Waldheim and Austria Vs. the Past : A Perfect Man for President

<i> Peter Loewenberg is a UCLA history professor and author of "Decoding the Past" (Knopf). </i>

Today’s Austrian presidential election, with former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim as the front-running candidate, once again raises the curtain on the Austrian past. Confrontation with the Austro-Fascist and Nazi years is a painful, often avoided subject in Austria, particularly when old wounds have been plastered over and the surface seems untroubled. Periodically, however, the past has a way of breaking through to show that all is not well underneath. This campaign has been such a breakthrough.

Austria has a proud heritage as the seedbed for much that has shaped 20th-Century culture and politics. Austria may boast of having nurtured the modern architecture of Loos, Neutra, Schindler and the international school; the innovative music of Webern, Berg and Schoenberg; the birth of modern expressionism with the paintings of Kokoschka, Klimt and Schiele; the Vienna school of philosophy of Wittgenstein and Carnap; the literature of Schnitzler, Musil and von Hoffmannsthal; the psychoanalysis of Freud and his followers; enlightened urban housing and child care; the Zionism of Herzl--and the dubious distinction of having spawned Hitler and Nazism.

Adolph Hitler, by his own account, acquired both his anti-Semitism and his demagogic style of politics in Austria. He learned political lessons from Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic lord mayor of Vienna, and acquired ideology from the German nationalist, Georg von Schonerer. Nazism was a specific creature of pre-World War I Austria. When Hitler went to Germany at age 23, his political ideas and violent hatreds were fully formed. His tactics would be worked out later.


After Hitler joined Austria to the Third Reich, more than half a million Austrians turned out to cheer him in the center of Vienna on March 15, 1938. Ten percent of the Austrian people joined the Nazi party, more than the 7% who joined in Germany. The Austrian province of Carinthia became known as the Fuehrer’s “most loyal land.”

The role of Austrians in key positions of the Nazi regime has never been made clear. “Austrians were zealously engaged in the Third Reich’s extermination machinery,” observed Austrian historian Gerhard Botz of the University of Salzburg. This was a career opportunity for people displaced by Germans in their own land.

During the 1943-44 anti-partisan campaign in the Balkans, the German army perpetrated such atrocities as the murder of women and children, the destruction of entire villages and their inhabitants, reprisal murders of 10 civilians for each German soldier killed. Botz noted that “these crimes were committed, not only by the SS, but also by regular Wehrmacht units, and often by units mostly made up of Austrians.”

When Austrian President Rudolf Kirschlager evaluated candidate Waldheim’s war record on April 22, he declared that a staff officer responsible for daily regional situation reports must be assumed to have known about the German army’s reprisal actions.

After the war, Austrians took comfort in the Allies’ 1943 Moscow declaration naming Austria as the first victim of Hitler’s aggression. But the Moscow declaration did not pardon Austrians for a share of the responsibility for Nazi crimes. Austrians like to regard the Germans as alone responsible; the acceptance and working through of their own responsibility never took place. Under the pressure of the Cold War, the Nazi past was quickly forgotten.

The new Austria was true to its well-merited reputation for accommodation, creating an identity as a neutral European country between East and West. Using the opportune moment after Stalin’s death, the Austrians got the Russians out and ended the occupation with a free, united and democratic state.

Austria aspired to rival Switzerland as a center for world organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency. Austria was a haven for refugees, particularly from neighboring communist countries, and the transit point for Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Austrian statecraft was an agreement on South Tyrol, a series of farsighted and flexible arrangements with Italy. A long-vexing issue about a border province was resolved in a settlement that provides a model to the world. In essence, national cultural identity was severed from territory to create for the German-speaking South Tyrolian majority a cultural autonomy including schools, language and even free tuition to Austrian universities.

The Austrians’ most impressive domestic achievement is having “buried the hatchet” on their violent internal wars. Prewar Austria was a society and a populace divided into three armed camps--socialist, Catholic conservative and German-national. Each had paramilitary forces; in 1934 they fought in a bitter civil war.

The postwar governments (including the current one) are primarily a series of coalitions; leaders of parties that had previously been at each other’s throats worked out agreements for sharing offices and patronage as well as governmental responsibility. The price for burying the hatchet was also to bury the past. Old traumas are repressed rather than faced.

There has been too much glorification of the old Austria. The government delights in flashy openings of the Vienna State Opera and nostalgic exhibits of “Dream and Reality” in fin de siecle Vienna.

Austrian cultural policy is bankrupt. When it is not living in the past, it panders to the latest fad, subsidizing Hollywood films instead of supporting struggling avant-garde artists, writers and film makers living in cold-water flats. Professor Bruno Bettelheim, a Viennese-born psychoanalyst who pioneered the treatment of childhood schizophrenia while at the University of Chicago, has never been honored by the Austrian government.

In March, 1985, I attended a meeting of students in the packed Auditorium Maximum of the University of Vienna; they were protesting against a defense minister who welcomed home a convicted SS mass-murderer. The meeting was addressed by Erika Weinzierl, professor of modern history at the university and a member of the Conservative People’s Party (Waldheim’s party). She remembered, from her school days, watching Jewish friends and fellow students disappear from Vienna amid increasing terror. She said that for anyone not to have known what was happening was implausible, yet contemporary Austria has never come to terms with its complicity.

This meeting of an aroused student body addressed by a leading Catholic professor represents the new Austria. The small group of neo-fascist students in attendance were regarded as a weird curiosity. This meeting and its sentiments were in striking contrast to the Viennese student body at the turn of the century, when “Aryan” clauses were introduced into various student organizations. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Jewish students, including Sigmund Freud’s son Martin, were beaten when they tried to attend the university while Vienna police stood by under the guise of observing “academic freedom.”

Yet anti-Semitism in Austria is unfortunately alive and well, in the countryside and in Vienna. I have heard anti-Jewish calumnies in public inns and in farm families. As Peter Lingens, the editor of Profil, a major Austrian news magazine, points out, Waldheim may win today’s presidential election because of his Nazi past. Waldheim is perhaps the ideal Austrian president: elegant, slippery, compromised in the Nazi era, unrepentant and unreliable.