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August 2017
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Austria And The Waldheim Affair

The Waldheim affair has thrown an unwelcome light on Austria’s attitude to the past, a curious mixture of oblivion and impenitence. We have all been fascinated by President Waldheim’s amnesia about his war service, and by the reaction in Austria. There were the polls that supported Waldheim, the deputy mayor of Linz who complained about the “gentlemen from Jerusalem,” the former foreign minister who observed that the historians on the commission investigating Waldheim’s record “weren’t exactly his friends, after all,” the conservative leader in the pretty western province of Vorarlberg who told the Jews to remember what had happened to them once before this century.

What sort of country is this? Evidently not the Austria of the tourism industry’s imagination, Alps and Mozart and waltzes and Sacher torte. Nor is it quite like its larger neighbor. The real contrast is not between Austria and the West but between Austia and Germany, the Germany of the Federal Republic: purged, penitent, reflective, honest. Compare two presidents: the resentful, unapologetic, and blustering Waldheim with Weizsacker, who said in his noble speech to the Bundestag in 1986 that all Germans must now be aware of what had once been done in their name, and that no German who lived through the Third Reich could have been wholly ignorant of what was being done. No Austrian stateman would ever make such a speech. Why not? To answer these questions means looking at the Austrian hang-up in historical perspective. And it leads to another question: Does “Austria” really exist?

IT DOES as a place. The old Archduchy of Austria is today the northeastern corner of the Austrian republic: the two provinces of Upper and Lower Austria. Its archdukes were the Hapsburgs, unimportant German princes who emerged from obscurity in the 15th century when one of them was elected Holy Roman Emperor precisely because of his insignificance.

During the next century the Hapsburgs became the greatest rulers in Europe through their adroitness at dynastic marriage. They ruled a random collection of territories –sometimes an empire from Peru to Spain to the Netherlands to Hungary–but never a “country.” When Spanish Hapsburgs branched off, the senior lands of the senior branch were known as “Austria.” It was one of the great powers of Europe, though still anything but a nation-state. It was only called Austria by a form of synecdoche, rather as we say England for the United Kingdom. The territories took their name from the dynasty, not the other way around.

When Napoleon kicked away the Holy Roman Empire in 1804, these lands became the “Austrian Empire” almost for want of another name. So it remained until 1867, when it became Austria-Hungary, until it collapsed in 1918. But it was still a dynastic, diplomatic, military concept rather than a country. Its first and most famous statesman was Metternich, who once dismissed Italy as a “geographical expression.” Austria was not even that. It included whatever lands the August House happened to be ruling at the time: Belgium in the 18th century, northern Italy in the 19th. Salzburg, which today seems the most “Austrian” of all provinces, was a sovereign state ruled by its own prince-prelate until the Napolenoic wars.

As the curse of nationalism ate into the 19th century, the “Austrians” developed national consciousness, in reaction to Italian and Slav nationalism. But it was a German consciousness. In fact, it is hard to say if the idea of Austrianness, in national rather than political terms, ever existed. In the 18th century Mozart called himself a German musician, as Schoenberg–a Viennese Jew–did in the 20th.

For most of the 19th century German nationalism was a liberal cause. Only after Prussia’s defeat of Austria in 1866 did Austrian and German nationalism take increasingly illiberal courses. The Hapsburg monarchy was strained to the breaking point. And in Vienna liberalism died. The consequences were bleak. Everyone knows that half of 20th-century culture–Freud, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, the Secession artists–came from Vienna in the last decades of the old monarchy. But then so did half of 20th-century politics. Four Austrian contemporaries began life as liberals. See what they became: Schonerer the pan-German nationalist, Adler the socialist, Lueger the Christian Socialist and proto-National Socialist, Herzl the Zionist.

Schonerer fought against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in the name of Greater German nationalism. In 1918 the monarchy fell apart, but it was not succeeded by the “empire of 70 million” that Schonerer had hoped for. The “Austria” created by the victorious Allies of 1918 was an artificial rump–what was left after the rest of old Austria had been carved up on more or less national lines.

Quite apart from Bohemia, ancient “Austrian” provinces were stripped away on national grounds: all of Carniola and much of Carinthia of Yugoslavia, much of Tyrol to Italy. The new republic included Burgenland in the east, which historically is part of Hungary, and Vorarlberg in the west, which is geographically part of Switzerland. This pared down “Austria” was a country with a genuine grievance: alone among the former components of the empire, it was denied self-determination. The Allies would not let these German-speaking provinces join with Germany. They even forbade the new state to call itself “German-Austria,” its accurate name.

For 20 years the artificial republic enjoyed an artificial existence, democratic (at least until 1934, when left and right fought each other to exhaustion and left democracy dead) but frustrated. There was no will to resist Hitler when he made his critical move against Austria. Turn-of-the-century Vienna had been a great school of politics, and Hitler was its star pupil. His demagogy, his anti-Semitism, his pan-Germanism were all learned there. To a true pan-German nationalist, an independent “Austria” was introlerable, as Hitler made clear from Mein Kampf onward.

