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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Austria, the Jews, and Anti-Semitism: Ambivalence and Ambiguity

Filed under: Antisemitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 15

  • Austria has made a major effort to suppress the memories of its institutional and popular behavior during the war. Unlike Germany, there is until today no feeling of shame for what the Austrians did to the Jews.
  • In its hypocritical atmosphere it is the role of the Jewish functionary to say ‘here everything is normal.’
  • Anti-Semitism remains part and parcel of Austrian culture with its strongest hold in politics and the media. It can be found both on the right and the left.
  • Verbal anti-Semitism mainly uses coded expressions.

Austria’s Anti-Semitism

“Anti-Semitism did not cease to exist in 1945 and continues to be part and parcel of Austrian political life and culture with its strongest hold in the political parties and the media,” affirms Karl Pfeifer, Austrian Jewish journalist and former editor of the Austrian Jewish community’s official organ, Die Gemeinde. “Verbal anti-Semitism is rarely expressed directly, but rather uses coded expressions. This reflects one of the country’s major characteristics – ambivalence and ambiguity toward its past.”

“Today Austrian anti-Semitism is not violent to the extent that Jews are being killed,” he explains, “but violence is perpetrated against non-European foreigners and easily identifiable Jews who sometimes are insulted or pushed down on the sidewalk. They do not, however, complain to the police. Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, but the Jewish communities usually do not publicize this. The police often brush these violations aside, claiming these are acts carried out by drunken youngsters who cannot be found.”


Haider, an Extreme Right-Wing Politician

“A few years ago Austria attracted the international limelight because of the electoral success of the Freedom Party (FPO), then led by Jorg Haider. In the September 1999 national elections it obtained twenty-seven percent of the vote. Subsequently, the FPO entered into a coalition with the OVP – the conservative people’s party, which brought with it the chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel. To mitigate international criticism, the two leaders signed a declaration on February 3, 2000, stating ‘the federal government is working for an Austria in which xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism have no place.’

“By 1993 the FPO had been excluded from the Liberal International because of its racist and anti-Semitic stance. After the FPO entered the Austrian government, the European Union distanced itself from the country for a few months. The EU’s fourteen other members declared that relations with the Austrian government would be downgraded to a purely technical level. This attitude reflected not only the situation in the country then, but had to be seen also in the context of its tendency to reject Austrian responsibility for what the Nazis had done. The EU normalized relations with Austria after a report in September 2000 of the ‘three wise men’ it had appointed to investigate the Austrian situation on its behalf.

“In the next elections at the end of 2002, the Freedom Party received only slightly more than ten percent of the vote, yet the coalition was maintained. The party’s major defeat was due to its inner contradictions. It wanted to be a government party, continue with its extreme rightist politics, and to oppose the government, as well.”

Says Pfeifer: “In my opinion Haider is not a Neo-Nazi, but an extreme right-wing politician. Public opinion research showed that in the 1999 elections the main reason most voters supported the Freedom Party was not that it was anti-Semitic. Forty-six percent of the party’s voters did so because Haider opposed letting more foreigners into Austria. Many issues he promotes are borrowed from the German public debate, such as that of possible compensation payments for Germans expelled after the Second World War by the Czechs from Sudetenland.”


Haider’s Suit against Professor Pelinka

“Haider very rarely uses the word ‘Jew’ in any context. He may speak about ‘minorities’ instead. In the 2001 election for local government in Vienna he used the codeword ‘East-Coast’ to describe the Jews and made fun of Stanley Greenberg, the American campaign adviser of the Social Democratic Party’s mayor of Vienna. In March 2001, at a public meeting, Haider referred to Ariel Muzicant – the leader of Austria’s Jewish community – and said that he did not know how somebody called Ariel could have so much dirt sticking to him.

“Though this remark clearly played on the association with the Nazi expression ‘dirty Jew,’ Haider later claimed that Ariel is also a brand of washing powder. The FPO’s then ‘alibi Jew,’ European Parliament member Peter Sichrovsky – who later left the party – well aware of the importance his being Jewish had for it – tried to explain the matter away as a ‘joke.’ Muzicant brought a formal complaint of anti-Semitic incitement against Haider, but the Vienna public prosecutor decided there was no evidence to support this claim.

