, in his view, a separate Jewish community would perpetuate “distinctions” that had to be avoided. After disturbances at a concentration camp ceremony, this same Socialist interior minister declared in May 1949 that “a concentration camp survivor should not be treated with kid gloves if he breaks the law. . . .” There were many similar expressions in postwar Austria. It now appeared, for all intents and purposes, that returning Wehrmacht soldiers and “homecomers” (Heimkehrer) from the Soviet Union were genuine martyrs, but Jews who survived the Holocaust had to step to the back of the queue. As Robert Knight has acutely put it, Jews were potentially subversive for the new Austria because they were “rivals” who had “a better claim to victimhood, and [were] furthermore victims of the non-Jewish Austrian population itself.”

The Austrian press often portrayed Jewish claims for compensation and restitution as threatening and fraudulent. The experiences of Holocaust survivors were trivialized, presented as similar to those of non-Jews under the so-called Austro-fascist (1934-38) regime, or even the tribulations of ex-Nazis after the war. The deep-seated, genuine resentment of Socialists at their repression under the authoritarian Ständestaat and the legacy of Catholic anti-Semitism among Austrian conservatives seem to have exhausted the capacity of either political camp to feel any compassion for the Jewish victims of the Nazis.

Another important consequence of Austria’s failure to fight Jew-hatred either politically or educationally was popular hostility to war crimes trials and, consequently, the regular acquittal of the defendants. Unlike the situation in Germany, the prosecution of war criminals was woefully understaffed, the judicial system was unable to cope, and the presence of so many former Nazis on juries hardly ensured justice. Most Austrians did not want these court cases. There was a general desire to play down the magnitude of Nazi crimes, to heal old wounds, and to wipe the slate clean. Hence the single-minded pursuit of Nazi war criminals by Simon Wiesenthal, working in almost complete isolation out of a small office in Vienna, aroused intense antagonism in Austria during the 1960s and 1970s. He reminded Austrians of everything they wanted to forget.

For Jews in Austria, lacking representation in parliament and in state or municipal bodies, let alone in the political parties or government, the struggle for legitimacy and acceptance was inevitably an uphill endeavor. Authorities rebuffed attempts to recover their “Aryanized” apartments, houses, and businesses since it was felt that any concessions might undermine the official claim that Austria was the “first victim” of the Nazis. Nor was the Jewish community aided by the fact that the State of Israel, motivated by its own geopolitical interests, did not pressure Austria for Wiedergutmachung or contest the official Austrian position in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jewish communal leaders in Austria were caught in a bind, since their own positions depended on good connections with the authorities. Yet these authorities showed insensitivity. Successive chancellors like Figl and Julius Raab, and Foreign Minister Karl Gruber (who had all been “politically persecuted” before 1945), invariably trivialized the Holocaust by comparing it to their own relatively benign experiences under detention. In the 1960s, a similar callousness was shown by other leading Austrian politicians such as Alfons Gorbach (who was also federal chancellor) and labor leader Franz Olah (who slid into openly anti-Semitic statements in the 1966 electoral campaign). This would be repeated by Bruno Kreisky in the 1970s and Kurt Waldheim in the 1980s. The members of the Kultusgemeinde were well aware that they were being cold-shouldered and regarded with suspicion, whether they were survivors or returning émigrés. They had long since discovered that in postwar Austria nur rassisch verfolgt (persecuted only for racial reasons) was a category that excluded one from important networks like the KZ Verband (the Concentration Camp Association). There was, for example, no memorial in Mauthausen concentration camp for Jewish victims, though they were the largest single group. Similarly, when Jews returned from Soviet captivity they were either ignored or told they had no right to special treatment, while Austrian soldiers who had served in the Wehrmacht on the Russian front were received back home with music, flowers, and speeches honoring their “sacrifice” in the fight against Bolshevism!

This same pattern of discrimination under the cover of “equal treatment” enabled the Austrian government to permit some “Aryanizers” who had lost their property under de-Nazification to regain it before Austrian Jews were compensated. Similarly, while the government restricted Jewish rights to “heirless property”-which had been overwhelmingly owned by Jews-it used these funds to compensate non-Jewish political victims of National Socialism. This was happening at the same time that the authorities were not properly ensuring that sequestered Jewish wealth was returned to its original owners or that former “Aryanizers” would be obliged to restore buildings, apartments, businesses, and valuables to their lawful owners. Above all, the Austrian government saw no need to express any feelings of guilt or contrition in any of its discussions with Jewish leaders over restitution. True, in the 1960s there were some further modest payments and settlement of claims, mainly over real estate. But, in contrast to Germany, the haggling had been drawn out so long and the final results were so meager that there was little cathartic or educational value to the exercise.

Worse still, repression of the Nazi past made the struggle against anti-Semitism more difficult. Although anti-Semitism was officially taboo after 1945 (as in Germany), it has never disappeared. Though it was no longer a state doctrine, a party political program, or a plausible response to social and economic competition with Jews (in 1945 Viennese Jews were, after all, a mere 0.1 percent of the population), its grip on the popular imagination remained alive. Compared to the interwar period, when Jews represented 10 percent of Vienna’s population, this was almost an “anti-Semitism without Jews.” With the loss of its political function as a demagogic weapon in social struggles (as a result of the Holocaust) it had also become-according to Bernd Marin-an “anti-Semitism without anti-Semites”! This theory has its weaknesses, especially in the light of the Waldheim Affair (which emerged just after it had been formulated), but it does highlight a striking ambiguity in most varieties of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism-namely, the refusal of so many contemporary anti-Semites to acknowledge their secret vice. In the case of Austria, this masquerade is connected with the deeper problem that its new postwar national identity was partially constructed around the denial of any complicity in the Holocaust. This collective amnesia, which had marked the first twenty-five years of the Second Republic, was the Lebenslüge deemed necessary to achieve legitimacy.

The Jews had to be blacked out from the Austrian myth of victimhood, which focused on what “others” (the Germans, the Russians, the Western Allies, world Jewry) had done to “us Austrians” and not on what “we Austrians” did to “others”-particularly, though not exclusively, Jews. The roles of perpetrator and victim were already being equalized. Soon, they would be reversed.

In the 1960s, with the first restitution settlements and the gradual consolidation of an independent and neutral Austrian state, prospects for a better relationship between Austria and the Jewish world seemed more propitious. These were enhanced even more by the actions of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, particularly the new Vatican document on the Jews called Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), which had a long-term positive impact on Catholic-Jewish relations in Austria as elsewhere. In fifteen long Latin sentences, the document denounced anti-Semitism and lifted the historic burden of deicide (the charge of murdering Christ) from the Jewish people. This fundamental change was soon reflected in sermons from the pulpit, religious instruction in the schools, and in Catholic catechisms. A similar evolution occurred among Austria’s Protestants. Admittedly, the new thinking did not yet extend to a better understanding of the State of Israel and the connection of Jews and Judaism to the land of Israel. Nor did it yet address the complex of issues arising out of Austrian and Catholic complicity in Nazism and the Holocaust. Austrian traditions of Nazism and right-wing radicalism remained strong during the 1960s in the provinces, among university students (and some professors), and in the pan-German nationalist camp.

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Date: 1/8/1990
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