WORLD/COVER

AUSTRIA FACES ITS NAZI PAST

PETER LEWIS March 14 1988
WORLD/COVER

AUSTRIA FACES ITS NAZI PAST

PETER LEWIS March 14 1988

AUSTRIA FACES ITS NAZI PAST

WORLD/COVER

Two months ago teachers gave students at 400 high schools throughout Austria an unusual class assignment. They told them to go through the attics of their grandparents’ homes to see what memorabilia they could find from the 1930s—photographs, documents, newspapers, letters or pamphlets. Their objective was to organize classroom exhibitions recalling a dark era in the nation’s history—the years leading up to and following the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany 50 years ago this week. The sheer volume of documents and artifacts that the students turned up appears to have surprised their teachers. There were political pamphlets urging Austrians to oppose a takeover by Nazi Germany, but in far greater number were items reflecting how strongly the nation had favored the Anschluss—swastikas, antiSemitic literature, so-called Nazi loyalty badges and copies of the anti-Jewish edicts issued after the takeover.

Painful: For the staff and students of Vienna’s Kundmann Lane high school, there was special—and poignant—interest in the discovery in one attic of an expulsion order against three teachers and 22 students from the school itself, merely because they were Jews. Said Kundmann Lane’s principal, Wolf Peschel, who is also a Second World War historian: “Previously, Anschluss was just a word in the history book to my students. This has made it come alive before their eyes.” The Anschluss has also become painfully alive to millions of older Austrians—and not just because of this week’s anniversary. In schools, churches and in the Austrian parliament, low-key ceremonies will mark the event, while television will replay the familiar newsreel pictures of Adolf Hitler’s joyous entry

into Vienna. But the focus, for the most part, will be on a man who will not even be speaking at any of the ceremonies— Kurt Waldheim. As president of Austria, a nation of picturesque towns and resort-filled mountains, Waldheim was to have made a speech at a gathering of parliamentarians to mark the anniversary on Tuesday. But after two years of countering charges about his own wartime role as a Nazi intelligence officer in the occupied Balkans, Waldheim yielded to threats by some members of parliament to boycott the ceremony if he spoke, and agreed to remain silent. Instead, he is scheduled to speak on staterun television. And as one civil servant put it, “People will be free to switch him off if they like.”

Murder: The Waldheim affair has clearly split the nation of 7.5 million people. On one side are those—of all ages, and mainly on the political right— who say that Waldheim merely did his duty as a German soldier, like more than one million other Austrians of his generation who were drafted. On the other are those—mainly younger people, of the centre and left—who see him as a willing cog in the Nazi murder machine. Waldheim’s critics also claim that, in lying over the years about his wartime record, he has brought disgrace on the presidency and embarrassment on the country. Said Freda Meissner-Blau, leader of Austria’s conservationist Green Party, last week: “He has turned everybody into the Ugly Austrian in the

world’s eye, split the country into ideological camps and set the young generation against its elders.”

It was the left-wing Viennese weekly Profil that, in March, 1986— when Waldheim was campaigning for the presidency— first revealed his service in the Balkans. He went on to win the largely ceremonial post with 53.9 per cent of the vote. But as a result of the subsequent growing diplomatic isolation of Austria, Waldheim requested a sixmember panel of historians to study the charges. Their report last month said that, while there was no evidence that he had committed war crimes, he had been aware of them and had facilitated them as a lieutenant in the intelligence branch of Germany’s notorious Army Group E. Almost overnight, Austrian public opinion turned against him—the percentage of those saying he should stay in office dropping to 46 per cent from 72 per cent.

In Vienna and Innsbruck, students

ripped the president’s official portrait down from the walls of high schools and universities. And in the capital, thousands of Viennese demonstrated in the streets, demanding Waldheim’s resignation. As one demonstrator, 32-year-old

Green Party member Peter Homeyer,

put it, “As an Austrian, I do not want such a man at the head of my nation.” The charges against Waldheim have also brought to the surface an old strain of anti-Semitism that many Austrians concede has never really been eradicated. Before the Anschluss 187,000 Jews lived in Austria, nearly all of them in Vienna. Between the Anschluss and the outbreak of war more than 100,000 of them were able to leave the country, but with little more than the clothes they

were wearing. Of those who stayed behind, 67,000 perished in the Holocaust. Despite that, some Austrian academics estimate that as many as one-third of the Austrian people still hold anti-Semitic views. And many among the country’s present Jewish population of about 7,000 claim that the Waldheim affair has focused renewed hostility toward them. Said retired Viennese furrier Max Uri: “Whatever happens now with

