After the Anschluss


On the morning of March 12, 1938, the Wehrmacht's 8th Army rumbled across the German border into Austria. Greeted by flowers and salutes from jubilant locals, the Third Reich's takeover of its southeastern neighbor had begun.

In the decades that followed WW II, Austrians engaged in almost no public discussion of what became known as the Anschluss (a word that in German means "connection" and "political union"), and many Austrians preferred to think of their country as one of the Nazis' first victims, not a willing and enthusiastic collaborator. But in a talk at Harper Memorial Library last Wednesday—on the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss—Viennese historian Oliver Rathkolb described how Austrians' attitudes toward their Nazi past are changing. Introduced by fellow historian and Dean of the College John Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, as a "courageous" scholar, Rathkolb is director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and the Public Sphere and a contemporary-history professor at the University of Vienna. "In 1946," he reported, "only 19 percent of Austrians said yes" when asked if they thought their country bore any responsibility for allowing the Nazis to come in. This, he said, was despite the fact that in a plebiscite held a month after the takeover, 99.7 percent of Austrians voted in favor of the Anschluss. More than a million Austrians joined the Waffen SS and the Wehrmacht, and some took part in Nazi atrocities. Yet as soon as the war ended, Rathkolb said, "Austrians were quick to transform themselves into victims." The international community, led by Western allies more interested in the intensifying Cold War with the Soviets, facilitated the myth.

Over the years, there were several "conflict-laden attempts" by Austrian politicians and intellectuals to transform the "victim's doctrine," Rathkolb said. The turning point came in 1986 with Kurt Waldheim's embattled presidential campaign. A respected former UN secretary general, Waldheim was discovered to have hidden his student involvement with the Nazi movement and his wartime service in the Balkans, where in 1942 his commanding general led an operation slaughtering 60,000 Yugoslav partisans. Waldheim was elected, but the debate "split Austria," Rathkolb said, "and changed international ideas about Austria's contribution to the Nazis."

Polls bear out the results: in 1975 only 24 percent of Austrians were willing to accept responsibility for Nazi crimes, a slight uptick from three decades earlier. But by 2007 that number was 52 percent. This shift has its limits. "If you bring the issue of Nazis to the level of family histories," Rathkolb noted, "co-responsibility for WW II begins to fade away." But Austrians today are much more willing to ask themselves and their elders tough questions about the country's Nazi past. Public-school textbooks have changed to reflect an evolving understanding of Austria's Nazi complicity. International pressure, led in the 1990s by the United States, has focused attention on the Anschluss and its legacy. What's missing now, Rathkolb said, is an understanding among Austrians of how their WW II past fits within the broader European picture. Austrians now know their own Holocaust history, but not "the wider history, not as a part of European history."


Photo: After his talk, Oliver Rathkolb takes questions from the audience.

March 17, 2008