After decades of denying complicity, Austria has become a star performer in living up to its responsibility. In art restitution, it is the clear leader.
Even though Austria’s government now includes a far-right Freedom Party founded in 1956 by former Nazis, the country is making vast, if belated progress, in Holocaust remembrance.
Austria was a central perpetrator of the Holocaust and was late to admit its guilt. Until the late 1990s, long after West Germany had accepted responsibility, Austria portrayed itself as “first victims” of the Nazis.
A new generation has corrected this misguided perspective. Current chancellor, Sebastian
Kurz, travelled in the spring of 2018 to Israel and stated that Austria has “historic responsibility” in the Holocaust. The chancellor’s strong rhetoric is tempered by his party’s
coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, (FPO), which touts strict anti-immigrant and anti-
Muslim policies. Though the Freedom Party has attempted to rebrand itself, clear ties to
Nazism remain, including connections to far-right fraternities. Many in the Jewish community remain wary of the FPO, and the Israelitische Kulturgemeinde Wien (Israeli Cultural Community of Vienna) has boycotted a state sponsored Holocaust commemoration due to the FPO’s presence.
Perhaps because of this background, the present Austrian government has gone out of its
way to promote good practice regarding Holocaust remembrance. From school curricula, to memorials, to active support of survivors and the Jewish community, Austria expends
significant effort to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust stays alive and is handled
properly, including work to ensure that the next generation of Austrians keeps the Holocaust in their thoughts and hearts.
This commitment extends to civil society, where Austrian organisations foster strong ties to
survivors, commemorate victims, and educate the general population. Austria, like many
European countries, struggles to provide the financial resources to fund the new or
expanding remembrance projects, such as those in Mauthausen or the Gedenkdienst
(commemoration service) organisation.
Additional work needs to be done. Despite this considerable resume of Holocaust
remembrance, Austria remains one of the more anti-Semitic countries in Western Europe. A 2015 Pew Research poll found that 21 percent of Austrians would be unwilling to accept a Jewish person as a member of their family, as compared with just six percent of Danes and 19 percent of Germans. Though the public has come a long way since the days of Waldheim and total denial of Austrian involvement, Holocaust remembrance in Austria is still vital.
The Holocaust in Austria
Prior to World War II, Austria counted 192,000 Jewish residents, the majority living in
Vienna. It was one of the largest centres of Jewish cultural life in Europe. With the rise of
discriminatory laws after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Jewish life became
impossible. In November of 1938, synagogues and Jewish communities were attacked
during Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. Due to this discrimination, only 57,000
Jews remained in Austria by the start of the war, the majority having emigrated.
The remaining Jews faced annihilation. Some 30,000 were dispatched to the eastern front
and killed by Einsatzgruppen divisions. Some 15,000 more went to the Theresienstadt
concentration camp. Others went to camps in Germany. By the end of the war only 7,000
Jews remained in Austria.
Austria faces responsibility for this tragedy. Not only was Austria the birthplace of Hitler as
well as Eichmann and other top Nazi orchestrators of the Holocaust, the Nazis received
overwhelming popular support there and a larger percentage of Austrians served in the SS
than even the Germans.
Despite this guilt, the Austrians were able to take advantage of their non-German national
identity to construe themselves as victims of the Nazis after the war. This disingenuous and
damaging myth enabled Austrians to ignore their guilt for almost a half century, and in the
process elect a former Nazi to the presidency, Kurt Waldheim.
- 1947: Even though the Verbotsgetsetz statute bans the Nazi Party in Austria, rhetoric
around the creation of the Second Republic demonstrates the pervasive acceptance
of the “victim myth” that Austria was the first victim of Hitler and the Third Reich.
- 1949: The Mauthausen concentration camp is made an official memorial, the first in
- 1975: Mauthausen Museum is officially opened.
- 1986: Former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim runs for President, only to be
uncovered as a former SS Cavalry corps member who was involved in the
deportation of Greek Jews. The victim myth begins to be questioned in public
dialogue. Despite this, Waldheim wins the election and remains president until 1992.
- 1988: A “Year of Remembrance” is announced as a response to the Waldheim Affair,
sparking further public debate on Austria’s role in the Holocaust and the Third Reich.
- 1991: Chancellor Franz Vranitzky officially confesses Austria’s crimes as a
perpetrator of the Holocaust and asks for forgiveness.
- 1995: Nationalfonds, an organisation founded to recognise the victims of National
socialism, is founded.
- 1998: Commission is created for restitution of wealth to those who were robbed
- 2000: Errinern.at is founded to help improve Holocaust education in Austria
- 2000: Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna is inaugurated.
- 2001: Austria joins the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
- 2018: Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks of “historic responsibility” of Austria with
respect to Holocaust.