Waldheim, we Jews will get the blame.” Still, although national polls last week showed that the Waldheim affair was the topic Austrians were talking about most, those same polls showed that few Austrians were discussing the Anschluss itself. Indeed, until the Waldheim affair erupted, Austria appeared to have largely forgotten that period of its history while it kept a comfortably— and respectably—low profile on the world stage. A Gallup poll taken six months ago disclosed that few young

people had any knowledge of the Anschluss period. For 42 per cent of respondents under 30, the anniversary date had no special significance. And 62 per cent said that if they had been alive at the time, they would have approved the annexation or adapted to it. In fact, 41 per cent said that they did not know if their families had been pro-Nazi. Among respondents over 65, 31 per cent admitted they were pro-Nazi at the time, while 54 per cent claimed to have been against the regime.

Prosperous: Modern Austria is far different from the country Hitler annexed in 1938—torn as it was by unemployment, poverty and murderous quarrels between left-wing and rightwing political movements. The Austria of the 1980s clearly takes pride in appearing tidy, prosperous, hardworking, clean and placid, almost a carbon copy of neighboring Switzerland, but with a richer cultural heritage.

In fact, Austria is poorer than some of its neighbors to the west. Its GNP per capita in 1986 was $17,000, compared with $20,000 for West Germany and $18,000 for France. And the Roman Catholic Church—to which 85 per cent of Austrians belong—is perhaps more influential in Austria than in any other Western European country except Ireland.

The new Austria—known as the

Second Republic—grew out of the 1955 State Treaty that ended the postwar joint occupation by Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union. Historians still debate the reasons that the Soviets pulled out. Many now say that then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in the midst of his celebrated diplomatic thaw in 1955, wanted to make a goodwill gesture toward the West, and that Moscow did not need Austria as a buffer between the Soviet Union and the West because Hungary and Czechoslovakia already stood in the way.

Affair: The State Treaty imposed neutrality upon Austria.

As a result, although in theory the Austrians enjoy full independence, their sovereignty is limited. The type and range of their armaments are strictly limited and, in practice, the Soviet Union also holds a veto over Austrian foreign policy.

When, in 1964, Austria tried to join the European Common Market, the Kremlin blocked it.

Earlier this year, as Austria again looked toward the EEC, the Soviet ambassador in Vienna warned that full membership would not be “compatible” J with Austria’s neutrality. 5

But Austria’s politics are o now dominated by the Wald2 heim affair. In the past two years most Western leaders, including Canada’s Brian Mulroney, have indicated that they would not receive the Austrian head of state should he wish to visit. Last year the U.S. justice department put Waldheim’s name on its so-called watch list of undesirable foreigners, in effect banning him from entering the United States.

As Austria prepared its commemoration of the Anschluss last week, many ordinary Austrians seemed unwilling to talk about the Waldheim affair. But Gerd Schleier, a 45-yearold brewer, clearly reflected widespread emotions when he said: “There are thousands of people walking the streets with worse on their conscience. Why hound a man for something he may have done 45 years ago? We must drop the curtain on the past somewhere.” Others saw no reason for Waldheim to resign the presidency. “If he had personally killed civilians or Jews, I’d be the first to want him to go,” declared Maria Diglas, a 17-year-old at the Kundmann Lane high school. “But concealing his past doesn’t seem all that awful a sin.” However, another girl at the school, who would not give her name, coun-

tered, “He had no business standing for election if he wasn’t 100-per-cent clean.” And Homeyer, of the leftist Green Party, said, “They’ve caught him lying, and how many other lies has he invented over the years?”

Underlying the gravity of the current controversy is evidence that the Waldheim controversy has awoken Austria’s old demon of anti-Semi-

tism. Some outbursts have been direct and ugly: last month a provincial governor, Martin Purtscher, asked of Edgar Bronfman, Canadian president of the World Jewish Congress, “Has he not learned the lessons about what happened to his people?” And former foreign minister Karl Gruber last month rejected the findings of the historians’ commission, claiming—incorrectly—that all six members were “socialists” or “Jews.” But most attacks are more subtle. Waldheim himself has blamed a “foreign conspiracy” for the campaign against him.

