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Austria: Past Imperfect -- Land Of 'Guilty Victims' Belatedly Looks Back (Part 6)

Austrians were witness to and sometimes participated in the worst atrocities of World War II. Yet more than 50 years later, the country has never undergone a thorough, public reconciliation with its past. This failure has served the Austrians poorly, as they have had to grapple first with a former Nazi seeking and winning the presidency in the 1980s and later the rise of the far-right Freedom Party. But there are signs that a belated discourse is taking place as a new generation looks back.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 12 March 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler made good on a long-time threat to invade and annex neighboring Austria, his birthplace.

German soldiers anxiously crossed the frontier, expecting to face strong resistance. Rather than being shot at, however, the soldiers were greeted with cheers and flowers by the Austrians.

Evan Bukey, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas in the U.S. and the author of "Hitler's Austria," describes the "Anschluss" -- or annexation -- by saying: "When German troops crossed the [Austrian] frontier, they carried live ammunition. They expected some resistance. Instead, they were met by cheering throngs. One German commander [ironically] said it was a tough campaign: 'Our boys had to put goggles on in order to avoid the flowers being thrown at them.' Everywhere the Germans troops went, they encountered rapturous receptions, particularly in Vienna."

Bukey says Austrians supported the Anschluss mainly for economic reasons. In 1938, Austria was one of the poorest countries in Europe, with staggering unemployment and an unstable government. For many, union with Germany held out the hope of prosperity.

Some Austrians also were attracted to the Nazis' anti-Semitic propaganda, seeing in the Jews a source of their economic woes.

It's historic fact that many, even most, Austrians welcomed the Anschluss. But because the annexation involved German troops, it was possible, even technically correct, to see Austria as a victim of Nazi aggression.

Indeed, historians -- more than 50 years later -- still wrangle with the question of whether Austria was an enthusiastic aggressor in the war or an unwilling first casualty. The issue lies at the heart of the country's problems with coming to terms with its past. The consensus view includes arguments from both sides.

Bukey calls Austria -- using a phrase coined by British journalist Hella Pick -- a "guilty victim." He explains: "Austria was -- technically speaking -- Hitler's first victim. After all, the Germans did invade Austria on 12-13 March 1938, took over the country and made it an integral part of Hitler's Greater German Reich. But at the same time, [the Germans] managed to garner the support of a substantial majority of the population."

Austria's status as a victim of Nazi aggression was given official backing by the Allies in a 1943 Moscow declaration. The U.S., Britain, and Russia, hoping to foment revolt in Austria against the Germans, jointly declared Austria to be "the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression."

That revolt never came, but the victim designation stuck. Through endless repetition in schools, official histories, and family accounts, it became institutionalized as part of Austrian history. It was not seriously challenged for 40 years.

Melanie Sully, a professor of politics at Vienna's Diplomatic Academy, says Austrians had little appetite in the immediate postwar decades for examining their role during the war. She says the priorities instead were strengthening a still-fragile democracy and getting people back to work. "It was the first time a democracy really had worked in Austria, so people were a little nervous about the whole thing. The last thing [the Austrians] really wanted was a big debate about who did what during the war that could have ruined it. There was nervousness about how a young democracy can flourish."

But Austrians had much to atone for. Austrian commanders carried out some of the worst atrocities of the war. Nazi participation rates among the general population were higher in Austria than in Germany.

Vienna's once-vibrant Jewish community was obliterated. Around 65,000 of the city's Jews were transported to concentration camps. Only 800 were left at war's end. The deportations were cheered by the Viennese in a way they seldom were in German cities.

The Austrian government made some effort after the war to capture and convict some of its worst war criminals. Austrian courts eventually sentenced 43 people to death for war crimes. But the effort was relatively short-lived.

It was only in the mid-1980s, when Austrian diplomat and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim decided to run for president, that the issue of the country's role in the war entered into mainstream debate.

Waldheim's official UN biography had not mentioned the war years, but during his run for the Austrian presidency it emerged that as a young man he had joined the Nazi Party and had served as a soldier in the German Wehrmacht. Waldheim had earlier claimed to have sat out the war years as a law student in Vienna.

The Waldheim affair was a watershed in Austrian postwar history. It exposed an entire generation of Austrians who, like Waldheim, had lived a lie, hiding their past behind a veil of victimization. It marked the first time that Austria's victim status was openly debated and doubted. Sully says Waldheim "became a symbol for a generation who were, on the one hand, victims of Nazism -- his family was Catholic and many of those suffered during the Nazi regime -- and [on the other hand] a perpetrator. Both. And that really symbolized a generation of Austrians. It was so typical. I think that was that whole debate, really."

Waldheim won the presidency in 1986 by a comfortable margin, benefiting from a groundswell of support in reaction to massive foreign criticism. He declined, however, to seek a second term and retired from politics in 1992.

The Waldheim affair catalyzed a positive debate on Austria's role in the war that continues to this day, but it also unleashed a backlash against perceived outside interference in Austrian affairs.

A young governor from the southern border province of Carinthia was able to successfully capitalize on this backlash. Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party steadily gained support in the 1980s and '90s on a largely anti-immigrant, isolationist platform.

Haider was not and is not a Nazi. He nevertheless exploited Austrians' sense of historical injustice. Analysts say his praise for certain aspects of Nazi Germany were calculated precisely to attract criticism and cement his image as a persecuted Austrian patriot.

In 1999, the Freedom Party placed second in national elections. This was enough to secure a place in the governing coalition beside the conservative Austrian People's Party. Historians caution, however, against making too much of Haider's success. Bukey says: "I think it's quite unfair for the press to continually harp on the fact that Austria has not come to grips with its Nazi past. I think ever since the Waldheim affair, certainly for the past 14 years, that Austrian society has really come to grips with this."

Bukey says that schools in Austria are now presenting a more balanced view of the past. This is particularly evident at the university level. "This is now taught in the schools. I have a friend who teaches at the University of Vienna. As recently as four or five years ago, he had a seminar on Nazi Germany; he had about 30 students. I think he said last year he had about 300 students. There's tremendous interest in it."

He also points to the establishment of a national historical commission to oversee a debate on Austria's role in the war and a package of measures passed recently by the coalition government to compensate slave laborers forced to work in Austria during the war. Those measures were backed by the Freedom Party.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.