A few days ago, the Austrian national museum exhibition was officially opened in the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz Birkenau. This is the second Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz Museum, the first was from the late 1970s. This time the Austrian state remodeled the exhibition, presenting Austria and the Austrians as victims and perpetrators. Jacek Stawiski, the host of the program “Horizon” on TVN24BiS and TVN24GO, writes about Austria
Once upon a time, Austria was only spoken of as a victim of Nazi German National Socialism. Today, such an opinion would have caused embarrassment. Of course, the Austrians are also a nation of perpetrators. There is no doubt about that. Austrian debates about their own past are one of the most fascinating, but also the most misunderstood pages of European, or rather Central European history. We do not understand it in Poland either, although Austria seems to be a country that is close and friendly to us.
Austrians are a nation that has its own state with its capital in Vienna. Such an answer to a geography lesson at school would be correct. Okay, but since when have Austrians been a nation? What gives them a national character? Tongue? Culture? Alps? Mozart? This is just the beginning of the questions about Austria and the Austrians. Each question raises a new one.
Let’s start with the exhibition at the Auschwitz Museum. Who were the Austrian victims of this German Nazi camp? They were mainly Austrian Jews and Austrian opponents of the Nazi regime. And who were the Austrian perpetrators? Germany. The Austrians, who were part of the crimes machine of the Third Reich, believed in the German Nazi Reich. One that eliminated all differences between Germany and Austria, liquidating the Austrian state and denying Austria national identity. Anschluss, that is, the incorporation of Austria into Germany under German conditions, was greeted with delight by the overwhelming majority of Austrians. Most Austrians did not want to be Austrians in pre-war Europe. They wanted to be Germany and part of Germany. They had been demanding it from the end of World War I. Unfortunately, these aspirations were ruthlessly exploited by German Nazism. Austria was absorbed by the Third Reich. Austrian enthusiasm for the Anschluss pushed hundreds of thousands of Austrians to participate in the criminal regime.
You could say it all starts with Napoleon. It was he who, over 200 years ago, ordered the dissolution of the First German Reich, the most important states of which were Austria and Prussia. After the Napoleonic era, the next decades will be marked by Austro-Prussian rivalry for primacy among German countries. The goal of Berlin and Vienna, the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs, was to unify Germany so that one of these capitals and dynasties would take precedence among German states. Prussia was gaining strength, Austria was weakening. In addition, the Habsburgs managed a large number of non-German states and lands, including Hungary or Galicia with Lviv and Krakow. The Habsburgs were pushed out of the new Second German Reich, which was constructed by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Austria ceased to be part of the political community of the German states, although it did not cease to be a part of German culture. The Habsburgs did not cease to consider themselves a German dynasty, and Emperor Franz Joseph I, under whom Galicia was granted autonomy, did not stop repeating that he simply considered himself one of the German princes. The Habsburg state after 1867 was constructed on the basis of the German (Austrian) -Hungarian agreement. Austria-Hungary was founded. The Hungarian nation was almost a thousand years old then, and there was no Austrian nation. The Germans, then called Austrian Germany, lived in Austria. A large part of Austrian Germans was dissatisfied with the separateness of Austria from the Second German Reich. German nationalism, which turned into chauvinist pan-Germanism, was especially strong in the German lands ruled by the Habsburgs. German nationalists and chauvinists hated the separateness of Austria and sought to include it in Germany after the separation of Hungarian and Slavic lands. Therefore, born in the Habsburg state, Hitler felt German. There were no Austrians then.
After the First World War, the Austrian Empire collapsed, and the multinational and multi-religious construction of Austria-Hungary gave up its spirit after 1918. Austrian Germans create their own state in culturally German lands. The state is called the German Republic of Austria and its goal is to immediately join the German Republic, soon known as the Weimar Republic. Austrian Germany invokes President Wilson’s principle of self-determination of nations. But the connections with Germany are forbidden by the Allies, not wanting to enlarge the territory of the defeated Germany. This frustrates Austrian Germans. Austria becomes a separate state.
