Austria’s Annexation to Nazi Germany organised together with others on 10 March, in Vienna, a symposium entitled “Austria 1938-2018. The victim/perpetrator discourse and the Austrian resistance”.

12 March marked the 80th anniversary of the annexation [Anschluss] of Austria to the German Reich, as a result of which the Nazi terror regime expanded into Austria. It was not until the 1980s that a process of rethinking was initiated by the so-called Waldheim affair, which forced Austrians to see themselves not only as victims but also as perpetrators with regard to the crimes of National Socialism.

The issue is, however, more complex and requires further explanation than being reduced to a binary distinction between victims and perpetrators. The public view of the Austrian resistance frequently fell victim to the significant new sensitivity towards perpetration, although this played an essential role in the establishment of Austria’s Second Republic.

Recommencing this debate seems all the more necessary today, as, since December, there is a proponent of German nationalism in the government in the shape of the right-wing extremist FPÖ party. In this way, questions of Austria’s conception of itself and the interpretation of its history gain an urgent topical political significance.

The panellists came from different disciplines and approaches, thus there were talks from historians from the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) in Vienna, together with a presentation by a nun from a religious order.

Winfried Garscha (DÖW) spoke about the path to March 1938 in the Austro-fascist dictatorship; while Gerhard Baumgartner (Research Director at the DÖW) discussed Austrian resistance, including the hitherto unresearched opposition groups such as the Burgenland Roma. Claudia Kuretsidis-Haider (DÖW) gave a presentation on denazification and post-war justice. Political scientist Tamara Ehs spoke about the discontinuation and failure of denazification and defascisization.

In a panel on “How we talk about the resistance today” the historian Sissi Luif, filmmaker Elisabeth Holzinger, journalist Nina Horaczek and Tobias Schweiger, activist of the Young Greens, held a discussion.

Mario Kessler, a historian from Berlin, gave a talk about German and Austrian Communists and their flight to the United States.

Sister Ruth Beinhauer gave a presentation on Sr. Restituta Kafka, who was condemned to death by the Nazis for her resistance, and her Communist fellow prisoners.

Bernhard Weidinger (DÖW) explained why the FPÖ can be declared a right-wing extremist party.

Walter Baier, political coordinator at transform! europe, talked about right-wing radicalism and nationalism in Europe.

The concluding panel included politicians among its speakers: Joanna Gwiazdecka (RLS, Prague), Samuel Seitz (Junge Linke), Regina Gruber (DiEM25) and Joachim Tischler (European Left) discussed the question of a Europe between neo-liberalism and nationalism.

The concluding remarks were made by Mirko Messner, Federal Spokesman for the KPÖ.

The symposium was opened by Barbara Steiner, Director of transform! europe. Her thematic introduction was as follows:

Hitler received an exultant welcome from Austro-fascist Austria

On 12 March 1938 the German armed forces marched into Austria and the political change from the Austro-fascist regime to one of National Socialism was implemented; on 13 March the administrative assimilation of Austria as “Ostmark” into the German Reich was effected.

The enemy stood not only beyond the border, however. The NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party] achieved around a quarter of the votes in the last free regional elections in 1932 and was the second-largest opposition party after the Social Democrats.

Democracy in Austria was shut down in 1933; on 4 March 1933 Parliament was paralysed by the Dollfuß government. The Nazis, who had been made illegal since 1933, attempted a coup on 25 July 1934, committing terror attacks and then infiltrating the various institutions of the Austro-fascist state. They were only waiting for their chance to seize power and, in March 1938, mobilised their followers.

The Wehrmacht, SS and police commando armed forces marched on 12 March to cheers and jubilation from a large number of Austrians. We all know the images of the crowded Heldenplatz where, on 15 March, the people hailed Hitler on the balcony of the Neue Burg.

Starting as early as the evening of 11 March, in the weeks that followed, especially in Vienna, around 72,000 people were arrested by the SA and SS, including functionaries of the Ständestaat [“Corporate State”], politicians of the First Republic, Communists and intellectuals – a third of them Jews. The majority were deported to the Dachau concentration camp.

The KPÖ for an independent, democratic Austria

The KPÖ was a small party not represented in the National Council. Their membership grew rapidly after the short civil war in February 1934, however, in which the workers’ movement and its armed section, the Schutzbund [Protection League], defeated the fascist Heimwehren [Home Defence Units]. Since the start of the First Republic the KPÖ had advocated the notion of an independent Austria against the annexation movement that was widespread in the 1920s. On 12 March it was the only political power that called for active resistance to the occupation and the fascist regime; and for the re-creation of a “free, independent Austria”, explicitly targeted at Socialists and Christians as well.

In the Nazi era the KPÖ wanted to fight in a people’s front for a democratic, independent Austria that would not so much revert to the status quo pre-annexation; but that would open the way to a socialist society. This strategy placed them among the ranks of liberation fronts and armies in opposition to the Nazi occupation, internationally. They saw a free, democratic Austria as the antithesis to National Socialism.

