Vienna’s Conscience

News | Gregory Weeks | April 2008

Jubilation of the Anschluss on Rathausplatz (Photo: BPD-Wien)

Flashback: March 1938, Vienna, Germany — It has a strange ring to it, but after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Vienna is now the second-largest city in "Greater Germany." Adolf Hitler has arrived in Vienna. The forced unification of Austria with Germany, the Anschluss, is reality. Vienna, with its population of 1.8 million souls, is now part of Adolf Hitler’s growing empire, and Hitler has promised to turn the city into the pearl that he thinks it ought to be. Author Thomas Weyr describes it as a pearl that was receiving a new setting, one draped in Swastika flags.

The expressions of either dismay or jubilation are etched on the faces of the Viennese in the black and white photographs from 1938. But is it possible to understand what happened in Austria in that year? Are common perceptions of the Anschluss correct? And is it possible to truly grasp what it was like to be there — the emotions, the confusion, the anger, the frustration? There were certainly those Viennese who opposed the Anschluss, but there were many more who welcomed it and revelled in the streets, delighting in anti-Semitism and tormenting their Jewish neighbors.

The Anschluss was precipitated by the policies of National Socialist Germany under Adolf Hitler after his rise to power there in 1933. It was Hitler’s stated goal to unite the German-speaking peoples of Germany and Austria in a Volksgemeinschaft, a peoples’ community, under his leadership. Hitler made a concerted and successful effort to undermine the Austrian economy until the final annexation of Austria in March 1938. Not only did German National Socialists undermine the economy of the country, but they also supported a terror campaign waged by Austrian Nazis against political parties opposed to their views and against the government of Austria, especially after 1934.

Most nationalist Austrians were in favor of joining Germany, not in an annexation but in a union. Greater Germany had always been a dream held by the Austrian pan-German movement and was in direct opposition to pan-Slavism and other nationalist movements of the pre– and post–World War I period in Central Europe. There were certainly problems in the period prior to 1918, but the real problems for Austria began with the end of the First World War and the collapse of Austria-Hungary.

The political upheaval prior to and following the First World War unsettled Austrian society and made the political scene volatile and unstable. This was the era in which political anti-Semitism prevailed in Austria and the era in which Hitler was raised and attended school. It was also the era of art and culture known as fin de siècle or Jugendstil (the Austrian version of Art Nouveau) and then Art Deco. Turbulent times either deaden or produce great art. When Hitler arrived in Austria, there were 600,000 unemployed, and Vienna, despite all of its social programs, was still recovering from the world economic crisis of the 1930s.

Unlike Germany, Austria really was seized. Hitler was not elected; however, that does not mean that a majority of Austrians were not pleased or happy to welcome him. The throngs of Austrians on Heldenplatz belie the postwar myth that Austria was the first victim of National Socialist aggression.

Vienna itself was Adolf Hitler’s muse. Hitler’s Vienna years had a huge impact on his later thinking and his anti-Semitism. Vienna not only moved Hitler with its art, culture, and opera but also gave him examples of the virulently anti-Semitic politicians whom he imitated in his later career. Hitler’s path to the halls of power as chancellor of the German Reich could never have occurred without the lessons he learned in Vienna.

In the end, the Nazis destroyed much of the old Vienna. In seven short years, Austria was transformed from imperial glory to ashes and rubble. Was this the setting of the pearl Hitler had intended? In the process, Austria lost some of its greatest minds, its greatest assets, and its future. Those minds would never be regained. Many of the surviving refugees either chose not to return or were discouraged from doing so.

The lives destroyed and interrupted, the dreams broken, and the hopes dashed tell one aspect of Vienna in 1938. Another part of the story concerns opportunists, greed, the coveting of neighbors’ property, and the quick rise of National Socialists to high positions. A third aspect of 1938 Vienna tells of those who were forced to leave. They loved Vienna as their home and could never forgive the Nazis and their fellow Austrians for having taken it away from them. Perhaps naïvely, these refugees nursed the hope that those who had supported the Anschluss would acknowledge their mistake and that their children would somehow atone.