“The clearest demonstration of how Haider operates, as well as how ambiguous justice is in Austria, is exemplified by the libel suit and claim for damages Haider brought against the distinguished political scientist, Professor Anton Pelinka of Innsbruck University. Haider hired as his lawyer FPO member Dieter Bohmdorfer, who later became Justice Minister in the Schussel cabinet.

“In a broadcast by the Italian television station RAI in May 1999 Pelinka said: ‘Haider has always made remarks in his career that are seen as an attempt to apologize for National Socialism. He once called the concentration camps ‘punishment camps.’ All in all, Haider is responsible for making certain National Socialist positions more acceptable. Haider meant to say in this coded way that as his father had been in such a camp, the Jews didn’t suffer more than others.

“The judge in the lower court awarded Haider – governor of the province of Carinthia – damages of about $5,000, saying that Pelinka had not quoted Haider correctly. This judgment led to much criticism. The European Union’s ‘three wise men’ in their report warned that the case against Pelinka was part of the FPO’s strategy to prevent criticism by taking legal actions – which it had done frequently against journalists – and that the court decision could lead to restrictions on criticism of the government.

“In mid-2001 the appeals court reversed the decision stating that Pelinka was entitled to his opinions. Pelinka declared that ‘Haider is now seen by the courts as an apologist for National Socialism.’ Haider also lost a second case against Pelinka, which he had brought in October 2001, concerning remarks the scholar had made about him on CNN. Anat Peri, an Israeli scholar, has analyzed Haider’s anti-Semitism in more detail.”1


Suppressing Memories

“When trying to analyze the fragmented expressions of Austrian anti-Semitism, first and foremost, one central characteristic of the country must be understood. This is the specific Austrian syndrome of suppressing memories of its institutional and popular behavior during the national socialist era – an attitude radically different from how the Germans tried to come to terms with their Nazi past. Many of the events in Austria since the end of World War II, including what is happening today, are incomprehensible to an outsider who is unaware of this important difference.

“Central to the Austrian distortion of its past is the half-truth which was originally formulated in the allies’ ‘Moscow Declaration’ of November 1943. It said that Austria was the ‘first victim of Nazi aggression.’ Austria claimed it did not exist from 1938 to 1945; therefore it could not be responsible for what happened to its Jewish citizens; for that only the Germans had to bear the burden.

“Only in the early 1990s did Austrian politicians begin to admit that the country’s victims’ discourse was false. Yet one kept finding this ambivalent attitude everywhere, even among people who were basically friendly to the Jews.”


No Feeling of Shame

“Helmut Zilk – the previous Social Democrat mayor of Vienna – attended Jewish meetings and supported Jewish institutions, probably because he believed in the power of world Jewry. My wife and I were once present when Zilk gave a speech while he was not entirely sober. He spoke about his own family and how lucky he was not to have gone to the Waffen SS like most of his school comrades who have been persecuted for that until this day. On another occasion, he said publicly: ‘I have two souls in my breast; that of my father who was a liberal and that of my mother who was a Nazi.’

“In Austria, unlike in Germany, there is until today no feeling of shame for what the Austrians did to the Jews. This does not exclude that the government has supported a number of Jewish institutions, such as the Lauder-Chabad School and the Zwi Perez Chajes School. There is a small minority of nice and well-educated people who come to the Jewish museum in the heart of Vienna. Owned and financed by the city, it exhibits the broad Jewish culture, which existed before 1938. These pleasant intellectuals talk about what a great loss it was to Austrian culture that there are hardly any Jews remaining.

“Yet even this has its subtext. Once I went to the left-wing Republican club for a discussion about which criticism of Jews and of Israel is anti-Semitic. One speaker was an anti-Zionist Jew. Then a Philo-Semite got up to speak and mentioned how much Austrian culture owes to the Jews. I lost my temper, stood up, pounded the table and yelled, ‘True Austrian culture is Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. Sigmund Freud was never part of Austrian culture and never became a professor here. Besides that, every Jewish cobbler who couldn’t recite a single correct German sentence had as much right to stay in this country and remain alive as Freud.'”


Discussions with Conservatives

Pfeifer adds: “It is better to disagree with Catholic conservatives than left-wing progressives. My best discussions have been with the former because they are civilized and do not offend you all the time even if, probably, a few of them are anti-Semites. Once during the major debate on President Kurt Waldheim’s past, I was invited to a Catholic club of academics to discuss the issue.

