Monday, 10 March 2008


70 years ago, Austria ceased to exist, becoming one more "Gau" in the Third Reich.
That much people can agree on, which really shouldn't be too much to ask.
But from then on, things get tricky.

While the BBC goes with their habitual program of "the convenient myth of victimization" (evil Austrians, still unrepentant, anti-semitic Nazis, the lot of them...bla, bla, bla), Otto Habsburg (and who better to speak with authority on Austria than a person who is the result of centuries of breeding for exactly that purpose) applauds Chancellor Dollfuß (who was a ruthless fascist) and tells his adoring audience that no country in Europe has more claim to being a victim than Austria.

Discussions on this have been going on since the Seventies, and are still far from over.
While I am by no means an expert, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that the truth is probably somewhere in between those extremes. What I know is that Austria in 1938 was barely a country at all. The people were traumatized by the repercussions of WWI, impoverished, and pretty much adrift in new realities they had been ill prepared for. They did not think of themselves as Austrians - and why would they do so, when they had been told for centuries that they were Germans (which happens to be true), and therefore the ruling elite of the multi-ethnic empire (which happens to be b***sh**). The country was split three ways between fascists, Nazis and Socialists, held together only by sheer authoritarian force and heavily armed partisan militias.
They looked to Germany and saw her flourish. Who wouldn't have been envious? Simple solutions to all their problems were dangled before them. Who wouldn't have been tempted?
There are accounts of Hitler's arrival in Vienna, talking about how his troops distributed free meat to the people, many of whom hadn't been able to afford that in years.

My point is that Austria was a victim. A victim of historical circumstance, a victim of her precarious situation, a victim of the attractions of the Nazi regime.
But also a victim of her own ideological flaws and opportunism, which meant that many Austrians were practically falling over themselves in their enthusiastic support for the Fuehrer. Which, in turn, makes Austria a perpetrator, guilty of some of the most horrific crimes ever committed by and against mankind.
These two positions are by no means mutually exclusive. The fact that a serial killer was previously a victim of abuse might help us understand the person's actions a little better, but it does by no means absolve them of guilt.
I'm allergic to dichotomies at the best of times, but even more so when it comes to hugely complex issues with such ramifications. Austria was victim and perpetrator. Some were only victims, others only perpetrators...but the vast majority of people were probably on the broad spectrum in between.

Speaking as someone from my generation, I think we deserve more than a whitewash, and more than an unreflected, self-flagellating guilt-trip. We deserve an honest discussion, and personally, I'm still waiting for that to happen.

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