THURSDAY, MAY 15, 2014
…Words said by the former Austrian minister of foreign affairs—Leopold Figl, after signing Austria’s State Treaty 59 years ago today, on May 15, 1955—words that would become the most famous quote of Austria’s recent history, words that sparked controversy among some people and euphoria and a new national identity among many more. Austrian politicians and the leaders of the former allied forces worked on the treaty that would define the way Austria would think of itself, as well as European politics throughout the second half of the 20th century. It includes many points that could be talked about for hours, like restricting alliances with Germany, which gave the Soviet Union a chance to keep Austria from joining the European Economic Community for years and keep it from growing and evolving. The treaty also included constitutional laws that would force Austria to officially acknowledge its minorities.
For my purposes, however, the most significant part is the premise that set the foundation for even writing the State Treaty, saying that Austria was not a perpetrator, but the first victim of Nazi Germany, making the statement “Austria is free” even more interesting. Was Austria being liberated from Nazi Germany, from the forces that liberated it from Nazi Germany, or from the duty of dealing with its past for many years, because it was now declared a victim? This position made it possible for Austria not to deal with its dramatic role in the Holocaust and all the mistakes that have been made. A sense of “let’s just not talk about it, we are declared victims now, let’s let it go” set in among politicians as well as the general public. People who wanted to express signs of atonement to victims of the Holocaust and force Austria to actively deal with its past were frowned upon, dealt with as if they were annoying children. It would take Austria another 37 years, until the Austrian president Kurt Waldheim’s former participation in war crimes spiked the “Waldheim affair” in 1992, to actively face its role in the past.
We now look back at 22 years of well received signs of atonement, like the Austrian national funds (a program to refund people who lost property under the Nazi regime) and the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, a government-sponsored program that sends young people, like myself, all over the world to serve the Jewish community. One could say that the change of thinking came too late, or that programs like these started out too small, but at the end of the day those thoughts and critics do not help the process in any way today.
Austria’s acceptance of its role in the past and the remembrance culture it triggered are still in their adolescence and leave room for improvement. So, while I do agree that Austria made many mistakes in how it dealt with the Holocaust after World War II, I think our focus should not be on grieving about that, but about embracing and enforcing the movement that is happening today. I personally feel that there is a young, open-minded generation in Austria that actively tries to work towards a broader understanding of acceptance and tolerance which makes me hopeful that Austria will not stop working on its rehabilitation with a mindset of “Remember the past, transform the future.” Then one day Austria can truly and fully be free. Free of denying the past, prejudice and racism, free of all the things that keep nations from working closer together, exchanging knowledge and culture and hopefully someday creating an international population of Upstanders.
Posted by Paul Rathmayr | Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service intern, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center