‘It’s an entire nation that is responsible’

Hitler speaks to cheering crowd at Vienna's Heldenplatz on March 15, 1938 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0922-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Next month marks the 86th anniversary of the “Anschluss,” the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on the 13th of March 1938. Revisiting my home country’s process of coming to grips with its chequered past reveals that holding a nation responsible (when in fact it is) is not only no sign of genocidal intent but may in fact be a necessary precondition for a successful moral recovery.

In the immediate aftermath of October 7th I, like many fellow Jews and supporters of Israel, believed the barbarism on display would be a wake-up call to the anti-Zionist progressive left. I was convinced it would prove beyond reasonable doubt that Israelis are dealing with enemies in Hamas and other terrorist groups who cannot be reasoned, negotiated or compromised with.

Harsh disillusionment found me when a left-leaning friend – a fellow Austrian – cited Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s truncated remarks regarding Gaza that “it’s an entire nation out there that is responsible” in support of the allegation of Israel’s intention to commit genocide. This was in late October, days into the ground offensive and long before South Africa submitted and the International Court of Justice to my continuing disbelief upheld the same remarks as evidence of (plausible) genocide.

I was caught off-guard not only because in the same press event President Herzog emphasized multiple times that Israel abides by international law and does not target civilians, but also because I know that if the exact same claim of national responsibility were made of Austrians under Nazi rule this friend would have agreed without regarding it a confession of (self-)genocidal intent. The reason I can be sure is that in Austria, as in Germany, it is practically an article of faith – especially on the left – that due to its support of and participation in Nazi crimes the nation to this day bears a historic responsibility of remembering.

This has not always been the case. In the period after World War II, Austria adopted a narrative of victimhood based on the 1943 Moscow Declaration on Austria by the Allies which stated that “Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination.” This permitted post-war Austrians to cast themselves as reluctant subjects to a terror state rather than supporters, collaborators and perpetrators. Conveniently swept under the rug were the numerous Austrian war criminals, SS officers and the nation’s general enthusiasm for the Nazi takeover as expressed in the famous scene at Vienna’s Heldenplatz where on March 15th, 1938, two days after the annexation, an estimated 250.000 locals (10-15% of Vienna’s population at the time) cheered and chanted as they welcomed Hitler into the country.

A similar story of generally peaceful, well-meaning Palestinians living reluctantly under Hamas in Gaza is frequently promulgated by some of the pro-Palestinian commentators who have kept enough sanity to recognise Hamas for the evil that it is (there are also those who seem to find no wrong in supporting terrorists). President Herzog’s remarks were an attempt to correct the record by pointing out Palestinians celebrating the October 7th massacre and hundreds of Gazan civilians participating in them. These cannot be dismissed as “a few bad apples.”

A recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found 57% support for the October 7th attacks among Gaza residents and 82% among West Bank residents for a combined 72% support. Hamas is supported by 43% of Palestinians and would receive a 51% absolute majority in parliamentary elections. The most popular candidate for PA presidency is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel for planning multiple deadly terror attacks during the Second Intifada. In a three-way race between Barghouti, Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh and current president Mahmud Abbas, Barghouti would receive 47% support, Haniyeh 43% and the “moderate” Abbas no more than 7%. These numbers speak clearly to the moral stance of the Palestinian nation. Murderous intent towards Jews was not a fringe phenomenon in Austria in 1938 and it is not today in Palestine.

Sentiments in Austria began to change in the late 80s after it came to light that president Kurt Waldheim – by a twist of what now seems almost prophetic irony a former UN Secretary General – had served as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht between 1942 and 1944 through which he knew of and may have facilitated German war crimes. The Waldheim affair set in motion a process of national self-reflection, which led to chancellor Franz Vranitzky becoming the first Austrian official in 1991 to admit and apologize for Austrian participation in Nazi atrocities. Subsequently, the Austrian Historical Commission was established and charged with the research and restitution of aryanized (mostly Jewish) property. The Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service was created as an alternative to military and civilian service and now supports around 50 young Austrians each year working in Holocaust Memorial institutions around the world, including Israel.

Austria has become one of Israel’s closest friends and allies and I have never personally experienced any form of antisemitism. The Austrian concept of “Kellernazi” (“cellar Nazi”) alludes to Nazi sympathizers secretly meeting or collecting memorabilia in their basement. So shunned is the attached ideology in social and political life nowadays that adherents have literally been forced underground. I therefore regard the Austrian story as a showcase in successful redemption. One which would not have been possible without the world’s unequivocal condemnation of the Nazi aspirations, without the Nazis’ total military defeat and removal from power and, importantly, without Austria’s acknowledgement of its national responsibility.

About the Author
Raffael Singer is an Austrian financial risk consultant and economic researcher at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. He holds a master's degree in Mathematics & Philosophy from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Mathematics from Imperial College London.
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