Opinion: Austria and the Holocaust; Touchy and Taboo

After spending a years’ time in Austria, a few drastic misconceptions regarding World War II have become clear. Mainly, that post-World War II sentiment in Austria has taken a disproportionately long time to reach the threshold it has in Germany today. The acknowledgment given to Austrian involvement has been inherently, since the end of the War, placed on a pedestal far below the attention given German participation. In the text on the politics of remembrance, a telling quote is given: “Austria fooled the world and themselves into thinking Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler was a German.”

When comparing Germany, Austria, and their involvement today, you find drastically different scenarios. In Germany, they actively renounce the far-right political parties that exhibit neo-Nazi sympathy, whereas in Austria they play a significant role in politics. The population in Germany has outwardly come to terms with what occurred by building prodigious memorials in most major cities. Germany also implements laws that favor German-Jewish citizenship and laws against the denial of the Holocaust. On the other hand, Austria has openly embraced its Declaration of Independence in 1945 that states its role as a victim of the Nazi regime.

Particular events have shown how recent an advent it is to acknowledge the Holocaust and the Austrian role in it. Only in the year 2000 was the building of the only Jewish remembrance memorial erected. In the first district, in a square surrounded by the seven-story Viennese old-style apartment buildings you find Judenplatz.  In the middle of Judenplatz a small memorial stands to remember the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust. Comparatively, it is quite small and nothing of the spectacle you find in Berlin.

Just this past spring, Vienna city officials decided to rename a busy main street in the center of Vienna which was named after a popular Mayor who was an outspoken anti-Semite. Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, was extremely charismatic and revolutionized Vienna’s infrastructure. On the other hand, he was a well-known anti-Semite who was claimed to have a “major influence” on Adolf Hitler. Though he actively sought out the betterment of the city and is loved and remembered for that today, his legacy is still hampered by his position on Judaism. This name change to Universitaetsring did not go without heavy objection from the far-right parties so prevalent in Austria.

The leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) stated, “The socialists set up a memorial for a foreign mass murderer like Che Guevara, but an excellent Viennese mayor is stripped of a street name.” Much contempt has risen from this decision, but Jewish sympathizers are grateful. The FPÖ, a right wing Austrian political party, enjoys the third-largest voter support in Austrian Parliament. The FPÖ is commonly criticized for party slogans reminiscent of those used by the Nazi party.

Furthermore, Austrians  were  overrepresented in the voluntary Waffen-SS (the Nazi Protective Squadron.) Their claims as a victim of the Holocaust manipulation only go as far as simply not having their country name directly identified with the Nazi Party. They played a major role throughout the Holocaust and no matter how much it wasn’t their “idea,” they actively participated and to this day they have not shown half the guilt Germany actively displays.

On the contrary, there is a population in Austria who does seek out recognition of the Holocaust and how much of a role their ancestors played. Comprised of the younger Austrian population and students, activists criticizing the FPÖ and other neo-Nazi oriented movements have been popping up everywhere. Throughout the streets of Vienna, there are graffiti marks renouncing anti-Semitism and the actions the NSDAP (Nazi party) carried out during the war. Often the tags read, “raus Nazism,” meaning to renounce and relinquish the neo-Nazi name asserted in sects of Austrian society. Protests in the name of remembrance have also taken place at right-wing events such as a Viennese Ball sponsored by the FPÖ.

Austria internationally is seen as an innocent, pleasant place home to long-time traditions and music, and this is not at all wrong. But they have not fully come to recognize what they duly took part in, and if there was ever an opportunity to own up, now is that time.

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