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The Waldheim File

Hitler and the Forgotten Nazis: A History of Austrian National Socialism

by Bruce F. Pauley
University of North Carolina Press, 292 pp., $21.00

Hitler’s Hometown: Linz, Austria, 1908-1945

by Evan Burr Bukey
Indiana University Press, 288 pp., $25.00

Kurt Waldheim’s Hidden Past: An Interim Report to the President, World Jewish Congress

World Jewish Congress (June 2, 1986)

Die Reichsidee bei Konstantin Frantz Staatswissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Universität Wien (1944) (Courtesy of Simon Wiesenthal Center.)

by Kurt Waldheim
Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung des Doktorgrades der Rechts- und

In the Eye of the Storm: A Memoir

by Kurt Waldheim
Adler and Adler, 278 pp., $17.95

In October 1943, the foreign ministers of Great Britain and the Soviet Union and the secretary of state of the United States of America met in Moscow to discuss a variety of territorial and other problems that would arise at the war’s end. In the course of these talks, they touched briefly on the future disposition of Austria, which had since 1938 been an integral part of the Great German Reich, and agreed without difficulty that—as their communiqué stated later—“Austria, the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination.”

For Austria, the Moscow declaration was what the Germans call, after the soap powder, a Persilschein or certificate of purity, automatically absolving it from disabilities and punishments that would befall countries that were not “liberated” but designated as former enemies. Why the Big Three foreign ministers were so generous is still puzzling. A senior member of the US Foreign Service once suggested, not entirely frivolously, that it was because President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had spent happy summers in their youth rolling down Austria’s lush hills in lederhosen and were privately agreed that the Austrians were a jolly people who deserved much better treatment than the awful Germans. Others have wondered whether bad conscience was not at play, the Western Allies remembering that they had not lifted a finger to prevent the Anschluss in 1938 and had given de jure recognition to the new regime with altogether unseemly haste. The most likely explanation is that the foreign ministers were distracted by other problems (the war was far from being won, and the Soviet representative, Mr. Molotov, for example, seemed to harbor suspicions that his allies might be willing to allow Germany to keep some of its territorial gains as the price of peace) and that they were not fully aware of the implications of their declaration or concerned about its historical accuracy.

At the very least, their declaration was loosely phrased. Austria had, of course, been a sovereign state until Hitler’s tanks rolled into Vienna in March 1938, but that it had been free in any wider sense is more than questionable, in view of the fact that as early as 1934 the so-called Mini-Metternich, Engelbert Dollfuss, had revoked its democratic constitution, abolished parliamentary government, and established an authoritarian fascist state, and the further fact that his successor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, had not only continued this new order but used it to keep thousands of political dissidents in concentration camps.

Whether Austria could be described accurately as a victim of Hitlerite aggression was even more doubtful. The desire for union (Anschluss) with its northern neighbor was almost general in the country after 1918, and although this ceased to be true in the parties of the left after Hitler took power in Germany in January 1933, that event increased the passion for Anschluss in Austria as a whole. Its most unequivocal advocate was the Austrian National Socialist party, and it is significant that—as Bruce Pauley points out in his interesting and virtually unique history of that party—it was only after the Nazi victory in Germany that it became a mass movement, appealing not only to the lower middle class but also to “peasants, miners, Protestants, Catholics, civil servants, merchants, and artisans,” and particularly to intellectuals and students, so that the universities of Graz and Vienna became Nazi strongholds that made a major contribution to the country’s domestic unrest in the years from 1933 to 1938. During that time, the Nazis systematically disrupted Austrian politics for the purpose of creating a situation that would invite German intervention and make Anschluss inevitable and, despite all of Dollfuss’s and Schuschnigg’s efforts to contain them, by disabling legislation and police regulation, they were successful in the spring of 1938.

Mr. Pauley believes that the Austrian Nazi leaders would have preferred to take over power in Vienna by themselves and to effect the union without an actual military invasion; but when Hitler decided differently, neither their own followers nor most of the population seemed to be disappointed. A quarter of a million people crowded into Vienna’s Heldenplatz to greet the German Führer on March 15, 1938; half a million more lined the Ringstrasse to cheer him after his announcement of the Anschluss; and in the days that followed mobs in all of the country’s principal cities continued the celebratory mood by looting their Jewish fellow citizens, going about the job, as the German SS paper Schwarzer Korps wrote admiringly, “with honest joy” and managing “to do in a fortnight what we have failed to achieve in this slow-moving ponderous north up to this day.”

