Eyewitness: Austrian scientists come to terms with Nazi legacy

April 6, 2001

The image of Austrian universities as victims of Nazi terror during Hitler's seven-year occupation was dealt a blow at an academic symposium in Vienna last month. Many scientists stayed in Austria between 1938 and 1945 and continued their work regardless of the political regime, according to symposium organiser Mitchell Ash, professor of modern history at the University of Vienna.

"The truth is that scientists stayed in Austria just as they did in Germany. The country lost several great minds, but many remained and continued their research," he said.

Despite the myth that good science was unnecessary to the Nazis, who supported only propaganda disguised as science, Professor Ash said good science was carried out by researchers dedicated to their work and not Nazi ideology.

"A practical core of work was done by scientists who managed to convince the Nazi regime that their research made an instrumental contribution to the prevailing political project. It was a matter of presentation as much as content."

He admits that such single-minded purpose is difficult for many to accept:

"It is an uncomfortable situation. We cannot create a nice, easy dividing line between them and us.

"They made a deal with the state because the state was their only means of supporting their research. These scientists chose to stay even though Jewish colleagues had been hounded out. After 1945, the scientists who had prospered under Nazism invented a rhetoric of misuse of the sciences under Hitler's regime - this had a clear exculpatory function," he said.

Fascination with high-profile cases such as that of Heinrich Gross, who is accused of murdering handicapped children at Vienna's Steinhof Children's Hospital, distort the true picture.

"It's good that the Gross case receives so much attention. He undoubtedly murdered children in support of Nazi ideology and based his later career on examining the brains he took from patients there. On the other hand, it is a horror story that distorts the broader focus," Professor Ash said.

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