Fast Forward: 1988, Vienna, Austria. Fifty years after the end of the World War II, there were still former Nazis on the streets of Vienna. They did not wear Nazi uniforms or give Hitler salutes, but they were there, and their opinions had changed very little, despite a lost war and the suffering that had accompanied it.

In 1986, Dr. Kurt Waldheim was elected Austrian federal president despite revelations about his wartime past, serving as a soldier in Hitler’s army in the Balkans.

Two years later, Austria was still mired in his discussion as the result of his being placed on a U.S. watchlist. Waldheim unwillingly and unwittingly opened the floodgates to Austria’s problematic past, and at the beginning, he did not or could not recognize that he had been a vital part of the machinery that led to the murder of nearly 66,000 Austrian Jews. His repeated statement to Green Party politician Freda Meissner-Blau in 1986, "But I didn’t do anything" shows his lack of recognition about his role. In fact, Waldheim’s inability to take a clear stand on his wartime years may have been his greatest contribution to Austrian politics, because it began one of the most important debates of the post–World War II Austrian Second Republic, one that continues to this day.

There were many Waldheims — people who either were passive bystanders and witnesses to the crimes of the National Socialists or, like Waldheim, were drafted into the armed forces and served on fronts throughout Europe and in North Africa. As Waldheim himself phrased it, "I only did my duty."

There was some attempt to use the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss in 1988 as a teaching tool, at least by the politicians in the Ministry of Education and Culture. This was the political face of Austria, the way Austria wanted itself to be portrayed to the outside world.

Unfortunately, it was not the public face of the nation at the personal level, the way Austrians on the street viewed what had happened in 1938. This other Austria, this other Vienna, was the one documented in photographs and interviews, the ones that Austrian politicians did not want to see but which the outside world was seeing and hearing about frequently on the nightly news.

In 1988, memories of 1938 were still so strong that this Austrian past could not be "dealt with," at least not in a lecture series sponsored by the City of Vienna. Even after fifty years, no one talked openly about what had taken place. The wounds were still fresh, and they touched a raw nerve. Older Viennese were in denial. Younger Viennese were embarrassed. The Nazi era still extended a shadow that darkened even the brightest Viennese day.

The shards are there, embedded in the memories and in the denials of those who walked the streets during the Third Reich and of those who left or were left behind. These are powerful, even explosive memories, and they must be recognized and reconciled.

Fast Forward: 2008, Vienna – The perennial debate continues: Was Austria a vanquished victim or were Austrians perpetrators and persecutors? There is some truth in both views, but more it seems in the second. Austrians knew about the Holocaust and what had happened in Vienna, but they denied it. When they were forced to admit their past transgressions, they sugar-coated the pill, but sugar-coating this era did not make the bitter medicine go down any more easily. The truth was difficult to swallow, and the Austrians are still in the process of forcing it down.

Today Austrians, especially Viennese, have made progress in facing their common past, but there is still plenty to be done. Only a portion of the crimes committed under the National Socialists have been uncovered.

There has been a Historical Commission established and funded by the Republic of Austria that has investigated the transfer and theft of property during the Third Reich, and there is a General Settlement Fund, which has as its objective, to give at least something back to those who had their property stolen or were forced to leave it behind after the German annexation in 1938.

Those who fled Austria never received an official apology, since Austria never viewed itself as the legal heir to Hitler’s Germany. When Austrian pangs of conscience did hit, the payments were small. Some buildings are still occupied by the same people who aryanized them in 1938, and Austria’s reputation abroad is not helped by vocal populist politicians who seem to have a great deal in common with the Nazis of 1938, at least when their political platforms are compared. Austria as a whole is no longer unrepentant, but certain groups do not make it appear that way.

The "war generation" in Austria now consists of old age pensioners who are slowly dying off, but the impact of the war and their role in it is not forgotten. For better or worse, the Viennese have to live with the echoes of what happened between 1938 and 1945 in their city and some still do not see the error of having become part of Hitler’s Germany.

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    the vienna review April 2008