“I gave as my view that Catholic anti-Semitism before 1938 had some rationality because the anti-Semites wanted the jobs of the Jews. I said that it was the same rationality as that of the thief who puts his hand in my pocket to steal my wallet because he can gain something from it.

“I then pointed out that present-day anti-Semitism has no such rationality. There are only 7,000 organized Jews left in Austria and no jobs to be gained from them or apartments to be stolen, as in 1938. Yet these people were willing to accept this as part of a debate, even if it was harsh. Afterwards they took me to a wine cellar until four in the morning.”

Pfeifer points out that Austrian post-war history relating to the Jews consists largely of individual stories with similar motifs. In order to discuss and analyze Austrian anti-Semitism since the Second World War, the focus should be on politics and the media – the two areas in which anti-Semitism has the strongest hold – rather than on public opinion polls which are sometimes contradictory. Yet it would be mistaken to belittle the findings of the Eurobarometer poll published in November 2003 in which 59% of citizens of the European Union were found to consider Israel to be a danger for world peace. In Austria the percentage was even higher at 69% and second only to the Netherlands’ 74%.”


Open and Coded Anti-Semitism

“After World War II, the Second Austrian Republic was created. One of its founding fathers was Leopold Kunschak. He had been the leader of the Catholic Christian Social Party before the war and was an extreme anti-Semite. In 1919 he had proposed special laws against the Jews.” Writes historian Bruce F. Pauley: “On countless occasions in 1919 and 1920 Kunschak demanded the Jewish refugees either be deported or, if possible, placed in concentration camps.”2

Says Pfeifer, “Kunschak spent some time in prison during the Second World War. He declared thereafter in December 1945 that he had been an anti-Semite all his life and was proud of it. Yet he is still honored as a founding father of the Second Austrian Republic. The OVP party until today awards its Leopold Kunschak prize.

“Austrian anti-Semitism already immediately after World War Two was often being expressed in a coded way rather than explicitly. The country was then occupied by the Allied powers. Politicians of the Conservative Party spoke against those who had returned from abroad, saying that while those in Austria had suffered from the war, the returnees had had a good time in the United States. Many Austrians wouldn’t call that anti-Semitic, though it was certainly meant that way.

“On another occasion there were violent verbal attacks on Rosenzweig – a lawyer of the Social Democratic Party (SPO). His attackers would harp continuously on his name. These are ‘smart ways’ of expressing one’s anti-Semitism. A similar pattern exists today.

“In politics it is until today customary that members of one party only see the anti-Semites of another party. There were former Nazis in every party in Austria. Between 1938 and 1945, about ten percent of the population – 630,000 Austrians – were members of the Nazi Party. Such a large number of people could not be excluded from politics. An effort could have been made, as in Germany, to re-educate them; but this was never done.”


Kreisky, a Jewish Anti-Semite?

“One of the better known Austrian Prime Ministers was the Jewish leader of the Social Democrats, Bruno Kreisky. His first minority government in 1970 had the support of the FPO. Its then leader Friedrich Peter served in the first SS brigade which committed major atrocities in the Soviet Union against Jews, communists and the Soviet population. Peter claimed he had never been present on the days the crimes were committed.

“After the 1975 election Simon Wiesenthal disclosed Peter’s past on television. Kreisky, as well as most Social Democrat leaders, attacked Wiesenthal ferociously. He implied that as Wiesenthal had survived the Holocaust he must have been a Gestapo collaborator. There were five former Nazis in Kreisky’s first government of 1970. When their pasts were publicized they gradually dropped out.

“One can argue whether Kreisky was an anti-Semite. Some claim a Jew cannot be an anti-Semite. Yet Kreisky spoke about Begin as ‘a little Polish lawyer,’ a typically coded anti-Semitic remark. Such codes have been deciphered by Jewish linguist Ruth Wodak, a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, in various books and essays.

“Once after a public meeting in 1973, in Klagenfurt, people spat at Kreisky and called him a ‘Jewish pig.’ He, however, stated thereafter that ‘there is no more anti-Semitism today in Austria….I never felt any anti-Semitism.’ He was a perfect ‘alibi’ Jew because many Austrians expect Jews to make similar statements. In the hypocritical atmosphere of Austria it is the role of the Jewish functionary to say ‘here everything is normal.'”


