“We Have to Call a Spade a Spade!”

Speech by the Austrian writer Michael Köhlmeier, held on 5 May before members of the Austrian government and other invited guests on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Ladies and gentlemen, President Sobotka1 has filled me with courage when he said, “We have to call a spade a spade!” And please do not expect me to pretend being dumb. Not on a day like this and at a gathering like the one we are in now.

I only want one thing: to be able to look those murdered by the NS-regime into the eyes, those whose lives the young ladies and gentlemen only a while ago told us about so incredibly vividly. And be it only with the help of your and my imaginative power.

And it is those people who I hear asking: What are you going to tell those sitting here and belonging to a party whose members in an almost weekly rhythm deliver anti-Semitic or racist statements downplaying Nazi crimes, either in the glaring public or stealthily in the forums and social media. What are you going to tell them?

Do you want to pretend you did not know about all this? You did not know what they mean when they are exchanging their codes? When they are talking about certain ‘circles from the East Coast’? When they are playing with the number ‘88’? Or when they, as they did just a while ago, use the name of ‘George Soros’ as a click to conspiracy theories in the ill-fated tradition of the Protocols of the ‘Elders of Zion’2? The concept of ‘sound rumours’ will make its way into the dictionary of perfidy and slander.

Do you also belong to those, I can hear them asking, who have allowed themselves to be blunted, who are no longer alarmed by the ghastly surfacing of these single cases, but – on the contrary – who do away with the repeated occurrence of such cases as just a symptom of common opinion, of the normal, of that we already know, of that which ‘is not new’ and therefore lulling us to sleep?

Mankind never arrived at the Big Evil in just one step. It never did, it arrived there in many small ones. Of which each individual step seemed in itself too small for a big outcry of indignation. But, things are being said first and then they are being done.

Are you – that is what I hear them asking – for the sake of peace and quiet, going to acquiesce without contradicting when a minister of the interior is once again saying that people should be kept in a ‘concentrated’ way?

Are you going to cowardly grit your teeth, even when there is no need for cowardice? Who can harm you in your country, in your time, when you are speaking the truth? If this party, which is part of the government, is today calling for the protection of Jews in our country from the anti-Semitism of some Muslims coming to us, that would be right. And the right thing to do. Only – I do not believe these calls.

Anti-Islamism is to be justified by Philo-Semitism. This is as hypocritical as the love of Christianity in former days demonstrated by waving about a neon-light cross. Scapegoats is what the country needs. But is that so? Does our country really need scapegoats? Who thinks we are capable of such moral corruption? Is it possible to, on the one hand, write in an associated gazette that the prisoners liberated from Mauthausen were a ‘pest’ and, on the other hand, claim to be defenders and protectors of the Jews? It is possible, yes, it is.

I am alarmed by the first and I do not believe the second.

And those who believe that are either idiots or pretend being idiots. In that case they are cynics. And I do not want to be either.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have heard about the stories collected by the young people. And certainly you said to yourself if those poor people would only have been able to flee in those years. But, you know, even in those days there were people, everywhere in the world, priding themselves on having shut down escape routes.

I have taken a long time to think of the right words to say to you today. And I would have preferred not having been asked if I wanted to speak. But I was asked and I consider it as my duty as a citizen to do it. It would be so easy to list all the standards starting from ’Never again!’ reaching to ‘Never forget!’, these demonstrations of consternation coagulating into phrases as recommended for pupils’ essays so that the writer might get a good mark. But that would require acting as if. But I cannot and I do not want to do this, not on a day like this, at this gathering. I want to look the victims into the eyes, the victims who are speaking to me and to you with the help of the research and the stories of these young people and with the help of your and my imagination and who are listening now. And I also want to look myself into the eyes.

That is all I have to say. Thank you!

Translation: Hilde Grammel


  1. Wolfgang Sobotka is currently one of the three presidents of the Austrian National Assembly
  2. The ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ are an anti-Semitic hoax purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination.