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Austria Grapples With Its Very Troubled Past in Conflicted Way

July 19, 2012 By:
Robert E. Bershad
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The recent toppling of 43 gravestones of Jews in Vienna's Central Cemetery suggests that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Austria, but this doesn't tell the whole story.

Austria's relationship with its Jewish present and past is actually complex and filled with nuance. On one hand, as I witnessed on a recent trip there with the American Jewish Committee, its government is dogged in its efforts to express contrition and foster remembrance for the Holocaust. On the other hand, one senses that Austrians want to be done with the past and move on. This internal conflict is difficult for Austrians to bear, but they have to bear it because their parents and grandparents did not.

Austria's role in the Holocaust was not taught to Austrian students until the early 1990s. Such an education would have been inconsistent with Austria's postwar self-understanding as the first victim of Nazi aggression. As the first victim, Austria claimed no responsibility for the atrocities that occurred under Nazi rule. To perpetuate this lie, Austrians conveniently forgot that they broadly welcomed Hitlerite Germany's annexation of their country and that they participated in every aspect of the Nazi war and murder machines.

That all changed in the 1980s with the Kurt Waldheim affair, when the former U.N. secretary-general of the United Nations and president of Austria had his complicity in Nazi-era war crimes exposed late in his career; the rise of the populist anti-Semite Jörg Haider (now deceased); and a new generation of Austrians more willing to examine their country's 20th century history. The lie was exposed for what it was and there was a movement in the country to address the truth about its past. Today's students, for example, are required to take two cycles of Holocaust curricula before graduating high school.

In addition to mandating Holocaust curricula, Austria has devoted substantial funds and support to restitution, memorials and Jewish cultural institutions. At the vanguard of this effort is the Jewish Welcome Service, a Vienna-based publicly funded organization that paves the way for those remaining displaced Jews who want to return, and welcomes to Austria newer generations of Jews.

But alongside these efforts, there is a resistance to looking back. For example, Niki, an Austrian who was born in 1980, told me that he did learn all about Austria and the Holocaust in school. But he felt that the atrocities and the culpability were "shoved down his throat" unfairly

A similar conflict faces owners of homes once occupied by Jews. A nonprofit, called "Stones of Remembrance," wanted to affix plaques on the facades of these homes to memorialize the Jews. Absent these plaques, the only physical evidence of death might be celluloid footage of bulldozed mass graves. These memorials preserve the common memory.

But most of the owners of these homes refused to allow these plaques to be affixed. Their resistance is controversial but understandable inasmuch as they did not participate in the murders. Faced with these competing interests, the government let the plaques be embedded in the sidewalks in front of the homes.

Allowing the plaques to be embedded in the sidewalks seems like a reasonable compromise, but it is nevertheless an awkward arrangement that highlights Austria's ambivalence about its past. The awkwardness is a reminder of the conflicting desires to reconcile with the past but also to be done with it and move forward.

Bearing this internal conflict is difficult for Austrians, as individuals and as a country. They wouldn't have to shoulder this burden had their parents and grandparents done so from the outset. There is an absolute need for accountability and contrition, even now, 70 years later.

Austria's efforts to extinguish its postwar lie are commendable, but, as the recent incident in Vienna's cemetery demonstrates, still have a ways to go in reshaping the country's attitudes.

Robert E. Bershad, a legal communications professional, is on the board of the Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

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