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Is Austria’s Past Still Present?

Lisa Mullenneaux
April 8, 2015

by Lisa Mullenneaux
THE GERMAN JEWISH POET Nelly Sachs was so afraid the world would forget the horrors of the Shoah that each of her poems is a plea for remembrance. So completely did she identify with the mass extermination that killed her lover and very nearly killed her — as well as 11 million other Europeans — that she told her friend, the poet Paul Celan, her metaphors were her “wounds” (Correspondence, Sheep’s Meadow Press, 1995). Right up to her death in 1970, she never believed the world was safe from a reemergence of fascism.

What would Sachs make of the 2013 poll by the Viennese newspaper Der Standard showing that 54 percent of Austrian adults think Nazis would win seats if the party was readmitted to politics, 61 percent want to see a “strong man” heading their government, 42 percent agree with the view that life “wasn’t all bad under the Nazis,” and 39 percent won’t be surprised at a recurrence of anti-Semitism in their country? The opinion poll was published as Austria prepared to mark the 75th anniversary of its annexation by Hitler in 1938.

nach-dem-anschluss-an-dasWhat Austrians call the “Anschluss” (annexation) was really a coup from below, as those sympathetic to Hitler had long infiltrated the government’s executive and administrative branches. It remained for der Führer to force Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to turn over the Austrian police force to the Nazi ally Arthur Seyss-Inquart and to lift a ban on his party, the National-sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP). Hitler’s troops marched into Austria on March 12, 1938, unopposed; three days later he hailed a reunification of Austria with the Third Reich and was cheered by 250,000.

For the Austrian-born Hitler, this pact was fulfillment of a dream, and nearly 100 percent of those eligible to vote approved it in a plebiscite on April 10th. Austrians would fight World War II alongside the Nazis and run Nazi death camps. Yet as soon as the war ended, Austrians promoted the myth that they were victims, not collaborators, of their German occupiers. “It was an important lifeline for constructing Austrian identity after the war,” says Oliver Rathkolb, a history professor at Vienna University, “to push all responsibility and burden onto the Federal Republic of Germany so that Austria could develop a national identity of its own.” He was glad, he told me, that the 75th anniversary had stimulated debate about Austria’s Nazi past.

POST-WAR GERMANS adopted similar strategies for avoiding complicity with Nazi genocide and the need for reparations. The German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse named three myths — victimization, ignorance, and resistance — as “suitable tools” used by political leaders and the general population. Germans could pretend that, like Jews, they themselves were victims: first of Nazi tyrants, then of Allied bombs, and third of the Red Army. If that pretense didn’t work, they could claim they had no idea what was happening in the death camps (wir haben nichts gewusst). Finally, they could insist that the Third Reich was an invasion of barbarians, not the “true Germany” but an aberration best forgotten. Historical research in the last two decades has exposed as false each of these comfortable illusions.

Perhaps it was easier for artists and writers to reveal the racism in the everyday or, as Hannah Arendt termed it, “the banality of evil.” In 1971, Marcel Ophuls’ documentary The Sorrow and the Pity exploded the popular myth of widespread French resistance to the Nazis’ “final solution” with detailed interviews of those who had lived under Vichy rule. Still, it wasn’t until 1995 that President Jacques Chirac admitted France’s responsibility for the deportation of at least 77,000 Jews between 1942 and 1944. Of these, about a third were French citizens, and more than 8,000 were children under 13.

In 1974, two feature films specifically addressed widespread collaboration in Nazi-occupied countries: Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter. The latter, buried by U.S. critics for its kinky sex, reimagines the shadow world of collaborators trying to hide their Nazi past by killing off witnesses in 1957 Vienna. In a memorable scene, Max, a former Nazi officer now living under a fake name as a hotel porter, is meeting with his cohorts on a rooftop and gives the Nazi “sieg heil” salute. They immediately return his salute, and he turns away in disgust. Max will become a prisoner, like the prisoners he tortured in the camps, when he refuses to kill his lover.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE in 1950s Vienna? The Austrian poet and novelist Ingeborg Bachmann’s story, “Among Murderers and Madmen,” gives a chilling glimpse of what tourists never saw. Like the hotel of Cavani’s film, a beer cellar is the sanctuary for former supporters of the Third Reich, all of whom hold positions of power in postwar civilian life and never acknowledge their complicity in war crimes. Without that atonement, Bachmann suggests, the violence will continue in other forms. Because “murderers are still among us,” she wrote in the 1960s, her poems would “have to have the power to trouble people’s sleep. For we are sleeping, we are sleepers, out of fear of having to look at ourselves and our world” (Ingeborg Bachmann, Werke. v.3, 1978).

Postwar European writers like Bachmann, Sachs, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, and others committed their lives to bearing witness to the atrocity of the Shoah because they feared that nothing had changed. Would the world ever be safe from the contagion of racism? Sachs, who fled Germany in 1940 with her mother, lived out her life in Sweden but continued to write in German. Her poetry was unrecognized in her homeland until 1966, when she and the Israeli author Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Suddenly Sachs was West Germany’s “poet of German-Jewish reconciliation”; they praised her theme of “forgiveness.”

The opposite was true: So unreconciled was Sachs to the genocide that had devastated her entire generation that she refused to return to Germany — even for one night.

Lisa Mullenneaux teaches World Literature at Baruch College in Manhattan. Her books and articles are at