Austria accepted its Holocaust guilt. So why is its far-right on the rise?

VIENNA (JTA) — When it comes to the Holocaust, Austria has made a lot of progress assuming responsibility.

In recent years, Austrian officials have consistently acknowledged their country’s support of Adolf Hitler, an Austria native, and his war of annihilation against Jews. In the early 2000s, the government dropped the claim that the country was mostly a victim of German Nazism, citing “the special responsibility imposed on Austria by its recent history.” Instead, teaching about the Holocaust has become mandatory, with visits to former death camps and teacher training in Israel.

The government has paid nearly $1 billion since 2005 in compensation to Holocaust victims, and since 2012, Holocaust memorial projects have popped up at an unprecedented rate. They include the opening of a learning center at the Mauthausen former death camp, a monument for Vienna’s deported Jews and an international exposition, commissioned by the national railway firm, on its own role in murdering some 65,000 Austrian Jews.

Yet in spite of this increased sensitivity, nationalism still has a firm grip on Austrian society: The far-right Freedom Party, which was founded in 1956 by a former Nazi SS officer, is on the rise. In last month’s national elections, the party garnered 26 percent of the vote with a platform that included denouncing “forced multiculturalism, globalization and mass immigration.

As a natural ally of the center-right People’s Party, which won the most votes, the Freedom Party is poised to enter Austria’s government for the second time — it was part of the governing coalition in 2000.

Amid the ascendancy of far-right populism across Europe, its revival in Austria is seen as particularly alarming, as it suggests a failure by society to learn from its recent history. After all, if a country that does nearly everything “right” when it comes to Holocaust education can fail to inoculate itself to the kind of hatred that makes genocide possible, what hope is there for other countries in the region, such as Hungary and Poland, which face rising nationalism amid complicated reckonings with their own Holocaust legacies?

Experts on Austria say the rise of its xenophobic far right is connected to fears over Muslim immigration, as well as a perceived need to protect the nation’s sovereignty from an increasingly interventionist European Union. But it’s also connected to the Austrian government, which deflected its guilt for decades and failed to purge Nazi supporters from positions of influence.

Unlike neighboring Germany, Austria did not have an organized, judicial denazification effort in the aftermath of World War II — in fact, no one has been convicted of Nazi war crimes in Austria in more than 35 years.

“In Germany, and quite a few of the countries that were under Nazi occupation, many people involved in Nazism were convicted or at least not permitted to be civil servants, teachers, police officers, etc.,” said Tina Walzer, a Vienna historian. “But this has never happened in Austria and we are witnessing the results of this crucial difference.”

This has entrenched populist ideas in a way that has seemed resistant to increased Holocaust awareness.

“When you look at the population as a whole, you don’t feel there has really been a change,” said Milli Segal, founder of the newly opened For the Child museum in Vienna honoring the young Holocaust refugees who fled to Britain through an arrangement known as the Kindertransport.

“Well, there’s change, but in very, very small steps,” she added after a pause. “It makes you feel voiceless.”

Many in Austria share Segal’s feeling of powerlessness over the Freedom Party’s recent successes. Its strong showing last month follows an even greater electoral feat in last year’s presidential elections in which the party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, won 49.7 percent in the first round of voting. Hofer lost in the second round to the left-leaning candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, 53 percent to 46 percent.

The close election indicates that far-right populism is a “ticking political bomb,” warned Barbara Wesel, a senior Europe correspondent for Germany’s Deutsche Welle broadcaster.

The Freedom Party, for its part, rejects claims that it plays on Nazi and other racist sympathies. Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has vowed to kick out members caught engaging in racist rhetoric, and has indeed done so to a former lawmaker who supported online the assertion that “Zionist money-Jews worldwide are the problem.”

The Jewish Community in Vienna considers the Freedom Party a racist entity, according to Oskar Deutsch, the community leader, who has called on Chancellor-elect Sebastian Kurz to prevent the Freedom Party from reaching power.

“It’s a facade,” Deutsch told JTA of Strache’s statements against anti-Semitism and racism. “Despite this talk, they position themselves as the go-to address for people with Nazi sympathies.”

A case in point: On Nov. 9, when the outgoing chancellor, Christian Kern, spoke in parliament to commemorate the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht — a series of pogroms that the Nazis carried out in Germany and Austria — the Freedom Party’s lawmakers were the only ones who demonstratively did not applaud.

“These subtle signs are how they signal and excite their supporters,” Segal said. “If the Freedom Party will be part of the government, it will become difficult to commemorate the Holocaust in the same dignified way that we have now in Austria.”

The dissonance between Austria’s Holocaust commemoration efforts and the far-right’s popularity can be unsettling.

On Oct. 19, for example, a Vienna city official inaugurated a Holocaust memorial installation outside the Herminengasse subway station, near an alley in which the Nazis imprisoned hundreds of Jews during the war. From there they were taken to be deported as non-Jewish locals watched from their balconies. The inauguration ceremonies were held during election season; nearby hung a giant poster of a smiling Strache bearing the slogan “Fairness.”

Does the party’s recent success suggest that such commemoration projects are ultimately failing to make a difference politically?

“You might say so,” Deutsch said. “But the Jewish community will not remain silent.”

To Efraim Zuroff, a hunter of Nazis and historian for the Simon Wiesenthal Center who is based in Israel, the success of the far right in Austria reflects how Holocaust commemoration projects in urban areas hardly reach people who live in smaller towns — the Freedom Party base.

“Holocaust education, which only recently really began developing in Austria, happens there in pockets — in the big cities, in the artists’ scene,” he said. “It has big visibility but isn’t penetrating the way it has in Germany, where the effort was much more robust.”

Zuroff said this has a lot to do with Austria’s failure to prosecute Nazis.

“Holocaust education efforts in Austria are having limited impact because they are done in two voices,” he said. “There was a belated admission of guilt by politicians. But the judiciary, whose work sends a much stronger message in society, was a total failure.”

To some activists against racism, the Freedom Party’s rise is motivation to invest even greater efforts in Holocaust commemoration.

The far-right’s success in Austria “only strengthens our resolve,” said Brigitte Prinzgau, an artist who designed the newly inaugurated Aspang Railway Station Memorial, near where 47,035 Austrian Jews were dispatched from Vienna to death camps. “Now educators and artists will make even more monuments confronting fascism and xenophobic populism.”

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