The Waldheim Affair

“Anti-Semitism, however, was never the dominant motif in post-war Austrian politics. The one exception was the international crisis which occurred in 1986 when Kurt Waldheim was a candidate for the presidency on behalf of the OVP. He had not been an SS butcher or even an SS member. Waldheim was a captain of military intelligence with the general staff in the Balkans. He had been stationed in Salonika when the Jews, who formed one-third of the population, were deported to the death camps.

“Yet Waldheim told the New York Times that he did not know what had happened. This was incredible; all the more so, as he pretended to be a good Christian. Claire Trean of the French daily Le Monde asked Waldheim on May 3, 1986, why the international press was so critical of him. He answered that the reason was its domination by the World Jewish Congress.

“On May 21, 1986, Waldheim gave a public speech in Vienna. Its manuscript, handed out in advance to journalists, contained a paragraph which mentioned that one had to make sure that there would never be an Auschwitz again. It also included the statement ‘that we, in the spirit of tolerance and reconciliation, should promise each other to forgive but not to forget.'” Pfeifer then wrote an article saying that he understood what he could forgive the perpetrators for, but it was not clear to him what he had to ask them forgiveness for. It later turned out that in his actual speech Waldheim had deleted the paragraph.


Socialists Against Israel

“It would be a mistake to mention only the anti-Semitism of the right. Substantial parts of the political left have found anti-Zionism a comfortable cover for anti-Semitism. Karl Blecha, a former social democrat minister of the interior and now president of the Socialist Association of Retired (Pensionistenverband), said according to the weekly Format (2/2001): ‘The Zionists, who wanted to found in the whole of Palestine an exclusive Jewish state, have been exposed by their reaction as what they are – racists; and their state became an example of an unlawful racial discrimination state.’ He also said, that ‘faithlessness has been a Zionist tradition.’

“Johann Hatzl, the SPO president of the Vienna regional parliament, rejected an invitation for a Keren Kayemet ball last year. He stated: ‘I cannot feel myself at present comfortable at an Israeli ball if a disgraceful Israeli government throws away all principles of civilized society and leads a merciless fight against another people. Who fights in this form terrorism, makes himself – and that is valid especially for your Prime Minister Sharon – a state terrorist.’3

“Every year in Vienna at the demonstration in solidarity with the intifada, an incited mob burns Israeli and American flags; this year, however, ‘only’ USA flags were burned. Despite this, Hannes Swoboda, spokesman for the Austrian social democratic members of the European parliament and Susanne Jerusalem, a Green Party member of the local Vienna parliament, spoke both last year and this year (on September 27). The demonstration was organized by the left wing anti-globalist ‘Austrian Social Forum’ (ASF) which condemned terror against Iraqi civilians and against international institutions, but did not mention Israeli civilians.”


The Neue Kronenzeitung

“The media are the other major environment where one can find Austrian anti-Semitism. One yellow-press daily, Neue Kronenzeitung, accounts for 42 percent of the daily readers of Austrian papers. On weekends the percentage increases to 65 percent. It carried articles of Holocaust denial. For instance, on May 10, 1992, its columnist Richard Nimmerrichter – under his penname ‘Staberl’ – wrote an article claiming that only several hundreds of thousands of Jews were gassed in the Holocaust; the others, he said, died of sickness. He compared being an Austrian in a Soviet prisoners’ camp to the plight of the Jews in the war. Under Austrian law, it is forbidden to diminish the crimes of the Holocaust, but you have to minimize it ‘grossly’ and the authorities did not intervene.

“In September 1992 Nimmerrichter and Neue Kronenzeitung, however, had gone too far even for Austria. The columnist wrote, ‘Whoever has survived Hitler will also survive Mr. Grosz’ [then president of the Jewish community.] Both were charged and had to pay fines. There was a time when there were anti-Semitic texts almost daily in Neue Kronenzeitung. Again, often these were coded; for instance, they would make fun of the name of Doron Rabinovici, a young Jewish Austrian historian.