TWO THINGS then happened, one unpleasant, one odd. The union of Germany with Austria was a genuine act of self-determination that would have been welcomed by liberals and the left if it had not been for the character of the German regime. What was unpleasant was the intense Austrian enthusiasm for the Anschluss. On March 12, 1938, Hitler was greeted by ecstatic crowds in Vienna, which soon witnessed a spontaneous outburst of Jew-hatred unsurpassed in Germany at the time.

The English diplomat Sir Edward Peck was in Vienna as a student that month and has recalled the hysteria on the streets and in the cafes (he was thrown out of one for not standing at the ninth reprise of “Deutschland uber Alles”). He tells a story, which was popular at the time, about Schuschnigg, then Austrian chancellor, being summoned to meet Hitler at Berchtesgaden some weeks before the Anschluss, in the company of Burgomeister Schmitz of Vienna. Schuschnigg doubted the enthusiasm the Germans were supposed to feel for Hitler. They proposed to test it, and when, after they had taken a nap, the train arrived at a town, the chancellor leaned out of the window and gave the Nazi salute, to thunderous cheers. Schmitz snapped at him in Viennese: “You bloody fool, we’re still in Salzburg.” Sir Edward says that when he recounted this story on his return to Vienna 30 years later, it was “coolly received.” Not surprisingly.

What was odd was not the Austrians’ behavior, but that of the victorious Allies. During the war–in Moscow in 1943–and after it the Allies chose to consider Austria “Hitler’s first victim,” despite the evidence to the contrary. Compare the treatment of the two old adversaries after 1945. A Carthaginian peace was imposed on Prussia. It was declared an eternal aggressor and the Prussian state was formally dissolved, while Austria was treated as a liberated nation rather than a conquered one, even though Prussia’s record of resistance to Hitler had been a good deal more distinguished than Austria’s. As A. J. P. Taylor once put it, Hitler had not only been Austria’s greatest gift to the German people but “the triumph of Austrian policy and Austria’s revenge for the defeat of 1866. Prussia became the prisoner of Vienna, and the best elements in Prussian society died at the hands of Hitler’s hangmen after July 20, 1944.” Meantime, National Socialist Party membership was proportionately higher in “Ostmark” (Austria) than the rest of Germany, and Austria provided a disproportionately high number of the Reich’s worst criminals.

AND SO after the “liberation” Austria was not expected, as was Germany, to display any penitence, and did not. Sympathetic juries saw that out of 123,000 Austrians tried for wartime crimes, only 13,000 were convicted. Even today the head of the Vienna Gestapo, the head of the Nazi euthanasia program, and the Gauleiter of Tyrol are living quietly in Austria. Negligible compensation was paid to Jewish and non-Jewish victims alike of the Third Reich. The English historian Robert Knight read the postwar Cabinet minutes. The Socialist chancellor, Karl Renner, said that “nobody will understand why every small Jewish merchant is to be compensated”; the trade minister, Eduard Heinl, said that “the Jews’ behavior is provocative.”

Meanwhile, Austria kept up the pretense that it was a victim. But the lie it has been living since 1945 was partly created by others. A non-country was called back into being and granted absolution. For the second time this false country had a false character put on it: Tyrolese gemutlich charm, old-world Viennese gaiety. “Austrianness” was again conjured out of nothing and imposed on the nation, though, as has been sourly said, the only true Austrians had been the Jews of Vienna, who were dispossessed, dead, or dispersed. The conspiracy–unconscious as so many conspiracies are–went so far as to present an Austria of dashing aristocratic anti-Nazis; for every person who knows something of the reality of recent Austrian history a million have seen The Sound of Music.

Once more Austria was denied the choice of unification with Germany, a choice now further tainted by the years 1938-45. Apart from other reasons, the Allies had an unspoken motive: a truly united Germany is simply too big. It is too big even when reunification is spoken of, as it conventionally is by West German politicians, to mean the joining one fine day of East and West. A couple of years ago an Italian Communist politician said that no one in Europe really wanted to see Germany united. He was slapped down, but he was right: if East and West Germany were united, their 79 million would overshadow their neighbors. With Austria’s additional 7.5 million the “Germans” would overwhelm Europe.

Maybe history missed a trick. Austria may not be a geographical or a cultural entity, but it is part of one. There are two Germanys. In the north is the country of Luther and Bismarck, in the south the Catholic, Baroque Germany, which includes Austria as much as Bavaria. It is too late for a thoughtful providence or the victorious Allies to arrange a frontier falling where the natural partition of Germany does, on the Main rather than the Elbe. All the same, Hitler was right in one respect. Austria is not a distinct or a real country. As long as it pretends to be one it will be a problem, for the Austrians and for the rest of us.

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