Austrian Amnesia

A Nazi sympathizer ascends, and Austria's past comes back to haunt it.

George Santayana's famous statement that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" has become a cliche. Do we say the words without asking what they really mean?

What they really mean is evident today in Austria, where a failure to remember the country's Nazi past has facilitated the political success of Jorg Haider, an extremist (or, at best, an amoral opportunist) with an obvious weakness for Nazis and Nazism. In fact, some of Haider's recent rhetoric about foreigners is redolent of Austrian attitudes toward Jews not only during the Nazi period but afterward as well. If today's Austrians really remembered their country's past, it's hard to believe that Haider would be recording his electoral triumphs of recent months and years, and that his Freedom Party would have captured 27 percent of the vote and a place in the new coalition government.

Austria's own myth is that it was "Hitler's first victim." Austrians began to believe, or at least to espouse, that legend even during the war, and they had Soviet and American support in doing so. After the war, this myth became the official story, and it was accepted all the more readily in the West as Cold War divisions hardened.

Germany was "denazified," and the Allies insisted on changed attitudes toward Jews and toward Israel as a measure of progress. Nothing like that happened in Austria. Anti-Semitism couldn't be too openly expressed, but there was no pressure for fundamental change. The historian Robert Wistrich has noted that, while Konrad Adenauer and others in West Germany confronted the past,

no Austrian politician, whether of the right or the left, saw it as his task to try to counteract the anti-Semitic opinions of the population. Nor did any see fit to express any remorse about the fate of the Jews, or to confront unpalatable facts about the Austrian role in the Holocaust.... In the 1945-50 period, it was becoming evident that, despite official lip-service to democratic ideals, there was no real Austrian willingness to confront the anti-Semitism of the man in the street, to acknowledge Austria's own share in Nazi guilt, or to encourage the Jews to return, let alone to pay them restitution.


What was Austria's real record? It begins with the fact that Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann were both Austrians, but there's far more: "Austrians were disproportionately involved in planning and implementing the 'Final Solution,'" Wistrich adds; 80 percent of Eichmann's staff were Austrians.

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