The German Nazi National Socialists, who are also extreme German nationalists, renew their efforts to eliminate Austria’s individuality and merge it with another, this time with the Third Reich. Hitler wants to do it relatively quickly, already in 1934. But the Nazi coup in Austria is failing.
And here comes another paradox and another turn in Austrian history that is difficult to understand today. Austria after 1934 becomes an authoritarian, fascist and ideologically clerical state. This is the time of so-called Austrofascism, which is modeled on Italian fascism. To make it harder to understand, Austrofascist Austria wants to keep its separateness from Nazi Germany. Hitler and his court are furious. Seeing the weakness of the Allies and sensing the growing admiration for the Third Reich in Austria, Berlin decides to include Austria in the Nazi state. The overwhelming majority of Austrian Germans are delighted and Hitler is adored. Literally at the moment when Hitler speaks to the exalted crowd in Vienna, Viennese Jews become victims of harassment and persecution. Austria’s distinctiveness is at least formally finished. In the name of the great new Reich, the Germans of old Austria are eagerly supporting Nazi structures and organizations.
Again, the complications with the Austrian identity are not over. In 1943, the Allies recognize Austria as “the first victim of the Third Reich”. This formulation becomes the basis of a post-war historical lie. Austria is formally occupied after the war by four powers, like Germany, yet the settlement with National Socialism in the new Austrian Republic is superficial. The new Austrian state and its elite are now radically cutting themselves off from ties with Germany. This is because the sentiment to connecting with Germany is a great burden after the crimes of World War II.
The victorious powers can come to an agreement over Austria. Ten years after the war, they agree to its independence and neutrality and to the Western political and development model. Austria is excluded from the Cold War rivalry. Using the example of a neutral but united Austria, Moscow wants to show Western Germany that if they leave NATO, the Soviet Union will allow Germany to be unified and neutral. Within Germany itself, the Austrian solution has many supporters, but it is rejected by the German elite led by Chancellor Adenauer. By regaining sovereignty, Austria feels even more freed from history and from responsibility for historical crimes. It can be said that of the three countries that emerged after the collapse of the German Hitlerite state, namely Germany, East Germany and Austria, only the former, the pro-Western Federal Republic, takes responsibility for National Socialism. Communist East Germany and democratic Austria distance themselves from the crimes of Nazism.
And again, this is not the end of the Austrian twists with history. The Nazi past catches up with wealthy and happy Austrians when it turns out that the president of the country, longtime UN secretary Kurt Waldheim concealed his involvement in the Nazi criminal system during the war. Waldheim’s squirming about his service in the Wehrmacht in the Balkans brings international isolation to Austria. After Waldheim’s departure, the Austrian elite begin to mature to settle accounts with the brown card. The debate about history began in Austria in the late 1980s. It is accompanied by a discussion about Austrian identity. One of the leading newspapers asks: are we still Germany? More and more shows that not anymore. That several dozen years of Austrian separateness begin to bear fruit in the formation of an Austrian nation within the German-speaking culture. The consent to the reunification of Germany solely on the basis of the absorption of the fallen GDR by West Germany ends any serious debate on the merger of Austria with Germany. This does not mean that in Austria there are no great German sentiments among the Austrian nationalists. There are and should be watched carefully, not forgetting that extreme German, Pan-Germanic nationalism was born from such sentiments more than a hundred years ago.
The history of Austria is an interesting, often gloomy laboratory of European and Central European history. That is why it is worth looking at Austria and Austrians, and it is worth visiting the Austrian national exhibition in Auschwitz. It is worth understanding the squaring of the Austrian identity of the perpetrators and victims of the Third Reich. I encourage you to do so, because Austria is a close, unknown and completely misunderstood neighbor, whom we know superficially and associate with alpine ski runs and chocolate balls with Mozart. Mozart is a symbol of Austria, and yet we know that the genius composer was a German from Salzburg, subject to the German Habsburgs.
Main photo source: Alamy / PAP