The Case of Josef W. and Austria's Difficult
Relationship with Its Past
On 14 September 1942 a transport of Jews from the city of Vienna arrived in German-occupied Minsk.1 Here, beginning in April 1942, the forces of the Kommandeur der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD (Commander of the Security Police and sd, or KdS) in Minsk were engaged in murdering trainloads of Jews, deported from the Reich, by shooting and by asphyxiation in gas vans at the nearby agricultural estate of Maly Trostinets, some thirteen kilometers from the Belorussian capital.2 That September afternoon, the Austrian Jews arriving at the freight yard in Minsk were met by five large vans, waiting to collect them. Unloaded car by car, the crowd of men, women, and children were instructed to leave their baggage on the pavement and to form an orderly line. From her place in the queue, a women focused her attention on one of the van drivers, speaking in German to his colleagues. Heartened by the familiar dialect—for she could recognize the accent of Vienna's Erdberg neighborhood—the woman approached and engaged in brief conversation with him. Returning to her acquaintances in the line, she was heard to remark: “Wenn ein Wiener da ist, kann uns nicht viel passieren” (If a Viennese is here, nothing much can happen to us).3
The Viennese man in the freight yard that day was gas van driver Josef W., on loan to the KdS Minsk from Einsatzkommando 8 (ek 8), a mobile killing unit of the Einsatzgruppen, stationed two hundred kilometers away in Mogilev. This self-admitted perpetrator of Nazi crimes, and the story of the Austrian justice apparatus that failed to convict him, are the focus of this essay.
Josef W. was born to a working-class Viennese family on 3 September 1910. Apprenticed in his teens to a hairdresser, he spent most of the initial years of the Depression era unemployed. Perhaps it was this early experience of joblessness in a newly truncated Austria that drove him to join the Austrian Nazi Party in 1931 and the SS two years later. His political stance and his status as an “Illegal”