Zilk and the Past

New evidence tarnishes former Vienna mayor; Austria would prefer to look away

Opinion | Andreas Koller | April 2009

"Just forget about it" – this seems to be the official reaction of Austria to the Zilk Affair. ÖVP-chairman Josef Pröll spoke on in March of "weighty accusations" that had to be clarified. But the Federal President, the Federal Chancellor and the newspaper Kronen Zeitung had already absolved Zilk, one suspects even before they had read the Zilk cover story in the Austrian magazine profil. The accusations would be dubbed "outrageous" and as "having no basis" respectively, period.

A closer examination is simply not called for, the establishment of truth simply not necessary. The country stands, like a gentleman, behind the indignant widow Dagmar Koller, who would light a candle for her Helmut on television, whose reputation she has no intention of allowing to be besmirched. Chancellor Faymann won’t even call for a professional investigation of the case, as this "would give the impression that the accusations of spying might be justified." That’s as if someone refused to go to the doctor because he might find out that his symptoms were real.

All this is very strange, considering that two decades ago, when similar accusations were brought against the ÖVP candidate for president, the explanations weren’t thorough and extensive enough for the SPÖ. Have times changed? No, actually it is the SPÖ that has changed, not the times.

Is it possible that this approach to the Zilk Affair is a typically Austrian one? Looking the other way – closing one’s eyes to trouble – is a tradition with a long history here.

When Kurt Waldheim’s past was being investigated, the officials involved in the inquiry, as well as the former SPÖ-leadership, were considered by many to be committing high treason. If Jewish victims of the Nazis assert their claims, we can count on the "it’s time to move on" crowd joining the parade – "at some point we just need some peace of mind."

If the United States deport a presumed Nazi criminal, as they have just done, our country would offer him a save haven, because these murders have long since past the statue of limitation. And if files about an informer, who happens to be a deceased top-ranking politician become public, Austria just collectively closes its eyes.

We don’t want to know for sure.

Imagine if Austria had to come to terms with its past, like Germany that has thousands of former Stasi informers living within its borders. Here it would not be the Stasi-informers but the victims demanding justice who would have to face public outrage.

Helmut Zilk may be innocent. But suppressing the evidence is not the right way to prove it.


Andreas Koller is National News Editor for the Salzburger Nachrichten, where this commentary originally appeared in the Mar. 26 print edition. This article appears here for the first time in English, by permission of the author.

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