Waldheim Issue Forces Austria to Face Its Past

Times Staff Writer

For four decades, Austrians have avoided a confrontation with the full truth about one of the darkest chapters of their history, the seven years when Austria was part of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

When thinking about it at all, they have clung to the belief that Austria was Hitler’s first victim, not his willing accomplice.

But now allegations of Nazi activity by Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations secretary general who is a candidate for president in Austria’s May 4 election, have forced this small, staunchly Roman Catholic country of 8 million people to look back, however hesitantly.

In many ways, Waldheim’s effort to gloss over much of what he did during World War II parallels what Austria has done. Austria has been content to let the world think that two of its native sons, Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, were Germans, but it has been quick to claim as its own the German-born composer Ludwig van Beethoven.


Because of this, the pressure Waldheim faces has come mainly from outside the country.

At home, the allegations against him--that as an officer on the staff of a German army group he took part in the rounding up and transporting of Jews to death camps--have brought him sympathy, understanding and a wider lead in the public opinion polls. At every campaign stop, voters tell Waldheim they understand that he was only doing his duty.

“For many Austrians, if Waldheim is a war criminal, then so are they,” said Rudolf Bretschneider, managing director of Fessel-GFK, a polling and market research organization.

The past that Austria has hidden from itself is not a pretty one. Because senior positions in Germany’s army and bureaucracy were already filled by the time Austria was annexed to the Third Reich in 1938, a disproportionately large number of Austrians joined the German SS, a quasi-military unit of the Nazi Party. Others found openings in the occupied countries.


Others Embrace Nazi Cause

In addition to Eichmann, who headed the Jewish Section of the Gestapo--the secret police--and was involved in the execution of millions of people, Austrians who embraced the Nazi cause included Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the No. 2 man in the SS, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the last prewar prime minister of independent Austria who went on to become governor of occupied Holland.

Kaltenbrunner and Seyss-Inquart were both executed by the Allies as war criminals.

“The myth has been created that we were Hitler’s first victims, that we were a land of resistance fighters,” said Heinrich Lutz, a historian at Vienna University. “The truth is that when 1938 came, we desperately wanted to be better Germans than the Germans, and to be better Nazis and anti-Semites too.”


Hitler was born in the small Austrian town of Braunau and was reared in Linz. He acquired many of his early political ideas in Vienna.

Only 7,000 Jews in Nation

During the Nazi period, anti-Semitism was if anything stronger here than in Germany, some historians say. Austria’s Jewish community, which numbered well over 200,000 before the war, now totals about 7,000.

“Almost until the end, the Allies saw Hitler as the arch-Prussian,” Lutz said. “But it was no accident that Hitler developed his anti-Semitic ideas in Vienna. Anti-Semitism was nowhere more virulent than right here.”


There is certainly no dispute that Hitler’s invasion of Austria on March 12, 1938, was an act of aggression. But the invasion was greeted with such enthusiasm that on the following day, Hitler annexed his homeland into the Reich. It remained an integral part of Nazi Germany until almost the very end of World War II in Europe.

Stable, Neutral Buffer

After the war, the Allies focused on Germany as the principal villain. The need to have Austria as a stable, neutral buffer in Central Europe, coupled with the desire to dismember Hitler’s Reich, made it convenient for them to nurture the fiction that Austria had been a victim of German aggression. This decision allowed Austrians to escape the condemnation that still haunts West Germans.

Former Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, now Princess Juliana, found it politically too sensitive to travel to West Germany during her 32-year reign, but she had no trouble holidaying in Austria’s Vorarlberg province, even though leading figures of the Dutch occupation were Austrians.


The Austrians themselves still support the myth of being victims, often in the subtlest of ways. For example, a statue of Sigmund Freud in a Vienna University courtyard gives the year of his death as 1934 rather than the actual 1939. Historian Lutz called it an Austrian Freudian slip, to avoid the painful reality that the famed Jewish psychoanalyst was forced in 1938 to flee to Britain, where he died the following year.

Popular Cabaret Act

A popular Viennese cabaret act, available on records, features a fictitious Herr Karl, who lived through the Nazi period but professes to knows nothing of its excesses.

Austria’s failure to confront this part of its past has produced in many of its people a detached, almost ambivalent view of that time.


An ex-Nazi in Austria is not the pariah he might be to outsiders. Although an international controversy swirls around Waldheim and his alleged Nazi past, there is no doubt at all that a third candidate for the Austrian presidency, Otto Scrinzi, was a Nazi Party member, and little is made of it.

Last year, the Austrian defense minister, Friedhelm Frischenschlager, received a former SS major when he came home after serving 30 years in an Italian prison for the 1944 massacre of 1,800 civilians. Polls subsequently showed that only one Austrian in four believed that the ensuing controversy would damage the country’s image.

‘Another Part of History’

“There isn’t the feeling of ‘My God, what have we done; it must never happen again,’ ” said Lothar Hoebelt, a scholar at Vienna University’s Institute for History. “Here, it’s just seen as another part of history that was neither especially good nor especially bad.”


Karl Pfeifer, a prominent member of Vienna’s Jewish community, recalls the response from a Socialist member of Parliament several years ago to complaints about the level of anti-Semitic remarks.

“He was very candid,” Pfeifer recalled. “He reminded me that we lived in a democracy which had 500,000 ex-Nazis and 7,000 Jews. Anti-Semitism was just good politics.”

As the Waldheim accusations continue to fly, many people, including some Jews, question the wisdom of forcing Austria to face its past now.

“Intellectually and morally it may be right, but politically it’s wrong,” said West German historian Michael Stuermer, a noted expert on the period. “It takes generations to recover from this. You can’t start now. There’s no catharsis in this, only bitterness.”


Austria’s President Rudolf Kirschschlaeger warned last month of “opening political graves which can only be covered up again at great expense, if at all. . . .”

But the process is already under way and the reaction is mixed heavily with anger and concern.

A government office worker charged heatedly that the entire subject was insulting and offensive. A colleague called it impudence, part of a plot to smear Austria’s good name.

When a panel of television reporters turned a national debate between presidential candidates into an interrogation about their actions during the war, newspaper editorials complained that too much time had been taken up about the past and not enough about the future.


For the candidates, as for most Austrians, the questions were as unusual as they were uncomfortable.

But there are people who believe that at some point, Austria must inevitably confront its history.

Mayor Helmut Zilk of Vienna, in an interview not long ago with a leading Austrian newspaper, recalled that in January, 1945, when he was 18, he saw Jews being transported out of the city, and he confessed that only pressure from his father prevented him from joining his classmates in an SS callup.

“Why shouldn’t you talk about what you experienced in these times?” he asked. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you are guilty, too.”


Times staff writer Tyler Marshall, based in London, was recently in Austria.