“Muzicant brought a court case against Neue Kronenzeitung. In 2000 this was withdrawn after a conversation between him and the paper’s publisher, Hans Dichand. Vienna’s mayor, Mr. Michael Häupl, had intervened, telling the publisher that anti-Semitism harmed Austria internationally. Dichand agreed that he would no longer publish crude anti-Semitic material. When Staberl sent an anti-Semitic article to the paper in spring 2001, it was rejected.

“Since then Neue Kronenzeitung has limited its attacks to blacks, drug dealers, and other foreigners. This shows that the protection of human rights has to be extended to all groups discriminated. In many other countries, such a paper would be boycotted, but not in Austria”


Ambivalent Experiences with Austrian Law

“The Zur Zeit weekly – which received a government subsidy to the tune of $80,000 last year – is close to the FPO, and has clear anti-Semitic tendencies. For instance, in 1997 a right-wing Catholic, Dr. Robert Prantner, wrote that the Jews should apologize for the crucifixion of Christ and for the so-called ‘ritual murder’ of Anderl von Rinn centuries ago. He then still held the exalted post of ‘Extraordinary Envoy of the Knights of Malta.’ He was, however, thereafter relieved of this position by the Order for ‘reasons of health.'”

Pfeifer has had his own painful experiences with the Austrian press and the law. He brought a libel action against Zur Zeit and Andreas Molzer, its editor. Pfeifer objected to an article and a fundraising letter which the paper had sent to its subscribers in 2001. In them, Pfeifer was accused of causing the death of Werner Pfeifenberger – a right-wing academic. The latter had been investigated in 2000 under Austria’s anti-Nazi laws because of his statements in the Freedom’s Party’s 1995 yearbook. Pfeifenberger sued Pfeifer for libel because he had said that the article had Nazi overtones and glorified the ethnic German community (from which the Jews were excluded). Pfeifenberger lost that court case; the judge stated explicitly that the conclusions Pfeifer had drawn were true. In 2000 Pfeifenberger committed suicide. Now, however, a Vienna high court judge has decided that Zur Zeit had the right to make the statement about him, because after all, Pfeifer is “only morally responsible” for his suicide.


Historians Tell the Truth

There is a second side to this issue which does not, however, neutralize the first. Pfeifer says that there have been a number of Austrian and foreign historians and intellectuals who have confronted the historical past of their country. “Pelinka is one of them,” he pointed out, “and others include Richard Mitten, Hans Safrian, and Erica Weinzierl.”

“Many years ago Gerhard Botz wrote an excellent book about the occupation of Vienna by the Nazis. There he explained how the Austrians robbed the Jews and that the German Nazis had to put brakes on them. This was because the Nazis were accustomed to robbing on behalf of the state, and not on behalf of one’s private pocket, as many Austrians did. Already in 1939 an English liberal journalist, G. E. R. Gedye from the News Chronicle, had written a book on the Austrians’ behavior. He had been stationed in Vienna from 1934 till 1939. So knowledge of this subject has been available for a long time.

“In addition, the Austrian Ministry of Education has published much valuable material on the Holocaust and the Jews. There are also many teachers who try to teach youngsters Holocaust history. Every school class is taken to the Austrian concentration camp, Mauthausen. The Holocaust is thus part of the Austrian educational curriculum. Yet what happens in the media and at home is a different story.

“In light of the above it is typical that even Austria’s belated admission of some guilt included many gray areas as well. When finally, in July 1991, socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky declared in the Austrian Parliament that Austrians were partly responsible for the suffering of the Jews in the Second World War, he did not do so in a special statement; because even then it would have been politically unacceptable. Vranitzky inserted it into a declaration about Austria’s neutrality in the war in Yugoslavia. Nor did he say that Austria as a state was responsible, but that citizens of the country had brought that suffering over other human beings and nations.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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1. Anat Peri, “Jorg Haider’s Antisemitism,” Analysis of Current Trends in Anti-Semitism, 18 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2001).
2. Bruce F. Pauley, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian Anti-Semitism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), p. 86.
3. APA, Standard online 05.05.2002.

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Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian journalist and former editor of the Jewish community’s newspaper, Die Gemeinde. He has published several books, including a selection of his articles under the title Nicht immer ganz bequem [Not always quite accommodating] (Vienna: Verlag Der Apfel, 1996).

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This publication was partly supported by the Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah.