Vergangenheitsbewältigung

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Last month, Austria held its 25th general election. On first glance, the elections of the small, western European state nestled between Italy and Germany may seem insignificant in world events. But the results of this election should draw international attention: the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), an extreme right-wing populist party, garnered a very substantial 20.5 per cent of the votes. Austria is not unique in this respect – the growing popularity of nationalist parties is manifest in many countries in Europe. Still, the triumph of the FPÖ should be especially scrutinized considering Austria’s history.

FPÖ’s links with the pan-European right-wing are obvious: the Lega Nord party in Italy, the Front National in France, and the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands have expressed sympathies.

The FPO was founded in 1955 by former members of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NDSAP) – more commonly known as the Nazi party. While not all original members of the FPO were Nazis or came from such a background, the liberals who joined the FPO could never gain enough clout to differentiate themselves from the right-wingers. That former NSDAP members could even form a political group points to a central problem of Austrian politics: namely, that its past was never properly dealt with. ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, meaning the process of coming to terms with the past, was never enforced, and rather glossed over.

Post-war denazification, an initiative of the allies, proved to be quite unsuccessful. The aim was to rid Austrian and German society of National-Socialist ideology by prosecuting perpetrators and removing known supporters from public office. However, many ‘followers’ of the old NS regime could still advance their careers in both Germany and Austria. 129 former NSDAP members were in the second German Bundestag in 1953. Heinz Kindermann, a known anti-Semite, antiziganist (anti-Gypsyist) and antislavicist, was allowed to return to the University of Vienna to a chair in theatre studies only ten years after he was fired for his ideologies. And the ‘Verband der Unabhängigen’ (Federation of Independents), who represented interests of former NSDAP members was founded with impunity. Out of the VdU, the FPÖ was born.

A major issue for Austria was and still is its self-perception as victim, rather than perpetrator. This victim theory propagates the notion that Austria was the first victim of Hitler’s aggressive politics. Complicity in his atrocities could thus be ascribed to forced obedience – ‘he made us do it’ – rather than willing submission to national socialism. The Moscow Declaration of 1943 articulates this, and is used as the basis for current Austrian thinking:

“The governments of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States of America are agreed that Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination. (…) Austria is reminded, however, that she has responsibility which she cannot evade for participation in the war on the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation.”

Of course, the latter part was widely ignored. This victim-thinking has led to an as-yet unfulfilled ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’. Only in 1991 did Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky acknowledge Austria’s role in the crimes perpetrated during World War Two and asked for forgiveness. Restitutions to NS victims were not granted until 1998, when international pressure mounted to an unbearable degree. The Austrian people still did not think of themselves as criminals, however, but rather those who suffered crimes.

The FPÖ has profited from Austria’s self-consideration as a victim. Jörg Haider was the most prominent FPÖ politician until his death in 2008 – he was made to step down from state parliament in 1991 after proclaiming that under the Third Reich unemployment didn’t exist, because proper employment policy was implemented. Despite, or perhaps more frighteningly because of his bold statement, he was re-elected in 1999 and led his party into government the same year.

The links between FPÖ politicians and Austria’s neonazi scene are either ignored or downplayed. HC Strache, the party’s political leader, has recently praised the “Aula” – a right-wing neonazi paper that published articles implying that the horrors of concentration camps are exaggerated. Strache also posted an anti-Semitic caricature on his Facebook page last year, which neither caused substantial outrage nor mitigated his growing popularity: he was the party’s top candidate and this years elections.

Even in 2013, 42 per cent of Austrians said in a Market Institute poll for newspaper Der Standard survey that “not everything under Hitler was bad”. 46 per cent see Austria as a victim in the Anschluss and 61 per cent think ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ has been done properly.

This thinking, combined with burgeoning nationalist attitudes in Europe, and the underlying plays into the hands of the FPÖ. Campaign slogans like “Freie Frauen statt Kopftuchzwang” (“Free women [from] compulsory headscarf”) and “Hause statt Islam” (“Home instead of Islam”) find appeal with those resistant to the changing demographics of the European continent, oft thought to be Austria’s elderly citizens. However, this years election results showed that the FPÖ was also very popular amongst younger voters.

This phenomenon needs to be noticed and questioned, and more work needs to be done to properly address Austria’s Nazi history and to raise awareness of the dangers of right-wing extremism. In the words of George Santayana, those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

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