Austria always will have a special place in the life and near extermination of European Jewry. It was here in Vienna that the notion of a Jewish homeland was born in 1896 when journalist Theodor Herzl published his historic booklet, The Jewish State. And it was here in March 1938 that Adolf Hitler first expanded the Third Reich beyond Germany's borders by marching triumphantly into Vienna to broad public acclaim.
The first act of Hitler's Anschluss (the union of Austria and Germany) was to strip Austria's 200,000 Jews of their citizenship, jobs and property. More than 65,000 Austrian Jews perished in German death camps and ghettoes. The rest were expelled. Sixty-four years later, Austria has just 7,000 Jews. To this day, most never have received compensation nor even recognition of the horrors they suffered under the Third Reich.
The failure of postwar Austrian governments to acknowledge the country's complicity in the Holocaust prompted the president of the Austrian Jewish Community, Dr. Ariel Muzicant, to press the government to establish a "Historical Commission" to reexamine Austria's past. "It is important that Austria finally tries to live up to its past, not just what happened from 1938-1945, which is pretty well known, but to what didn't happen after 1945, and the enormous amount of Jewish property that was never returned or compensated," Muzicant tells INSIGHT in Vienna.
On July 4, that commission released a damning preliminary report. Despite no fewer than seven laws passed since 1945 that called for limited restitution of property stolen from Austria's Jews, it determined that very little ever was returned. The main reason, commission spokeswoman Eva Blimlinger tells INSIGHT, was simple and far-reaching: "Austria did not want to admit any wrongdoing during the war." Postwar governments portrayed Austria as a "victim" of Nazi evil, not as the willing partner that it was, but actively discouraged exiled Jews from returning. So did the World Jewish Committee, which was convinced anti-Semitism remained rank in Austria even after the war.
Now the Historical Commission is attempting to set the record straight. It will issue a final report this autumn that will include a full inventory of "Aryanized" property (that is, property belonging to Jews stolen by the Nazis) that for the first time will place a monetary value on the theft. "Our own historians estimate the total amount of property seized from Austria's Jews at roughly $14 billion, of which 60 percent was never returned and never compensated," Muzicant says. "This estimate includes businesses, homes, money, shares, insurance policies, leases, household goods, art, silver and gold, jewelry, books. We're talking about 25 different categories."
But Muzicant doubts the Historical Commission will venture beyond the properties stolen from Jews that today belong to the state, which he believes constitutes somewhere between 2 percent and 6 percent of the total that was seized from Austria's Jews. During the last 18 months journalists have roamed through newly opened Austrian state archives. Among the stolen businesses they identified are factories, department stores, hotels, jewelry stores and national monuments, including the Ferris wheel on the Prater along the Danube in Vienna.
So widespread was the theft organized by the Nazis that a significant portion of Vienna's postwar economy even today has been built from stolen property. And yet the current owners appear oblivious. "They say nothing about this" Muzicant tells INSIGHT.
That could all change this autumn--at least in theory. The growing tide of anti-Semitism once again sweeping across Europe could force Muzicant and the politicians who must implement the findings of the Historical Commission to proceed warily, or even abandon restitution, for fear of arousing a popular backlash. "This is not new," Muzicant says. …