Would Austria really want to hear truth of its Nazi past?

February 28, 2003

Robert Knight knew he was entering a political minefield when he joined the Austrian investigation exploring the wartime plundering of the Jews

At the end of 1998, my term-time routine was turned on its head by a single telephone call. The caller from the Austrian chancellor's office wanted to know if I would like to join the new Historians' Commission.

I already knew some of the background: it had been set up by the government to investigate "the whole complex of Nazi property expropriation, and restitution and compensation in the Second Austrian Republic". I also knew that alongside three Austrian academics, the appointment of its sole non-Austrian member had hit a snag when a distinguished Israeli historian resigned after only one meeting. I was being asked to fill the gap he left.

On Monday, the historico-political journey that started with that phone call ended when the commission's conclusions were presented to the press in Vienna.

I wasted little time accepting the offer. Granted there were grounds for caution, suspicion even. I did not share the view of a German colleague who proclaimed the very idea of the commission to be "indecent, if not corrupt". But Austria's record did lend the charge some plausibility. A government investigation a few months after the end of the war, subtitled "Justice for Austria", might fairly be described a whitewash. The researchers insisted that Austria was purely a victim of German Nazi aggression between 1938 and 1945.

But times had surely changed. The commission was to be free of political interference. Its chairman, Clemens Jabloner, was president of Austria's administrative court, and he had an outstanding legal and academic reputation (and was a member of Vienna's Jewish community). The record of the Austrian appointees virtually ruled out any sort of fix. As for myself, without making any claim to incorruptibility, I had documented efforts by postwar Austrian governments to put off Jewish claims. And my "hair-raising views" had incurred the wrath of one Austrian foreign minister. A friend told me I was still in bad odour with his successor. I did not feel like a stooge.

More important, the days when Austria's two main parties could carve up historiography as they carved up much else of Austrian society were over.

Neither the international climate - class-action suits in the US, disputes over Klimt paintings, the precedent of the Swiss "Bergier commission" - nor domestic critics would allow it.

The government did keep its hands off. My only contact with an Austrian politician came when one asked me rather nervously if the budget we were about to announce would remain below the sensitive Sch100 million barrier (£4.9 million) - it did. The commission determined what was to be investigated. Nothing was off limits. Some 47 research projects were agreed, and more than 150 historians combed archives inside and outside Austria. Their efforts opened up swaths of virgin territory. Though they could not reconstruct material that had been shredded - presumably through lack of interest rather than conspiracy - they found valuable documents.

And not just in archives, but in cellars and, in one case, in a skip.

The researchers were beavering away in a political minefield. From the start, the commission was criticised as being a delaying tactic. The charge looked disingenuous when it came from Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party, whose attitude to Austria's Nazi past had always been at best questionable, at worst stomach-turning. But Vienna's liberal Standard newspaper published a cartoon showing the commission living it up while the bones of Nazi victims were swept under the carpet. Some claimed that no further research was necessary. Others grumbled about wasting taxpayers' money and supporting "yet more" Jewish claims.

Then things changed dramatically. After the October 1999 general election, our "employers" changed. A new coalition government under Wolfgang Schussel, leader of the conservative People's Party, brought the Freedom Party into the corridors of power.

The international outcry that followed unsettled some of us (myself included). Our chairman told the press that the new government had "few friends" in the commission, and I certainly counted myself as a "non-friend". But the paradox soon emerged that the new government - precisely because it was a pariah - was eager to bring outstanding "past Nazi" issues to a successful conclusion. In a matter of months, agreement was reached on a fund to compensate forced labourers. Talks started between Jewish organisations, lawyers pursuing class actions and the US and Austrian government. Agreement was reached in Washington in January 2001 - the Austrian government agreed to pay €254 million (£161 million) into a general settlement fund on condition that "legal peace" was established in the US (which has yet to be achieved).

By now, the commission was in danger of becoming a respected institution. We briefed the negotiators by publishing interim reports on key issues, showing how the former tenants of 59,000 rented Viennese flats had never been compensated and giving estimates of how many forced labourers had worked in Austrian territory and how many of these were likely to be still alive.

After the Washington agreement, the commission's investigations - to my relief - rather receded from public and press attention. But the digging in archives, writing up results, editing and correcting continued. The one volume of findings distilled from all this work was presented at Monday's press conference: 54 supplementary reports cover a range of issues from the treatment of ethnic and national minorities (Slovenes, Roma, Czechs) to the property of the Catholic Church and from restitution law to social security provision, bonds and taxation.

The bulk concerns the fate of the wealth of Austria's Jews after the Anschluss . This property transfer of "enormous proportions" is examined from the "Arianisation" of market stands in Vienna's Naschmarkt to the takeover of banks; from the naked plunder that forced Jews to surrender personal possessions at knockdown prices to the complex administrative processes that pushed aside Jewish shareholders. The reports detail the ways in which individuals and institutions gained as a result. And they show repeatedly how close expropriation was to expulsion, deportation and murder.

As for the quality of postwar redress, the evidence suggests that the legal machinery that was set up - largely in response to outside pressure - did provide some with the opportunity to regain their property or to be compensated for its loss. Owners of those big businesses that had not been liquidated seem to have had relatively good chances. So did owners of real estate. Most of the other movable property could not be found, and its loss was compensated little and late. Overall - at least until the 1980s - the state conspicuously failed to put its weight behind achieving redress for the victims.

The commission decided early on that the facts would speak for themselves. Whether or not our findings have political or financial consequences remains to be seen. We also concluded that it would be unscholarly to attempt a valuation of what had been taken, returned or compensated. The complexity of the issues, price shifts, counterfactuals and source limitations made this the only sensible course. Even estimating the pre- Anschluss wealth of Austrian Jews was difficult: the research we sponsored ranged from 1.8 billion to 2.9 billion Reichsmark depending on the assumptions made.

The tenor of many of the conclusions is critical. This should not surprise anyone who has followed the trend of recent research and discussion. But they may also point the way forward to a more nuanced discussion. The idea that Austria underwent a German occupation between 1938 and 1945 may still hold water as a statement in international law. But this legal argument shifted into an account of how Austrians behaved under Nazi rule. The shift is now clearly seen as historically unfounded and morally unjustified.

Yet the commission's research may also undermine a different - opposed - simplification. In recent discussions, the use of terms such as "society of perpetrators" implies a monolithic entity acting purposefully to assert its innocence and wash its hands of responsibility. Our investigations suggest that postwar Austria was more complicated and more pluralist than this.

The commission's report ends with a rejection of "closure". It certainly does not claim to have unravelled all the enormous complexity of the property transfers that took place in Austria under the "racial state". Not to mention all the other questions that may not be politically sensitive enough to trigger commissions but are equally important for understanding how the Nazis ruled in Austria.

Robert Knight is a lecturer in European and international studies at Loughborough University. The views expressed here are his personal opinions. The results of the Austrian Historians' Commission can be found at www.historikerkommission.gv.at

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