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Waldheim and the Austrian National Memory : WALDHEIM<i> by Bernard Cohen and Luc Rosenzweig; translated by Josephine Bacon (Adama Books: $17.95; 138 pp., illustrated) </i>

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As Viennese wags have been saying for years, Austria’s supreme diplomatic achievement since World War II has been to convince the world that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German. If there was one event that has tarnished this accomplishment, it was the Kurt Waldheim scandal that exploded in the international press in March, 1986.

It was 50 years ago this Spring that Hitler annexed Austria and the Viennese poured into the streets to welcome him with rapturous joy. The Waldheim scandal touched on the memory of those days of ecstasy that many Austrians would much rather leave buried beneath the debris of the past. Yet it was Waldheim’s spirited defense of himself as a man who was “only doing my duty” as a Wehrmacht officer that brought the long-suppressed memory to the surface. If Austria was, as it insists today, “the first victim of the Nazis” (paraphrasing the famous Moscow declaration of the Allies of 1943) was it the patriotic duty of an Austrian to fight with or against the Nazis?

Indeed, the actual number of Austrians who regarded it as their patriotic duty to fight the Germans was minute, while the overwhelming majority served in the German army (and, incidentally, supplied a disproportionately large share of the Reich’s death camp personnel). This discrepancy between what actually happened during the war and Austria’s public stance since then lies at the heart of what has become known as the “amnesia” that has ruled much of the country’s political life. Waldheim’s own amnesia, which simply removed from the public record an inconvenient part of his personal history, therefore struck a very responsive chord in the Austrian electorate. “You did this, my memory tells me. You didn’t do it, says my pride. In the end my pride wins.” These words by Friedrich Nietzsche (the authors of “Waldheim” quote them at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Lie, a Way of Life”) could well serve as an epitaph for Waldheim and his compatriots.

In fact, the true nature of Austrian patriotism is by no means as simple as it would appear. In “Waldheim,” besides rehearsing Waldheim’s wartime activities in detail, Cohen and Rosenzweig recall the all-pervasive pan-Germanism that swept Austria after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, when it became part of the conventional wisdom of the times to deny--both on the political left as well as on the right--that the truncated postwar country had much of a chance to survive as an economic entity unless it joined its larger brother to the north. Pan-Germanism had, in fact, become an attractive alternative for the German-speaking Austrians during the dying days of the Habsburg monarchy, paralleling the growth of militant nationalism of the Poles, Czechs, Slovenes, Croats and the other peoples who were clamoring for self-rule. These conflicts led to a great deal of confusion in the development of a true Austrian national identity.

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Among younger Austrians, some of whom have been enraged by Waldheim’s amnesia (it is well to remember that 46% of the population voted against him) one of the more serious crimes held against him is the demoralizing effect that his interpretation of the word duty has had on the development of Austria’s national identity among the young. If, they ask, the Austrian president believes it to have been his duty as an Austrian patriot to fight for Hitler’s Germany, how is Austria’s young generation ever going to learn its own democratic Austrian tradition?

But there is another, more hopeful, side to the Waldheim scandal that is barely touched upon by Cohen and Rosenzweig. In Austria, ironically, the affair may well have begun to set in motion a process that in Germany has been called Vergangenheitsbewaltigung-- a truthful and cathartic confrontation with the unhappy and long-suppressed past. In Germany, this process was responsible for allowing a younger generation to look at its parents with critical eyes and to find a way of living with the knowledge of their crimes. The Austrian amnesia had made it impossible for young Austrians to question their parents, let alone come to terms with their crimes. Austria’s traditional anti-Semitism is so deeply embedded in the nation’s collective psyche after centuries of virulent Jew-baiting by the church that it hardly needs the physical presence of a Jewish minority in its midst to perpetuate its hatreds. How else can one explain these deeply anti-Semitic sentiments in a country where most of its Jewish citizens have long since been sent to die in concentration camps or hounded abroad into exile? In the wake of the Waldheim scandal and the revulsion that accompanied it, some of the more responsible Austrians have begun to acknowledge the need not only for greater introspection but also for a public dialogue between Austrians and Jews. More and more Austrians, even among Waldheim’s former supporters, are beginning to wonder how much longer Austria can afford the liability of a head of state--a self-confessed liar and accused war criminal--who, with each day he remains in office, deepens his nation’s humiliation before the civilized world.


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