Remembering and Forgetting Nazism: Education, National Identity, and the Victim Myth in Postwar Austria

By Peter Utgaard | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
The “Austria-as-Victim” Myth and
Postwar Austrian Identity

On 23 May 1996, a major exhibit opened in Vienna’s Schottenstift to commemorate one thousand years of Austrian history. At the same time, in a courtroom in another part of the city, the trial of a teacher accused of teaching National Socialism (Wiederbetätigung) was underway. The day before, the presiding judge had badgered the prosecution’s student witnesses, openly doubting their testimony that their teacher, “Richard R.,” had taught them that “Austria is actually the Ostmark” and that the gas chambers were constructed by the Americans during the occupation. A few days later the judge was removed from the case.1

These simultaneous events demonstrate two visions of Austria’s past. One vision is that of Habsburg glory: beautiful landscapes, splendid palaces, and the art and architecture of fin-de-siècle Vienna. This is tourist Austria, and any visitor, especially in Vienna, will immediately be impressed by its trappings. The Hofburg, Opera, Parliament, Burgtheater, Rathaus, museums, and other grand buildings are only minutes from each other as one walks around Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, developed in the nineteenth century.2 The grandeur of the Ringstrasse and the magnificence of Schönbrunn Palace seem out of proportion to the small Alpine nation, yet the Habsburg past understandably remains important to modern Austrian identity. To many Austrians, the imperial past represents Austrian uniqueness vis-à-vis their German cousins. The empire was home to the “Austrian idea,” where the different ethnic groups of Central Europe lived in harmony under the Catholic Habsburg emperor. Austria stood in contrast to Protestant, Prussian-dominated Germany, where the “cult of the nationstate” reigned supreme.3 The idea of Austria’s special mission (die Österreichische Sendung) was especially prominent among postwar conservatives.4 The fact that imperial harmony was a historical myth does not diminish the importance of the multinational idea to Austrian identity.5 But since 1945, Austria has had a more recent and unsavory legacy to contend with: the collapse of the empire, the bitter politics and civil war of the First Republic, Austro-fascism, union with Nazi Germany, and the complicity of

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