Seventy years on, Austrians still struggle with Anschluss

March 11th, 2008 - 9:43 am ICT by admin  

By Ivonne Marschall
Vienna, March 11 (DPA) In March 1938, Nazi troops marched into Austria and 250,000 cheered the return of Adolf Hitler to his native country on Vienna’s Heldenplatz square. In their eyes, the country’s greatest son had returned on that fateful March 12. For the next seven years, only very few openly bemoaned Austria’s fate. Now 70 years later, Austria is still struggling. “Until the 1980s the view prevailed that we were an innocent victim and don’t have to take any responsibility,” Brigitte Bailer, of the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, a think-tank, said.

After decades of procrastination, Austria is stepping up self-reflection. For the anniversary, commemorative events and exhibitions remind people of the cruelties and injustices suffered by Austria’s Jewish citizens.

Hakoah, Vienna’s Jewish sports club, celebrates the return to its sports centre, expropriated in 1938, regarded as a symbol of the slow return of Jewish culture to Vienna.

Vienna’s State Opera launched an exhibition on the purge of Jewish singers and staffers immediately after the Nazi takeover. Within days of the Anschluss, Jewish staffers were fired, to the extent that many productions could not be staged for lack of singers.

It was an opportunity to bring light into the opera house’s history, opera head Ioan Holender said. Not only for the older generation, but also those misinformed by “half-truths or filtered truths,” Holender said.

Victims often waited in vain for justice. Restitution of Jewish property is progressing at a snail’s pace, obstructed by legislation and courts friendly towards the new owners of looted property.

In the residential district Ottakring, commemorative “Pillars of Remembrance” tell the story of Edith Arlen Wachtel and her brother Walter Arlen, who fled the country in 1939, their family’s property stolen.

“And then, suddenly I did not go to school any more,” Arlen said. A simple sentence, which still manages to condense the enormity of events, with much worse still to come.

While Austria made some progress in victim research, compensation and atonement, Austria’s active share in Nazi crimes remained neglected. Research about perpetrators is only in its beginning, scholars said.

The citizens of the Alpine republic were not much inclined to reflect on the events of March 12, 1938 in the aftermath of World War II. Officially vindicated as Hitler’s first victim after Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust and Austria’s role was a taboo topic for decades to come.

The roots of Austrians embracing the Anschluss can be traced back to the peace treaties concluded after World War I. Austrians across the political spectrum struggled with the break-up of the Habsburg empire, firmly believing that the only chance for the newly created country was a political union with Germany.

While a large majority supported a union, provisions in the peace treaties prevented such action. Nazi sympathizers moved into key positions in Austria’s fragile political system after 1933.

On March 13, 1938, the annexation was given immediate legislative effect and on March 15 the Vienna crowds cheered Hitler. Television images of those scenes were to haunt Austrians for decades to come.

In a referendum, April 10, 99.73 percent of Austrians voted in favour of the Anschluss. By then, 76,000 Austrians had been arrested, many of them transported into concentration camps.

Time is running out as all those directly involved are passing away. By the 80th anniversary of 12 March 1938, there may be no one left for Austria to apologize to.

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