When it comes to Holocaust remembrance, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz looks like the Anti-Poland.
Whereas Poland has hunkered down behind a new Holocaust law saying the country was a victim of the Nazis, not a Holocaust perpetrator, Kurz said in an extraordinary speech on Monday that, yes, Austria was a victim, but it was equally a perpetrator.
The speech in Vienna came to mark the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss, when the Nazis rolled their tanks into Austria, met by adoring, saluting and cheering Austrians.
“The film clips of the time show us enthusiastic women and men who welcomed the Nazi regime out of inner conviction,” Kurz said, with his vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache – the head of the far-right Freedom Party, begun in the 1950s by former Nazis – looking on.
“Austria used to see itself as the first victim of National Socialism. That is certainly true for all those who fought in the resistance, whom we cannot thank enough, and who will always be shining examples,” Kurz said.
“But... the ones who stood in such great numbers and celebrated in March 1938 in Heroes’ Square were no victims.
The ones who watched and participated when their neighbors were robbed, expelled and murdered were no victims.
“Remembering in an honest way means admitting the truth. At that time, many Austrians supported a system to which people with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, people with different political views, resistance fighters and many more fell victim.
Above all, this system murdered over 60,000 fellow Jewish citizens and displaced around 130,000 from their homes.”
Kurz acknowledged it has taken Austria a long time to be “open and honest” about its past.
“We have realized that Austria was not only a victim but also a perpetrator, and we have followed up on this realization with concrete actions. But Austria has looked away for too long and has fulfilled its historical responsibility too late.”
Kurz bewailed that the 100,000 displaced Austrians, disenfranchised and robbed during the Holocaust, were not invited to come back to the country after the war and were “no longer welcome.”
He also said that he finds it “unfathomable” that antisemitism exists almost a century after the Holocaust, adding that Austria bears a special historical responsibility now to support Jewish life in Austria and protect it against all forms of antisemitism.
And then, in comments never made before by Austrian chancellors – a group that has included pro-PLO Bruno Kreisky and former Nazi Kurt Waldheim – Kurz said that Austria’s historical responsibility toward the Jews extends to Israel.
“We also have a special responsibility to the State of Israel and the security needs of the Jewish people there – more than we have practiced in Austria in the past,” he said.
While Germany has made clear that it feels a special responsibility toward Israel because of the Holocaust, Austria has never gone down that path – until now.
“For only if Jews can live without restriction in peace and security can a ‘never forget’ become a ‘never again,’” he said.
THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL of the Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, characterized the speech as “important,” as did Austrian Ambassador Martin Weiss.
“This is a speech that doesn’t mince words, it does not lack in clarity,” Weiss said.
The speech is especially important, given that Kurz’s senior coalition partner, the Freedom Party, is a party the Israeli government refuses to engage with, and which the organized Jewish community in Austria says is still tainted by antisemitism, despite protestations to the contrary by its leader, Strache.
The speech is also important in light of what is going on in Poland, where Polish legislators enacted a law making it illegal and a punishable crime to say that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust.
A similar refrain was heard in Austria 30 years ago, when the world was aghast that Waldheim, the former secretary-general of the UN, won election as chancellor even though his Nazi past came to light.
The refrain in Austria at the time, as the public rallied around Waldheim, who was banned from visiting the US, was that Waldheim and Austrians should not be blamed; that Austria was a victim of the Nazis; and that the Germans – and not the Austrians – were solely culpable.
That refrain sounds strikingly similar to what is being heard today in Poland. But 30 years later, Kurz has put things much, much differently: Admitting his country’s culpability in the Nazi crimes, saying his country also mistreated Jews immediately after the war, and declaring that as a result of that past, Austria has a special responsibility for Israel’s security.
Judging by the Austrian model, there is hope for Poland. That’s the good news. The bad news is that with the Austrian model as a gauge, it could take some 30 years before Poland comes around full circle.