European Affairs

Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider     Print Email
Michael D. Mosettig

By Hella Pick
Reviewed by Michael D. Mosettig

If big countries want reminding that smaller ones can still cause no end of headaches, they need only look to Austria. Twice in the last two decades, the voters in this landlocked nation with a population barely the size of New York City have created political crises that reverberated through Europe and caused anxiety in the United States.

In 1986, Kurt Waldheim's election as Austria's president, after revelations that he lied about his World War II service, led to a pariah presidency welcome only in Jordan, Libya, and the Vatican. Last year, the strong election showing of Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party provoked international condemnation and EU diplomatic sanctions, which were later removed.


Hella Pick, a veteran diplomatic correspondent for the British daily newspaper, The Guardian, makes a determined effort to get to the roots of Austria's peculiar standing in the world that §ows, in part, from its long-delayed efforts to come to grips with its past. Ms. Pick is herself a refugee from the Anschluss, the absorption of Austria into Hitler's Germany.

In the minds of many foreigners, Austria is either identified with "The Sound of Music" or "The Third Man" or is a country sometimes confused with Australia. As this book reminds us, it is a nation burdened with a deep history of anti-Semitism, where hundreds of thousands enthusiastically greeted the return of Austrian-born Adolf Hitler in 1938.

By the reckoning of Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal, the subject of an earlier biography by Ms. Pick, Austrians comprised 10 percent of the population of the Third Reich, but may have been involved in as many as half of the six million Jewish deaths during the Holocaust.

Unlike Germany, however, Austria only recently began confronting its past, either in its schools or in reparations to Jewish victims or their families. Instead, it more often responded to foreign criticism with defensive self-pity, asserting it was the first of Hitler's victims.

As tough and realistic as Ms. Pick is about the Austrians, she places part of the blame for their amnesia on the World War II allies. A conference of allied foreign ministers in Moscow in 1943 first conferred victim status on Austria, declared the Anschluss null and void, and vowed to restore Austria as an independent, democratic nation. The declaration did, however, remind Austria that it carried responsibility for its role in the war on Hitler's side.

The 1955 State Treaty that ended the postwar allied occupation of Austria was amended at the last minute, at Austria's urging, to drop even the one-sentence reference to responsibility contained in the Moscow declaration. Austrian leaders said it would impose an unfair burden on a struggling democracy.

Ms. Pick asserts that by this action the four wartime allies "bore a large share of responsibility for creating and sustaining a misleading image of Austria. But they preferred to remain silent, and let Austria take all the blame for the long-lasting cover-up of the country's moral failures."

Ms. Pick's history of modern Austria is as complete a study as English-language readers are likely to see. With considerable precision and skill, she covers the era of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970-83), an era which combined remarkable economic growth with controversial diplomacy. A Jewish Socialist who survived the war in exile, Mr. Kreisky returned to become a political leader ready to make deals at home with the neo-Nazi Freedom Party, and abroad with Arab dictators and terrorists.

Ms. Pick's analysis extends to Mr. Kreisky's less colorful successors, including Chancellor Franz Vranitzky (1986-97), the first Austrian political leader to call forcefully on his fellow citizens to deal with the past. Mr. Vranitzky's chancellorship also happily coincided with the Gorbachev era in Moscow and the end of the Cold War. Neutral Austria was able to overcome long-standing Soviet objections to its entry into the European Union.

Analyzing the Haider phenomenon, the author skillfully shows him for the opportunist he is, ready to say, and then withdraw, just about any comment about Jews, Nazis, and foreigners that will serve his political goals.

Just as importantly, Ms. Pick is rare among outside political commentators in detailing the long-term effect of Austria's understandable postwar efforts to create consensus and avoid the disasters of the first republic after World War I.

Over decades, the so-called Proporz system of doling out jobs between loyalists of the People's and Socialist parties has created a political malaise and a level of corruption that makes Haider's political appeal more comprehensible as an act of near-desperation by many Austrian voters of all political loyalties who wanted to breathe fresh competition into their stagnant politics.

For all the criticism, this is an incredibly fair-minded book - even if some Austrians may think otherwise. Historically, Ms. Pick's bottom line is: "The country is both victim and perpetrator, but there is no equivalence between the two: Austria has been far less victim than perpetrator."

The author concludes that the Haider ascendancy has promoted a healthy, widespread debate inside Austria about its place in Europe, its future, and its past. The country's potential is considerable, and so are its contributions as an EU member, she argues. If the Haider challenge can help in this catharsis and modernize the country's political life, Austria can become integral to an exciting European future.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number II in the Spring of 2001.