Nowhere in Austria was the acceptance of Hitler’s rule more enthusiastic and of longer duration than in Linz, the Upper Austrian entrepôt on the Danube where Adolf Hitler had grown to manhood at the turn of the century and from which, he once said, “Providence called me forth to the leadership of the Reich.” Evan Burr Bukey, in an excellent history of Linz in the modern period, describes the reasons for the strong grass-roots support that National Socialism enjoyed there from the moment of the Führer’s triumphant homecoming in 1938 until late in the Second World War. Hitler’s long-nurtured plans to transform his boyhood home into a major cultural center and the expedition with which Hermann Goering set about the job of restructuring its industrial base had much to do with this positive local response. Mr. Bukey writes that “the rapid introduction of measures relieving social distress, especially by the Strength Through Joy organization, the revitalization of the Linz economy, and, above all, the elimination of local unemployment within six months of the Anschluss all created a psychological euphoria affecting every class of society, including the workers.”

But, the economic reasons aside, National Socialism was popular because of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Ever since the beginning of the century Linz was well known for its anti-Semitism, which was propagated by nationalist organizations, encouraged by local church leaders, and shared by people of all classes and parties, not excluding the Social Democrats. The Nazi seizure of power in Linz began—“quite appropriately,” Mr. Bukey writes—with a savage pogrom and, even before Hitler had arrived in the city on March 12, plans had been made for its “cleansing.” This was carried out with such brutal thoroughness that eight months later on Reichskrystallnacht, November 10, 1938, local storm troopers could find no Jewish property left to plunder or expropriate, except the synagogue, which they burned to the ground as a matter of routine. All but a handful of the area’s Jewish population had by that time been driven from their homes. The remnant, roughly three hundred persons, suffered daily humiliation and harassment until the middle of 1942, when they were deported to the ovens in Poland.

Thanks to the Big Three’s exculpatory statement at Moscow in 1943, these things could now be forgotten. There was no need in postwar Austria for the painful process that, on the other side of the Inn River, was called Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”). There was, apparently, no past to be assimilated; it had simply been expunged, and it was considered to be the worst of bad form even to mention it. Even Bruno Kreisky, federal chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983, who, as a partly Jewish socialist, seemed the symbol of the new Austria, lent himself to this conspiracy of silence. When awkward historical facts were alluded to, he was, according to the German news weekly Der Spiegel, wont to say with asperity, “Whenever grass has finally grown over something, along comes some camel or other and eats it all off again!”

That the camels have been grazing in herds since the spring of this year is the fault of Kreisky’s former friend, the sometime diplomat and secretary general of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim. The discovery, during his ultimately successful campaign for the presidency of the Austrian republic, that he had for years been concealing the truth about his military service during World War II and that, instead of spending the greater part of that conflict as a student in Vienna, as he claimed, he had been in the Balkans as a staff officer with German army units that committed atrocities, caused a sensation and inevitably led to a lively discussion in the international press that went far beyond the Waldheim case to deal with Austrian wartime collaboration in general and to recall to public attention the activities of such notorious countrymen of Waldheim as Adolf Eichmann, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of Hitler’s security police, and Odilo Globocnik, organizer of the extermination of the Jews in the Lublin area. Meanwhile, the reaction of Waldheim’s supporters to new reports about their candidate’s Balkan service was so defiant, xenophobic, and ultimately anti-Semitic in tone that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it was caused less by resentment over the rigorous scrutiny to which Waldheim’s personal history was being subjected than by a deep disquiet and defensiveness about the nation’s own Nazi past.

In digging out the details of Waldheim’s military career, the World Jewish Congress has provided the most energetic group of researchers (which explains the pointed attacks upon it in the less responsible section of the Austrian press), and its interim report of June 2, which presents an up-to-date summary of their findings, is an impressive and disturbing document. On the basis of captured German files, the WJC team has laboriously reconstructed the record of Waldheim’s various Balkan assignments and analyzed the nature and extent of his responsibilities in each post. Its findings indicate that, after a short medical leave to enable him to recover from a shrapnel wound in the leg that he had suffered on the eastern front toward the end of 1941, he served from March to November 1942 on the command staffs of the Bader Combat Group and its successor, the West Bosnian Combat Group, at Pljevlja, Yugoslavia; from March to July 1943 on the staff of General Alexander Loehr’s Army Group E at Arsakli, Greece, and Podgorica, Yugoslavia; from July to October 1943 as liaison officer with the Italian Eleventh Army in Athens; and from December 1943 until the end of 1944 at Army Group E’s headquarters at Arsakli again—all periods, incidentally, during which, by his own account, he was back in Vienna working on his doctoral dissertation.

His functions were various, ranging from interpreting and transmitting orders to combat units to such activities as interrogation of prisoners, intelligence gathering and analysis, and the briefing of his superiors, and his responsibilities and authority seem to have increased from post to post. His role in the antipartisan operations of the Bader and West Bosnian combat groups in the Kozara Planina mountain range, during which many unarmed civilians were killed and more than 68,000 persons were deported to concentration camps, was prominent enough to win him the King Zvonimir medal of the Nazi puppet government of Croatia. During his first hitch in Arsakli, more than 40,000 Jews, about one fifth of the population of Salonika, were dispatched in Wehrmacht freight cars to Auschwitz, although Waldheim has stated that he neither knew of nor had anything to do with this.

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