Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Anschluss: Nazi crushing of a victim or willing meeting of accomplices?

75 years ago today German troops marched across the border into Austria, and were greeted with delirious joy by a large proportion of the population there.

A German soldier during the Anschluss
Note the air of devastation on the faces of the Austrian civilian population
This was the 1938 Anschluss or union of Austria with the Nazi Third Reich. Someone who wasn’t cheering was a late friend of mine, Bob, who had the misfortune of belonging to the Vienna Jewish community. Within months, he and his friends and relatives were out of work. They spent their days on their doorsteps, chatting and wondering how they were going to keep body and soul together.

‘I’m always amused about the talk today about household debts. We had no debts. You have to be rich to have debts. If you have no money, nobody will lend you any.’

Like a great many Viennese Jews, his family would queue daily at various embassies asking for visas that would get them out. He told me about the sheer arrogance of the staff at the British Consulate, who would treat them contemptuously, knocking papers out of their hands if the staff felt they hadn’t been completed correctly, and giving priority to those who had the money to bribe them.

Eventually, Bob and one of his sisters got out to Britain. They were the only members of his family to survive the war: the others were all Holocaust victims.

It took years to screw up the courage to go back to Vienna, and when he did he wasn’t impressed: ‘you can still cut the anti-Semitism with a knife’, he told me.

Eventually, he took the plunge and travelled to Germany itself, the heart of the darkness that had blighted his life. He went to Bonn.

‘I couldn’t believe it. What a great country!’

He tried to get back every year.

So – what was the difference between the two countries?

Some years ago I read David Art’s The Politics of the Nazi Past in Germany and Austria which traced the way each country had addressed it Nazi past. It took a while for Germany to decide it had to face up to what had happened, but since the 60s they have made sustained efforts to analyse and understand. One of the best Holocaust films I’ve seen was a German TV reconstruction of the Wannsee conference, where the third Reich formallyl adopted the final solution, the extermination of the Jews. Reconstructed from minutes and eye-witness accounts, it lasted exactly 100 minutes, just as the conference did: an hour and two-thirds to decide to exterminate 12 million people (yes, they only achieve 50% success).

When a neo-Nazi movement, the Republikaner, emerged in Germany in the 80s and 90s, all the mainstream parties unanimously combatted them: the right made no attempt to work with them or adopt their programme; the left wing made no attempt to exploit the possible splits in the right-wing vote. The result? The Republikaner got nowhere and an electorate which realised they were never going to deliver stopped voting for them.

Austria maintained the fiction that, far from being a willing accomplice of Nazi Germany, it had been its first victim. This comfortable illusion prevented their having to face up to any moral dilemmas. As a result, their neo-Nazis, the Austrian Freedom Party, became a major force, rising to the point where it became the junior party in a governing coalition.

At root, the problem was that Austria preferred to concentrate on the military invasion that took place in the Anschluss, which made Austrians victims, rather than the warmth of the welcome they gave the German forces, which would have made them accomplices.

So on the anniversary of the Anschluss of 1938, there’s a moral for us all: if we want to deal with the contamination that bigotry and intolerance represent, we have to face up to it, and isolate it and prevent its getting anywhere near power.

Whether it’s the Tea Party in the States, UKIP in Britain or the Front National in France, that’s a lesson that all of us who are committed to democracy need to learn and actively apply.

On this anniversary of that grim event, I’ll raise a glass this evening to the memory of Bob. I know he would have agreed fervently with the need to learn that lesson.

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