Austria Must Grapple With Its Past

Holocaust education for young Austrians is essential.

Austria today is one of the friendlier members of the European Union (EU) towards the Jewish state. In fact, the current Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz has been particularly friendly toward Israel, and he regularly speaks out against antisemitism. He has also been the one EU leader to convey Benjamin Netanyahu’s fair charges regarding EU policies toward Israel. Kurz’s Austria is the only West European nation whose government is actively shielding the Jewish state from EU sanctions. This year Austria’s parliament passed a resolution calling the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel a form of antisemitism. It also labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Now, Chancellor Kurz has eased conditions for Israeli citizens to receive Austrian citizenship. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, he has thus far failed to confront Austria’s dark past, specifically Austrians behavior during the Holocaust.  Austria has done very little about educating its young people on the Holocaust or prosecuting its many living Nazi criminals.

Austria conducted two trials of Nazi criminals, both in the 1960’s. The first was the trial of Franz Murer, the SS-Oberscharfuhrer, also known as the “butcher of Vilnius.” Simon Wiesenthal, the Holocaust survivor Nazi hunter, managed to get him prosecuted in 1963. The trial took place in Graz, Austria, lasting a week, and ended with the Austrians acquitting Murer. The second trial was that of Franz Novak, a senior aide to Adolf Eichmann. He stood trial on October 12, 1964, in Vienna, charged with participating in the deportation of 400,000 Hungarian Jews to the death camps in Poland. Convicted and imprisoned, he was pardoned by Austria’s President Rudolf Kirchschlager. Austrians have not bothered to grapple with their role in the Holocaust crimes. The one-time Austria was forced to face reality was in 1986, when Austrian Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary-General, was running for the Austrian presidency. Press inquiries into his past revealed his role in the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Austrians elected him as their president. Embarrassed by these revelations concerning Waldheim’s past, in 1991, Austria’s Chancellor Franz Vranitzky declared his nation’s responsibility for Nazi crimes. Austrians, however, were still unable to face up to their sordid history. They went from denial of their role in the Holocaust to historical revisionism.

When we think of the Holocaust and its chief perpetrator, we have Germany in mind. While it is true that Berlin and not Vienna was Hitler’s and the Nazis capital, some of the most notorious Nazis, including Hitler himself were Austrians. Unlike the German government that accepted responsibility for Nazi crimes against Europe’s Jews early on, Austria tried to shield itself by claiming to have been the “Nazi’s first victims” under the “Anschluss” or the union with Germany, except that most Austrians welcomed Hitler and the Nazis. According to official records, 99.73% voted Yes in Austria and in Germany 99.08% voted for the annexation or the Anschluss. The United Kingdom’s Independent (March 13, 2008) described the scene that occurred 70-years earlier. “In March, 1938, tens of thousands of Austrians gathered in the square to welcome home Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria, like a prodigal son. In deliberate contrast to that loud enthusiasm, yesterday's somber ceremony was called ‘The Night of Silence’.” An opinion poll at the same time, showed that almost two thirds of Austrians wanted an end to what was described as the ‘endless discussion’ about the country's role during the Second World War. However, new evidence and a growing mass of research about Austria's role during the Third Reich suggests that the argument that the vast majority of its citizens were willing accomplices to Nazi rule has become incontrovertible.

In 1938, Austria had a Jewish population numbering about 192,000, or about 4% of the total population. About 65,000 Austrian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Austrians played a major role in planning and the administration of the deportation and extermination of European Jews. Not only were Eichmann, Globocnik, Kaltenbrunner, and Hitler Austrian, but Austrians accounted for 40% of the staff in the death camps and 14% of the Nazi SS. The Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen (near Linz) was one of the largest and most notorious camps within the Third Reich, where inmates were worked to death in quarries within a few months. On a visit to Linz, Austria, back in the 1970’s, this reporter remembered an Austrian middle-aged woman who gave him a ride, pointing with pride to a house where Hitler lived before he became Germany’s Chancellor.

A survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or in short, the Claims Conference, released in May, 2019, found that the majority of Austrian adults do not know that Six Million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Among Millennials and Generation Z, the rate was 58%. Julius Berman, President of the Claims Conference noted that, “This is the third survey the Claims Conference has conducted globally in the past year to measure Holocaust knowledge and awareness. And here again, we are seeing disturbing trends pointing to the lack of Holocaust knowledge. Without education, we risk history of the Holocaust being distorted and otherwise denied, and those who were murdered being forgotten. Effective education is paramount toward ensuring that what happened in the past does not repeat itself.”

One quarter of Austrian respondents believe that one million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Among Millennials and Generation Z, who believe that only one million or fewer Jews were murdered, the number was even higher, at 30%. While 98% of respondents were familiar with Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Nazi Germany, only 51% knew Adolf Eichmann, an Austrian who was one of the main organizers of the Holocaust. 21% did not know Hitler originally came from Austria; only 14% knew Eichmann was Austrian. When asked to name a death camp, concentration camp or ghetto they had heard of, 42 percent of Austrians could not name Austria’s Mauthausen, a death camp which imposed some of the harshest conditions of imprisonment and is located approximately 100 miles from Vienna, Austria’s capital. 28 percent of those surveyed believe a “great deal” or “many” Austrians acted to rescue Jewish people, while 11 percent were unsure how many, if any at all Austrians acted to rescue Jewish people. For historical context, 109 Austrians are recognized as having acted to help Jews during the Holocaust – according to Yad Vashem’s database of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Reflecting on the Claims Conference Survey, Michelle Budd Caplan, director of the European Department of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, called the numbers “mixed results.” She pointed out that, “This is an indicator that progress in the positive sense has been made, and Austrians aren’t looking at themselves as the ‘first victims’ alone, whereas, 25 years ago that would have been a much more of a prevalent public opinion. She told Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) “On one hand, there is still much to address Austrians, shall we say, welcoming Germany in 1938 as a historical fact. Getting students to understand these more complex relations, as well as increasing their familiarity with key figures of the Holocaust, like Eichmann, was a key challenge for educators today.”

So, while we commend Chancellor Kurz for his efforts on behalf of Israel, and for his combatting antisemitism, it is imperative that young Austrians receive Holocaust education. The sins of the fathers (Austrians) do not pass to their sons, but the past must be learned as to not to repeat it.

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Photo credit: pikist

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