Austria’s current government is a coalition between the center right party, the OVP Austrian People’s Party and the anti-immigrant far right Austrian Freedom Part), which has historically been linked to the Nazis. While this coalition forms a government that seems unlikely to support Holocaust remembrance, the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has made open remarks about Austria’s “historic responsibility” towards the Holocaust, and his rhetoric has staunchly supported the importance of the Holocaust remembrance in Austria.
Some remain unconvinced that this coalition is a friend of Holocaust remembrance. The IKG (Israelitische Kulturgemeinde Wien) boycotted a government sponsored ceremony
commemorating the Holocaust due to the presence of the Freedom Party. The Mauthausen committee refused to invite the Freedom to attend a similar commemorative ceremony. The Freedom Party responded to this rebuke by calling for a “culture of awareness and remembrance.” Overall, Freedom Party rhetoric on Holocaust issues remains softer and more progressive than that of the comparable Alternative for Germany party in Germany.
Yet the Freedom Party’s past continues to haunt this debate. The party’s hateful rhetoric on
immigration leads many to draw comparisons with theNazi ideology of racial purity. Until the Freedom Party can show remorse and that they can be active leaders on the issue, and their policies demonstrate they have learned lessons from Austria’s mistakes in the Holocaust, scepticism will remain and the government’s nominal support of Holocaust remembrance will be tainted.
In addition, Kurz’s coalition has supported one of Europe’s harshest crackdowns on
migration. Since taking office in December 2017, it has tightened borders and cut benefits for new immigrants. In June 2018, the government closed seven mosques and sought to expel dozens of Turkish imams, citing suspected violations of an Austrian law that bans “political Islam” or foreign financing of Muslim institutions. In October 2018, Austria joined the United States and Hungary by announcing that it will not sign the United Nations agreement on migration.
At the same time, the Austrian government stepped up support for Holocaust remembrance. The government funds education, memorials, museums, and research institutions dedicated directly to the Holocaust. These factors have created strong ties between the country’s past and its present and foster a consciousness of Austria’s role in and responsibility for National Socialism and the Holocaust.
The Nationalfonds has been key in passing restitution laws, including the initial laws in 1998 concerning the restoration of art and cultural works to their rightful owners. Austria is the leader in this field of legal restitution of artifacts. Though there are certainly failings, as in the 2015 case of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, the Austrian commitment since the late 1990s to restitution is among the strongest in Europe, with over 50,000 major artifacts stolen by the National Socialist regime returned to their rightful heirs.
Austria has mandatory Holocaust education and the topic is commonly taught in both
elementary and high school. The curriculum is curated to be age appropriate, accurate, and demonstrate Austrian guilt. Though class time is at a premium, considerable work is taking place to ensure that the time available to teachers to address the topic is used most
Errinern (German for “remember”) is a branch of the Ministry of Education dedicated to
Holocaust education, and their work is key to understanding the strengths and weaknesses
of Holocaust education in Austria. Moritz Wein, a coordinator for Errinern, related how the
organisation is renovating teaching materials to meet the needs of a modern classroom.
Errinern has updated textbooks and has developed an interactive educational app that can
be used on school sponsored devices. The app relates the stories of Holocaust victims,
allowing students to engage personally with the Holocaust in relatively short time and in an
accessible way. These aids have been developed to adapt Holocaust education to a modern era where students have fewer personal links to the Holocaust itself.
Even so, the organisation faces challenges. Errinern can only reach and help teachers who
are interested in improving Holocaust education. They have no mandate, but rather are only able to give materials to those who ask for them. While all history teachers in Austria
undergo training that involves Holocaust education, it is by no means the case that all history teachers are interested in devoting all their energy to the subject. As is frequently the case in Holocaust remembrance, those already interested in the Holocaust have a plethora of options available, but it is easy for those who do not care to ignore the subject altogether.
In prior generations, many teachers found it difficult to teach on the Holocaust due to the prevalence of the victim myth and the closeted guilt of student’s grandparents and parents. However, this problem becomes less prevalent as time passes. Today, many students engage in genealogy projects where they discuss their family’s role during the war with their parents and reflect.
While the issue of teaching guilt has eased with time, teachers in Austria still face many
challenges when educating about the Holocaust. Teachers often do not know how to
approach the topic with ideologically right-wing students who they know will not be reached by standard textbooks and lessons. These issues are reported to Errinern by teachers with increasing frequency. Often social media is cited as the root of the problem, as anonymous posting of racist and anti-Semitic material, or even outright Holocaust denial, is becoming more and more common. Addressing this problem is not an easy task. Errinern and other organisations, such as Nationalfonds Austria, are doing research about how to reach this demographic, which is normally closed off to being lectured on this topic.
