Beliefnet
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.

Anti-Semitism was rife, and not just before and during the war but even after the mass murder of the Jews had emptied Austria of them. Americans took opinion polls in 1947 and 1948 and found that about a quarter of Viennese thought Jews had got what they deserved under the Nazis, and about 40 percent of Austrians thought the Jews were responsible for anti-Semitism.

One factor in this continuing anti-Semitism was the existence on Austrian soil of displaced persons camps holding thousands of Jews. Far from arousing sympathy, their presence incited further Austrian anti-Semitism. Newspapers attacked Jews for black-marketeering and criminal behavior and spoke of "hordes of illicit foreign traders and desperadoes" and "unwelcome guests." There were increasing calls to expel the foreigners, whom some newspapers called "parasites"--a term the Nazis has applied to Jews.

And here we return to the present. Jorg Haider and his Freedom Party have a long history of xenophobia, and have probably won far more votes by being anti-foreigner than by being anti-Semitic. His 1999 campaign posters had slogans like "Stop the Foreign Infiltration." Haider himself has attacked immigrant groups in Austria: "The Africans who come here are drug dealers"; "We've got the Poles who concentrate on car theft"; and so on.

This spirit of hatred ties the murderous anti-Semitism of the Nazi period, and the resentment of the displaced persons in the postwar years, to today's racist attacks on foreigners. The links to Austria's Nazi past are there, and very clear, too: Haider has opposed efforts to compensate victims of the Nazis, including Jews, and said in 1995, "It is not fair if all the money from the tax coffers goes to Israel." He has called veterans of the Waffen-SS "decent people who have character and stuck to their beliefs."

All these links, obvious to people throughout Western Europe and the United States, explain the Western reaction--isolating Austria, withdrawing ambassadors, issuing condemnations. But Austrians seem to have trouble grasping what's at stake here (just as many Swiss seemed to have trouble in the past few years in grasping what the Swiss banks had done wrong). Why? Because they have never faced their own history.

They adopted instead a collective amnesia about Austria's past, for it was a far easier path morally and psychologically than the alternative of collective responsibility. When that past was debated abroad--especially when Prime Minister Kurt Waldheim's war record made his government a pariah--Austrians became resentful, not contrite.

So it is again now, according to most news reports: while a minority of Austrians are demonstrating against Haider, most are lapsing into that comfortable amnesia. Just as Santayana predicted, the failure of memory--the stark refusal to remember--is leading them to repeat an ugly part of their past by embracing xenophobia and bigotry.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus