(photo credit: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
VIENNA - Austria cannot draw a line under its Nazi past despite the desire of many Austrians to so do, its president said on the 75th anniversary of the country's annexation by Nazi Germany.
Adolf Hitler and his troops marched unopposed on March 12, 1938 into an Austria weakened by political and economic turmoil and were cheered by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom took part enthusiastically in the Holocaust that followed.
"The wish was to leave this disaster behind and tackle the country's future on a fresh basis. The deep wounds of the past were supposed to heal. I can understand that," Heinz Fischer said in a speech in Vienna's Hofburg palace on Tuesday.
"But only wounds that are cleaned can heal without risk of infection. And the cleaning of this wound was a long time coming," he said, calling the day of the annexation, or "Anschluss", a "day of catastrophe".
Austria officially maintained that it was Hitler's first victim for decades until Chancellor Franz Vranitzky acknowledged in a 1991 speech in parliament that Austrian citizens shared responsibility for the pain the Nazis brought on others.
Addressing the question whether it was time to draw a line under the events of 1938-1945, Fischer said: "Individual people cannot draw a line under crimes of that dimension, nor can governments or parliaments decree that such a line be drawn."
He said the crimes of Hitler's Third Reich could not have taken place without the help of the "countless perpetrators, accomplices, informants and Aryanisers" who worked as cogs in the Nazi machine.
But he added: "There was also another Austria. And here, I mean those people who were horrified by the events of March 1938... Some ended their lives, others were willing and ready to engage in resistance. Many were arrested."
A new poll published last week and timed to coincide with the anniversary found that 53 percent of Austrians thought the "Anschluss" was voluntary, while 46 percent saw Austria as a victim.
Only 15 percent of the 502 people polled thought the Alpine republic should have fought annexation, 42 percent thought a war with Germany would have made matters worse, and 43 percent said it would have made no difference.
Three of five wanted a "strong man" to lead the country, while two out of five thought things were not all bad under Adolf Hitler. That was more than in previous surveys.
Most of Austria's large Jewish community was wiped out in the Holocaust and the 15,000 living there now have become more vigilant again due to a recurrence of anti-Semitic incidents.
They are usually condemned by Austrian political leaders but also seen generally as a regrettable fact of life.
Many Austrian institutions whitewashed their Nazi-era record for decades after the end of World War Two, including the world famous Vienna Philharmonic, which published more details of its past on Sunday night.
The Philharmonic acknowledged that many of its musicians were Nazi party members during Hitler's rule and that its director may have delivered a prestigious orchestra award to a Nazi war criminal two decades after the end of World War Two.