Traditionally, Errinern brought Holocaust survivors into schools as witnesses to tell their
story through the Zeitsorger programme (Time Caretakers). This immersive experience is a
powerful means of bridging the cognitive dissonance between history and the student’s own lives and their current belief systems and can be an effective tool to reach demographics normally uninterested in the Holocaust. Sadly, Austria now only has 12 remaining survivor of the Holocaust participating in the Zeitsorger programme. This makes innovative teaching materials, such as interactive apps, accessible textbooks, and in person visits of sites even more important.
Another common problem within Holocaust education is the emotional and psychological
difficulty of teaching the material to students. According to Hannah Landsmann, a curator
and educational director at the Vienna Jewish Museum, teachers sometimes use trips to
museums or visits by Holocaust survivors as a replacement for having to lecture on the
These activities should not be treated as replacements for classroom Holocaust education,
but rather as supplements. Indeed, Moritz Wein contends that visits from survivors or visiting concentration camps increases the burden on the teacher in the classroom, as the activities raise so many questions for students. This is a deficit that is difficult for the government to correct, but it is nonetheless an area of concern that requires an innovative solution.
Holocaust education is difficult in any country, and Austria’s unique situation makes it even
more complicated. Government institutions such as Errinern attempt to alleviate this difficult task by providing educational materials and trying to diagnose problems within the current system. In doing so, they have provided Austrian teachers with an outline and resources for improving Holocaust education. While they may not reach everyone, since they have no legislative mandate, it is clear Austrian Holocaust education is improving through this work.
Dr. Werner Dreier’s favourite Holocaust memorial is in the south Austrian town of Villach.
The memorial is made of glass and has been vandalised multiple times and damaged due to its fragility. Each time it has had to be restored, and it serves as a reminder of how
Holocaust commemoration is not a one-time commitment but is something that needs
attention over time to remain strong and meaningful.
According to Dreier, a history professor at the University of Salzburg, the vandalism serves
as a good metaphor for the situation of commemoration in Austria in general. Memorials and commemorative sites in Austria are numerous but are not always treated respectfully.
Memorials in Austria have changed significantly in the past few decades. According to
Wolfgang Gedeon, a historian and researcher of National Socialist Austria, prior to the 1990s it was still common to find memorials to Nazis in Austria. These memorials have begun to be removed, although some still remain. Debate around the historical importance of the memorials stall efforts to see them removed. While these memorials are historically interesting, they should at the very least be contextualised with educational materials, such as boards relating the context of the genocide that the commemorated Austrians perpetrated. In this way, these memorials can serve as historical reminders of the National Socialist period rather than as a means of honouring the perpetrators of a genocide.
Another significant change in recent years is the increase in the number of memorial sites
dedicated to the Holocaust. In Melk, a small town between Salzburg and Vienna, a
monument to a satellite camp has appeared in the past five years. The small monument is
inconspicuous, but stands next to a high traffic area, serving as a reminder that the beautiful provincial town along the Danube was once the site of a genocide. This is significant development in commemoration culture in Austria, and it is vital to the continuation of Holocaust remembrance in rural areas where big museums and Jewish communities are less accessible.
The most important commemorative site in Austria is the Mauthausen memorial. The former concentration camp serves as a museum and commemorative site and is funded by the ministry of the Interior. The site functions as an important educational facility. Schools
throughout Austria are encouraged to make a trip to Mauthausen as part of their curriculum, and right-wing extremists are rehabilitated through programs at the site. Mauthausen thus serves Austrian remembrance as an active commemorative site, not just as a static monument. Through the dynamic involvement with commemoration of this sort, Austrian remembrance continues to be strengthened.
An important government organisation in the field of commemoration is the Nationalfonds. The Nationalfonds was founded in 1995 to serve the “special responsibility” that Austria has with regard to its historical involvement with the Holocaust. The Nationalfonds is currently led by Hannah Lessing, the daughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Hannah Lessing now does “memory work” to try to stem the tide of hate and anti-Semitism that she sees growing in Austria with the rise of right-wing populism. While the Nationalfonds helps in the promotion of large-scale sweeping legislation, it also partakes in smaller scale commemorative work. In June 2018, the members of Nationalfonds wrote all the names of the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust on the Prater Hauptallee in Vienna.
This seems minor in comparison to restoring artwork, but is an innovative way of reaching
new people and remembering the Holocaust in a more active and participatory way. Hannah Lessing recalled that there were bikers passing by who would stop and ask to write a name, and that this felt very meaningful to them, even if it was just a few minutes of memorialising that person. It is this kind of powerful memory work that will continue in Austria thanks to the establishment of this commemorative organisation.
