Germany + Nazi Denial = Austria
Europe’s German-speaking countries have everything in common — except honesty about the Third Reich.
As central Europe’s largest German-speaking countries, Germany and Austria could hardly be more alike. One need only consider, side by side, their national cultures — roots in Christianity, musical brilliance, technological creativity, strong work ethics — and their present social and political challenges, which range from integrating immigrants and replacing aging workforces to finding a modus vivendi with a newly aggressive Russia.
And yet, the front-runners in the two countries’ upcoming national elections could hardly be more different. Norbert Hofer, who is expected on Sunday to defeat Alexander Van der Bellen to become Austria’s next president and the European Union’s first far-right head of state, is a member of Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), a far-right outfit founded in the 1950s by neo-Nazis, which opposes immigration by Muslims and continued “rule by liberal elites.” When Germans go to the polls to elect a new parliament in September 2017, by contrast, they will almost certainly declare their preference that Angela Merkel, famous for her advocacy of liberal democracy, pluralism, and openness, remain their chancellor. (Austria’s president doesn’t run the government, as does Germany’s chancellor, but does represent the country internationally and as commander-in-chief.)
The vast differences currently on display between Austrian and German political culture may seem surprising. In truth, they are as predictable as they are lamentable. They spring from the vastly different relationships the countries have always had to one major thing they have in common — their shared responsibility for the cataclysms of the Third Reich.
Austria, with some 8 percent of the population of the Greater German Reich, punched far above its weight in Hitler’s killing machine. Along with the Führer himself, many leading figures in the Final Solution were Austrian. Yet once it was all over Austrians were determined to avoid any responsibility for the horrors they had helped inflict upon the world. The crimes of the Third Reich, they insisted, were exclusively a German matter.
Fortunately for postwar Austria, the Reich’s Allied conquerors abetted this convenient fable. In 1943, anxious to split Austria off from Germany, the Allies issued a declaration calling Austria “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression.” Twelve years later, in the Austrian State Treaty granting its independence, the Allied signatories agreed to remove a paragraph that had posited Austrian complicity in Nazi-era crimes.
Blessed with its Persilscheine (whitewash certificates) from the Allies, Austrian authorities did as little as they could in the realm of de-Nazification. Leaders focused primarily on reintegrating former Nazis into the mainstream body politic. A corollary of this policy was the re-marginalization of Nazism’s primary victims, the Jews. Austria’s first postwar president, Karl Renner of the Socialist Party, refused to compensate surviving Jews or the families of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, choosing instead to aid fellow Socialists and union members. Renner found plenty of support for this policy in the population at large. A national public opinion poll in 1946 revealed that roughly half the population thought it had been necessary in the Third Reich “to place limits on the Jews.” Polls conducted in the late 1940s in once-cosmopolitan (but still deeply anti-Semitic) Vienna showed that more than 40 percent of the townsfolk felt “unfriendly” toward Jews because “Jews only want to cheat Christians.”
Starting in the mid-1950s, freed from foreign occupation and fired by Marshall Plan assistance, the little Alpine republic honed through its mass media a marketable public image combining its cherished victim-of-German-aggression status with Habsburg-era nostalgia (Mozart, Franz Josef, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the Lipizzaner horse breed, and sachertorte mit schlag, a sugary confection). In the mid-1960s the outside world again reinforced this wishful self-image via that apogee of cinematic schmaltz, The Sound of Music, featuring those aristocratic von Trapps stoutly resisting German barbarism while filling the hills with the sound of their song. The movie played to packed houses across Austria for almost a year.
Tellingly, Austria’s romance with its whitewashed past continued during the 1970s under Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who happened to be Jewish. Kreisky garnished his first cabinet with four former Nazis, a move that earned him condemnation from the Viennese-born Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who in frustration moved his documentation center to Los Angeles in 1977. Kreisky responded to the criticism by calling Wiesenthal a “Jewish fascist” and likening his organization to the mafia.