Was it naivety or suppression by propaganda that led them to underestimate the cheers and follower numbers and the anti-Semitism poisoning large parts of society?

The relevance of the resistance

There was opposition from Socialists, Christians, Conservatives, military personnel, trade unions and Communists, and individual resistance – which we term civil disobedience, or simply humanity – was marked in many aspects. In numerical terms the losses from the Communist resistance were the highest. It has repeatedly been found that gender relations were critically shaken up by the war situation and women took their place in public. Women in the resistance faced manifold burdens as they had to combine family and care roles with wage labour and political work.

In 1943 the Moscow Declaration from the Allied Foreign Ministers recognised that Austria was the first free country to fall victim to Hitler’s typical policy of aggression. Yet the words of the Declaration also state: “Austria is reminded, however, that she has a responsibility, which she cannot evade, for participation in the war on the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation.”

The armed resistance by the Corinthian Slovene partisans in particular was extremely significant for the evaluation that followed at the end of the war[1]. It resulted in the paradox that, although the resistance fighters and the partisans were responsible for Austria’s swiftly regained independence, in liberated Austria they were nonetheless marginalised and demonised as Communists, traitors and bandits.

On her 90th birthday, the Communist Irma Schwager, who was active in the Resistance in France doing highly dangerous “Mädelarbeit” work, answered the question put by her grandson, the singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer, as to why she returned to Vienna, to this city where as a Jew and a Communist she had been spat at and despised in the blink of an eye: “We came back because we had won.” He sings about this in the song “Irma La Douce”, which he wrote for her funeral.

In fact, the KPÖ was the only party to actively bring back its Jewish members from exile. This is also documented in the impressive “Genosse Jude” [“Comrade Jew”] exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna. Yet the KPÖ, the founding party of the Second Republic and part of the provisional Renner government, did not achieve the electoral success it had hoped for after its major role in the resistance.

In the Cold War: anti-fascist consensus becomes anti-Communist consensus

After 1945, former members of NSDAP had their voting rights withdrawn – only until 1947 or ‘48 though (passive right to vote). There were amnesties for “less important” Nazis, a sluggish and ultimately shelved denazification process and prosecution of war crimes. In the spirit of the Cold War the anti-fascist consensus was replaced by an anti-Communist consensus; former Nazis also now identified themselves as victims and, after a brief period for propriety’s sake, were able to continue their careers in newly reconstructed Austria.

Taras Borodajkewycz, whose anti-Semitic tirades in 1965 led to a large-scale anti-fascist demonstration, was emblematic of this. In the course of this demonstration, the Communist resistance fighter Ernst Kirchweger was killed by a member of the RFS (the youth arm of the FPÖ).

The Waldheim affair in 1986 brought the idea of the participation of many Austrians in the Nazi crimes into the public arena and initiated a change in the public discourse. In 1991 Franz Vranitzky, was the first Federal Chancellor acknowledging the involvement of Austrians in the Nazi-crimes and proffered an apology with great impact.

From 1992 the National Council decided to indemnify displaced Jews and forced labourers; and from 2001 to instigate restitution.

Victims’ groups that had previously been largely ignored, such as the Roma and Sinti, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, victims of clinical trials and “euthanasia” and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the repercussions for gender relations, have since been studied by academics and recognised by the media.

The Wehrmacht exhibition 1995-1999 and 2001-2004 dispelled the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht”, by shining the spotlight on the previously taboo massacres and involvement in the war of extermination. The rehabilitation of deserters first took place in 2009; a memorial to deserters was erected in Vienna in 2014.

The victim/perpetrator discourse and the Austrian resistance – relevance today

The replacement of the victim discourse with the perpetrator discourse pushes the small but for this very reason significant resistance out of sight again. We are aiming to correct this through this symposium.

An anti-fascist policy that seeks to achieve majorities is not served with bold simplifications. It requires a differentiated picture of society and its history. Above all, it must build on progressive traditions.

There is widespread moral outrage in liberal circles, even among parts of the conservative public and in the media concerning the continuity of National Socialism via right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism and German nationalism (less over misogyny and racism!) in the ranks and the context of the FPÖ.

The FPÖ is a party that sits on the Austrian National Council and in government. Its representatives feel that they belong to the German nation, however. There is, therefore, a party sitting on the National Council and in government that rejects Austria as an independent nation.

When it comes to the repression of history and the Holocaust, the same applies to the discourse of relativisation as in Elfriede Jelinek’s novel “Kinder der Toten” [“Children of the Dead”] – the repressed returns as something sinister. The fact that, at first, participation in the Nazi crimes was suppressed and then, during the reappraisal, the causes were not reviewed either but only the effects, does not dispel the trauma.

On one hand, it therefore requires a link to policies that prevent a resurgence of fascism. On the other hand, reflecting on history never entails a pure view of the past but rather the concomitant analysis and interpretation for today and the future as well.

In shaping this future – and scientists are just as responsible here as journalists, artists, politicians and other intellectuals – we need alliances and cooperations.

[1] “Austria is reminded, however, that she has a responsibility, which she cannot evade, for participation in the war on the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation.”