Mauthausen is a memorial and a museum, but it is also home to Austria’s Holocaust
archives. The director of the Mauthausen archives, Christian Duerr, emphasised how
important the archives’ role in remembrance as they help in establishing the reestablishment of rightful ownership of property stolen during the Holocaust, as well as serving as an important research tool. As such, the Mauthausen archives are digitised and open to the public.
Another important archive is held at Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW). It commemorates the victims of the Holocaust.
In the post-war years, the Austrian “victim myth” was pervasive in the public consciousness
and is one of the best-known examples of post-war revisionist history. Austrian governments portrayed themselves as the “first victim” of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and this idea was widely accepted throughout the mid twentieth century.
This was an attempt not only to be assimilated into the international community and regain
sovereignty, but also to avoid having to pay reparations. The year 1986 is widely considered a turning point in Austrian victimisation history. Kurt Waldheim, a former SS cavalry corps member, was running for president and in doing so brought attention to the active Austrian role in executing the Holocaust.
While this was by no means the end of the Austrian victim myth, it began the public dialogue. The Waldheim Affair brought Austrian victimhood into question. Though Waldheim became president, which was an international scandal, it brought Austria to its modern state of Holocaust remembrance by sparking a dialogue. Most chancellors since that time have been vocal proponents of Holocaust remembrance and most have recognised Austria’s guilt. According to Moritz Wein, the victim myth is thoroughly debunked, and is now only at the fringes of Austrian social consciousness.
The primary minority party in Austria is the Social Democratic Party. The party has been
staunchly against the Freedom Party. Prior to the election in 2017 they signed a 30-year ban on forming a coalition with the far-right party. While this ban has little policy effect, it is a demonstration of how reprehensible the left wing views the Freedom Party as being.
While the government seems to lead the charge in Holocaust remembrance by funding
memorials, education, and institutions, pressure from the ground up by members of civil
society generated the political will to force these policies through.
Perhaps the most critical of these civil institutions is the Gedenkdienst (Commemoration
Service). Although partially funded by the government, the Gedenkdienst operates
independently from any government branch. It takes volunteers and sends them abroad to
learn about the Holocaust through service as workers at Auschwitz, or by serving as aids to
Holocaust survivors. According to Hannah Lessing, President of the Nationalfonds, the
Gedenkdienst produces “the best ambassadors for Austrian remembrance”.
The Gedenkdienst faces financial challenges. Volunteers are given a stipend to live abroad,
but those who are sent to more expensive countries often struggle to make ends meet.
Without increased funding, the Gedenkdienst has warned that it may be forced to shut down. While the Gedenkdienst has only a limited number of volunteers, they are excellent
candidates to be leaders at the forefront of future Holocaust remembrance.
Holocaust remembrance events are proliferating. In Vienna, for example, John Clarke of th Progressive Jewish Community says that members of a nearby Catholic church hold a
candlelight vigil at the site of a former synagogue. A memorial was erected and new street
lamps have been installed in the shape of a star of David.
The Austrian media has a strong influence in Holocaust remembrance. Social media has
enabled a rise of anti-Semitic comments. This hateful rhetoric is typically anonymous, and no anti-Semitic movement has a significant public figurehead. The mainstream media is
primarily left-leaning and has called attention to this fringe revisionism and rising anti- Semitism in Austria.
Media coverage of Holocaust topics generally promotes Holocaust remembrance. The year 2018 marked the 80 th anniversary of the Anschluss, Austria’s assimilation into the Third Reich, and as such it has been dubbed the “Year of Remembrance”, accompanied by radio and TV documentaries about the Holocaust. As the Holocaust period becomes a part of the more distant past, it is key that the media remains actively involved in spreading accurate information about the Holocaust and its local history.
Ms. Julia Weduwen, educational director at the Jewish museum of Vienna emphasises that the Jewish museum is not a Holocaust museum. Jewish life in Austria did not start in 1933, nor did it end in 1945. The Jews have always been, and continue to be, influential and important to the cultural life of Vienna and all of Austria. The primary Jewish organisation in Austria is the IKG, the Israelistische Kulturgemeinde Wien. This organisation supports Jewish communities, Jewish schools, and Holocaust education in Austria, as well as serving as an important political watchdog. Its boycott of the Holocaust Remembrance Day service in January 2018 attracted the attention of the media and brought the Freedom Party’s ties to their Nazi past under further scrutiny.
Jews play other important roles in Holocaust remembrance in Austria. Many descendants of survivors serve on the Mauthausen Committee, a board of survivors and associated people who help to determine how to best keep the memory of the concentration camp alive in future generations.
-Author: Nicholas Haeg