Do Austrians want to forget, not confront, their past?
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But this period of reckoning ended in 1949 as both major parties solicited the votes of former Nazi-party members.Skip to next paragraph
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In consequence, today's 50th anniversary of Anschluss is not an easy one for Austrians.
It has come to be symbolized by the person they chose to be their head of state - President Kurt Waldheim, a man who stands accused by a commission of historians of lying about this period in his own life, when he was a lieutenant in the Balkans in a German army that was committing atrocities against Yugoslav civilians and sending Greek Jews to the death camps.
Is this an occasion for reopening the questions of conscience the Austrians have not yet been forced to face? Is there a void that still needs to be filled?
``Absolutely not,'' says Ursula Gruner, a Viennese born after the war. ``It's terrible that so many Jews were killed. But the Austrians had nothing to do with it. Austrians just lived next door to Germany'' and therefore got drawn in. She hadn't studied anything about this period at all in school, nor did she see any special need for Austrians to examine their past.
She thought further that the whole controversy about Waldheim was cooked up by the Austrian Socialists to try to force the conservatives' President out of office and put their own man in - and also to draw attention away from the Socialists' own dirt and scandal. Dr. Waldheim should be left in peace, she thought.
Her friend Ruth Berger agreed. ``I am not anti-Semitic,'' she noted. ``But it gets on my nerves the way this issue [about Waldheim] is played up. I'm helpless with anger.'' She pointed to the current killings of Palestinians by Israeli troops as an example of the terrible things that are done in war - and added that it was the Israeli government, not the people, who were responsible for these acts. She thought that the campaign against Waldheim was paying off a grudge for his friendliness toward the Arabs when he was UN secretary-general.
Both women noted, however, that their 17-year-old children were much more exercised about the whole issue than they were.
A middle-aged taxi driver agreed. ``It's ridiculous!'' he exclaimed about the accusations against Waldheim. ``It's just trickery.... All right, bad things happen in a war. He was just a 20-year-old. He did his duty like everyone else.''
A second taxi driver commented, ``I'm too young to have an opinion. I didn't live through it. I've just read about it.''
Was it necessary to explore the past and think through Austrian actions?
``Oh no. That's the past. We live in another epoch.... Terrible things happen in war.''
These interviews don't represent the balance of Austrian views, says Roland Machatschke, senior editor at Austrian Radio. ``The front is crumbling,'' he said, pointing to the weekly demonstrations by several thousands calling for Waldheim's resignation. He suggested that the dividing line is largely generational, with those over 50 supporting him, those under 50 finding him a burden on a country that does not want to live in isolation from the rest of the world. He noted that the reluctance of Austrians to talk about the past was broken by the whole controversy about Waldheim that began in 1986. Numerous books and other materials are now available about that era, and the subject is now being openly discussed after the long silence.