Austrians brace for look at painful past as Nazi anniversary nears

While the controversy over President Kurt Waldheim still rages, Austrians are about to be confronted for a second time with some unpalatable truths about their past. On March 11 they will mark the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, or forcible annexation of their tiny country by Adolf Hitler (himself an Austrian) to his Nazi Reich. And as government leaders and academics prepare for the event, the question has arisen: What role should Kurt Waldheim play?

President Waldheim's wartime record is being closely scrutinized by a historians' commission which has been asked to establish whether, as his critics allege, he was actively involved in any war crimes. Their report should be published around the end of January. The President has said he will not step down, but pressure here is mounting. Many in government circles are concerned his election may have damaged Austria's image abroad. Mr. Waldheim's presence during the anniversary, as a symbol of an undesirable attitude to the past, likely would be a deep embarrassment.

Although Germans, or at least West Germans, have faced up to their actions during the Nazi era, Austrians on the whole have avoided this process. Since they were the object of Hitler's aggression they traditionally thought of themselves as victims, and preferred to forget that many people welcomed the Anschluss, sympathized with the Nazis, and willingly took part in persecution and war crimes.

Chancellor Franz Vranitzky wants the anniversary to be a time for facing up to the truth. ``We must lift up the carpet, open the window, open the door...deal with some aspects of history we are not very proud of,'' he said. It must be a time for young people to ``learn what history is telling us, that we must do everything to avoid these things happening again,'' he added.

``It is going to be a very painful process'' says leading Viennese psychiatrist Erwin Ringel. ``People are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we were not only the first victims of Hitler - that we were often collaborators and actors in this terrible time. It is our duty to do this. We must not suppress it any longer.''

``Austrians,'' says the Green Party floor leader, Freda Meissner-Blau, ``like to sweep things under the carpet, not to talk about unpleasant subjects.

``In my class we never learned about it. History always stopped in the middle of the 20th century'' says Martin Engleberg, a Viennese Jewish student leader. ``It was as though everyone was living in another country during those years.'' Researchers at the Austrian Resistance Archives, who have worked thoroughly on the history of the Resistance, admit they have failed to document adequately the other side of the picture.

Austria capitulated in 1938 to Germany without a single shot fired in its defense. Many ordinary Austrians genuinely wanted to be part of Nazi Germany.

Many historians say most Austrians welcomed the Anschluss. In 1942 membership of the Nazi party was around 700,000, or 11 percent of the population.

Other figures indicate how Austrians were divided. Tens of thousands of anti-fascists were put in concentration camps, 2,700 were executed. On the other side, 123,000 people were later tried for Nazi crimes, mostly as concentration camp officials, 13,000 were convicted, 42 sentenced to death but only 30 executed. Often, defendants were let off by sympathetic juries, says Professor Eva Weinzierl. According to resistance records, numerous leading Nazi figures are living quietly, unpunished, in Austria.

After the war some 600,000 people were identified as active Nazis in the Allies' denazification proceedings, but later 500,000 ``less seriously involved'' were rehabilitated and allowed to vote in 1949.

A high-level committee has been set up to arrange a suitable program for the March 11 anniversary and it is has not yet been decided what part Waldheim will play.

Is Waldheim capable of leading his country in the process of remembering? Or will he, even on this occasion, remain the symbol, as Ms. Weinzierl puts it, of the ``typical opportunistic Austrian who wanted to get ahead, who put up no resistance, adapted to every system - and likes to forget what he did.''

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