Austria’s success in repressing and obscuring its Nazi heritage — in making most of the world think that Hitler was a German and Beethoven an Austrian — understandably irritated the Germans. Germany was thus filled with schadenfreude when what Der Spiegel magazine labeled Austria’s “life-lie” came under sudden scrutiny in the Waldheim affair. Kurt Waldheim, former U.N. General Secretary and candidate for the Austrian presidency in 1986, had airbrushed from his autobiography wartime services with a Wehrmacht unit involved in atrocities against Bosnian and Greek civilians. Waldheim’s exposure came courtesy of the Jewish World Congress based in New York. While Waldheim suffered opprobrium abroad due to his dubious past and strategic amnesia (“Waldheimer’s Disease,” mocked the Economist and other Western media), at home he profited from the foreign criticism, which he characterized as an attack on all of Austria. “Now more than ever!” shouted his campaign posters. He won handily.
Waldheim’s success notwithstanding, many Austrians, especially younger ones, were embarrassed by the xenophobic, anti-Semitic tenor of his campaign. A new generation of Austrian historians began investigating the role their country had played in the Third Reich. The result was a more accurate picture of Austria’s Nazi past but also a nativist backlash against this scholarly Nestbeschmutzung, or soiling of one’s own nest.
The chief profiteer of this backlash was the Austrian Freedom Party, which gained huge support in the 1980s under its new leader, Jörg Haider. Herr Haider, a media-savvy rabble-rouser from Carinthia who looked good in lederhosen, proved very adept at tapping into the darkest recesses of the Austrian psyche. Far from expressing remorse over Nazi crimes, Haider praised various Nazi policies, most notably Hitler’s full-employment program. He also exploited a growing nativist sentiment against migrants, especially those from the Middle East. Muslim Turks had stood at the gates of Vienna in 1683; now militant Islam was assaulting Christian Europe once again! In 2000 Haider’s party, though not Haider himself, joined a coalition with the mainstream center-right party under Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. The EU responded by imposing mild sanctions against Austria. (Haider died in a car accident in 2008, but he continues to haunt the Austrian political landscape like a brown-sheeted ghost.)
Jörg Haider could not have achieved the political success in Germany that he managed in Austria. In fact, no far-right party has ever been part of a ruling coalition at the federal level in Germany. This has roots in the history of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (reckoning with the past). True, there are many similarities between Germany’s and Austria’s confrontation with their common past — a widespread refusal early on to confront it; lingering resentment of Jews; laxity in de-Nazification procedures; reemployment of former Nazi functionaries in civil service and governmental posts — but in the end, it is the differences which are more striking.
Unlike Austria, West Germany made financial restitution to direct survivors of the Holocaust beginning in 1953; the sum eventually amounted over 100 billion marks. (East Germany was a different story: It denied any responsibility for Nazi criminality, claiming that as a socialist state it had nothing in common with the “fascist capitalism” that animated Hitler’s Reich.) Starting in the late 1940s, West Germany established institutions to record and investigate the Nazi past: the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich (1949); the Central Investigation Office for National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg (1958); the Military History Research Office in Freiburg (1957), which among many other contributions undercut a prevailing myth of Wehrmacht innocence in Nazi criminality.
West Germany’s attempt to “remember” the Nazi past via “memory sites” (something the Austrians did little of until recently) went from focusing on resistance to Nazism (sites at Plötzensee Prison and the Bendlerblock in Berlin memorialized the July 20, 1944 resisters) to encompassing a wide range of Nazi criminality (Berlin’s Topography of Terror museum (which examines the crimes of the Gestapo), Haus am Wannsee (a memorial to the site where the Final Solution was formalized), and the National Holocaust Memorial near Brandenburg Gate are just a few examples).
West Germany’s student rebellion of the 1960s (again something Austria lacked) sparked a vigorous, albeit belated, effort in the schools and mainstream media to confront Germany’s Nazi past. By the 1980s one could hardly turn the TV dial without encountering some documentary on Nazism or World War II.
It was however an American TV miniseries, simply titled Holocaust, which truly brought this horrific chapter in German history home to the masses. One might say that Holocaust did for the Germans what The Sound of Music did for the Austrians, but in an opposite ideological direction.
We don’t yet know the electoral fate of either Norbert Hofer or Angela Merkel. But we can be sure that in these heated contests of the present and near-future, sharply varying views of the past are very much at work.
Photo credit: HELMUT FOHRINGER/AFP/Getty Images