Waiting for Legal Closure

Der Standard (12/12/2005)

By Karin Moser

While the General Settlement Fund is starting with its first payments, the Reconciliation Fund is concluding its activities. Around 132,000 applications by former slave and forced laborers have been dealt with and settled. The following is an interview with Richard Wotava.

Standard: What will happen with the remaining money after the dissolution of the Fund?
Wotava: Two new institutions will be created: The Scholarship Foundation and the Fund for the Future.

Standard: What will the Fund for the Future do?
Wotava: This Fund will take care of the applications of former forced and slave laborers or their heirs which haven’t yet been handled and also continue the humanitarian projects, especially in the field of medicine. This Fund shall also produce scientific research. There is a controversy between the government coalition parties and the opposition. The government parties want the Fund to research not only the NS Regime, but also other forms of dictatorships. The opposition parties want to restrict the Fund to researching the NS Regime.

Standard: What makes more sense?
Wotava: We see a strong link between the NS Regime and Stalin’s dictatorship via the former slave and forced laborers of the Soviet Union, especially those who worked in industries, because they have been transferred from NS slave labor into a penal camp in Siberia or elsewhere after intense interrogation by the Soviet secret police. There is great interest in conducting scientific research of the fate and whereabouts of former slave and forced laborers of the Soviet Union. The work we have done in the Reconciliation Fund should not be lost.

Standard: Can there ever be Reconciliation on the basis of financial compensation?
Wotava: We have made some very interesting experiences with that, especially because we have personally completed a whole series of payments in several countries. We have worked on about 132,000 applications from 60 countries. The feedback in our meetings with the applicants was very positive. They were not only thankful but also very impressed by the fact that we had done all this on a voluntary basis. Besides the financial aspect which brought about a complete change in their lives, many told us: "Do you know what for us is at least as important? You are the first organization which recognizes us as NS victims."

Standard: But it took a long time until this voluntary work became possible. What do you have to say about the many discussions year after year, before the Reconciliation Fund was established?
Wotava: The first twenty years after WW II Austria wouldn’t have been able to pay because the money wasn’t there. After that, it could have been done. Many discussions took place, but nothing concrete came out of them.

Standard: But even after the establishment of the Fund, many of the people were told: Please wait!
Wotava: Yes, we were blocked for seven months because of the lack of legal peace.

Standard: But unlike the General Settlement Fund, the money for the Reconciliation Fund was already there before. Was it difficult to secure the financing?
Wotava: The economy paid into the Fund without any hesitation. We had to intervene in some cases, but in sum, it went very well. The Minister of Finance first paid 100 million Shillings in seed capital, followed by 3.6 billion. He was only willing to pay this second amount following the establishment of legal peace. I remember the day exactly, July 31, 2001. I received a letter from our Federal Chancellor stating that we had achieved legal peace with the dismissal of the last class action suit in New York. Payments could start. We, of course, had many of the lists ready and had verified the names on them. So I could start the same day to have Postsparkasse make transfers in 20,388 cases.

Standard: Why was a prompt payment so important for you?
Wotava: We had already heard doubts about whether we would ever pay, along the lines, ‘We’ll probably get nothing anyway.’ And I understand this skepticism absolutely. We have been waiting for legal peace because it’s not funny to have to act in a vacuum.

Ambassador Wotava (72) has been Secretary General of the Reconciliation Fund since 2000.