Tabloid: When Bruno Kreisky, a nonreligious Jew who was Austrian chancellor from 1970 to 1983, demanded Waldheim’s resignation, one of the president’s supporters responded that Kreisky was “not a real Austrian.” And the pro-Waldheim Viennese tabloid daily Die Kronen referred to members of the New York-based World Jewish Congress as “certain gentlemen on the East Coast.”

Holocaust: But most observers say that anti-Semitism in modern Austria is restricted to a small number of peo-

ple who are over 60, on the extreme fringes of the Catholic church or on the far right politically. Said Anton Pelinka, an Innsbruck University historian: “We estimate that, when all the masks fall, a third of Austria could be seen as carrying the [anti-Semitic] bug. That may seem a lot. But in view of Austria’s complex relationship with the Jews, and the fact that anti-Semi-

tism is mainly handed down from father to son, the thought that twothirds of Austrians remain unaffected is encouraging.”

Austria’s postwar policy toward the survivors of the Holocaust has been frequently criticized. Vienna’s famed Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, claims that Austria made it hard for surviving Jews to recover confiscated apartments and businesses —and even forced some of them to pay for the return of their nationality and passports. In compensation for an estimated $1.5 billion worth of Jewish property seized after 1938, Austria reportedly paid only $381 million. And arguing that Austria did not exist as a state during the war, the government has refused compensation for personal suffering. In contrast, West Germany paid reparations amounting to $14 billion. And Austrian officials did not object to SS veterans applying for disability pensions.

Still, while the Waldheim affair has propelled Austria into its worst political storm since the Anschluss itself, some people seem to draw comfort from the fact that tempers have

remained relatively under control up to now. Said Andreas Kohl, a prominent member of the Peoples’ Party: “In the days of Austria’s First Republic a crisis of this dimension would have led to civil war. Our political system is showing that it is mature enough to dominate animal passion.”

Showdown: But Austria’s uneasy

governing coalition of Socialists and conservatives has approached a collapse. The Socialists, under personable, 50-year-old Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, have been pressing privately for Waldheim’s departure, while the conservatives of Foreign Minister Alois Mock have been defending—although with some wavering—the president’s right to stay in office until his term ends in 1992. For now, however, neither side has an interest in forcing a showdown for the simple reason that nobody can predict how a new election would turn out. The conservatives, who won a place in government in November, 1986, after 20 years in opposition, clearly wish to avoid a return to the political wilderness. And Vranitzky’s Socialists cannot be certain of returning to power if they call an election.

Uncertainty over the outcome of a snap election has prevented Vranitzky from openly calling on Waldheim to stand down. And the chancellor does not have the power to force Waldheim’s resignation. The constitution provides that a presi-

dent can only be dismissed with the approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament and endorsement in a national referendum. If the government lost a referendum, it would automatically fall —and the president would begin a new, six-year term of office.

As for Waldheim himself, he insists that he will remain in office.

He told a national audience in a television address on Feb. 15 that he would “not retreat in the face of slanders, hateful demonstrations and wholesale condemnations.” Still,

his critics say that they expect him to step down before the year is out. “His public and political support will drop so dramatically that even thick-skinned Kurt Waldheim will realize it is time to leave,” said Kreisky. Green Party Leader Meissner-Blau, who ran against Waldheim in 1986, winning six per cent of the vote, predicted that

Waldheim would step down as soon as he grasped the full extent of the damage he has done to Austria. Said Meissner-Blau: “He can’t remain

blind to that much longer.”

But Waldheim’s supporters say that he will hang on in the Hofburg Palace, where the Hapsburgs ruled for 700 years, in the stubborn conviction that the furore will eventually subside. Said conservative politician Andreas Kohl: “Waldheim cannot

quit, if only because it would be tantamount to admitting to the world he is a scoundrel and liar.”

Sins: Some of Waldheim’s critics even express sympathy for a man who must now be puzzling over how, after 40-odd years of public service, his career is being destroyed because he tried to hide what he did—or failed to do—while fighting on the wrong side in a bad war. As Austrians search through their attics for a glimpse of their long-ignored history, Kurt Waldheim is paying the penalty for the sins of the nation’s past.

-PETER LEWIS

SUE MASTERMAN