Somewhere Between Perpetrator and Victim

Der Standard (06/08/2006)

Andreas Feiertag

It is still unclear whether there will be a Simon Wiesenthal Institute. The debate on the importance of Holocaust research is revealed by the sheer number of ongoing symposia having that as its theme. At the center of the debate: Wiesenthal’s memorandum of 1966 - Austria’s responsibility for the Shoa.

Vienna – More perpetrators or more victims? Research dealing with contemporary Austrian history has so often focused solely on quantifying NS crimes and criminals until the wealth of data has ended up constructing diametrical truths. These data, depending on ideology, are now being used as instruments for political goals.

“The question as to Austria’s responsibility for NS crimes is normally discussed alongside the question of Austria’s share of NS aggressors,” criticized the Vienna historian for contemporary history, Bertrand Perz, during the Wednesday conference entitled “The Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal for Holocaust Studies” at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies (IFK) in Vienna. “From the standpoint of method, the conclusion drawn when considering the share of the population in relationship to societal responsibility is scientifically unacceptable.” Since 1945, the positions on this issue have ranged from wholly negating Austria’s participation in the Holocaust to viewing Austria as having an over-proportional share of NS perpetrators – last but not least, Simon Wiesenthal himself took the latter position in his memorandum to the Austrian government written in 1966. Its core contents were directed at having an efficient Austrian prosecution of NS criminals, which until today continues to be the focal point of this conference. Wiesenthal, known to all as the “Nazi hunter,” clung to the standpoint that out of the six million murdered Jews, Austrians can be blamed for three million of them – “a purely political statement but in no way a scientific one,” explained Perz.

The memorandum’s logic was a result of the sociopolitical thinking of the time: The ‘victim thesis,’ wrongfully applied to society from the viewpoint of international law. It became an accepted truth, a path already prepared by the courts and politics.

The People’s Courts (Volksgerichte) embodied Austria’s first initiative in attempting to come to terms with its history. It convicted some 13,600 cases, of which thirty-four received a life sentence and forty-three were condemned to death. The last case of amnesty was offered in 1955 to one of the NS perpetrators; after that, all others were integrated back into society. The spirit of the times tended toward reconciliation. Already in the Declaration of Independence of 1945, Austria’s role as victim continued to be defined such as in the Moscow Declaration.

The Protective Mechanism
With his memorandum, Wiesenthal attempted to break through the protective mechanism with which the Austrian justice system tried to use in covering up collectively all NS perpetrators. But Wiesenthal also argued collectively – politically. That was something very atypical, emphasized the Israeli journalist, Tom Segev, at the conference sponsored by the Vienna Weisenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies and the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. For Segev, who is currently writing a biography on Wiesenthal and is weeding through the Wiesenthal collection, “the man who hunted down Eichmann” always fought against claiming any kind of collective guilt: “It was more a matter of personal responsibility.”

Is, therefore, the question as to what extent Austria participated in NS crimes at all acceptable? “It is an indisputable fact that Austria was part of the criminal regime and participated in the Holocaust,” stated Perz. “But the percentage to which they did so is superficial and senseless. Besides, it excuses everyone from looking at it more closely.”

If one were to divide the number of crimes against humanity into small segments of crime, then there were groups of perpetrators in which the share of Austrians exceeded forty percent as well as those in which the percentage failed to reach even one percent. Perz believes that on the average, Austrian’s share of crimes are equivalent to those of the Germans. Nevertheless, the number explains neither the motive behind the crimes nor anything else.

It is for this reason that creating a Wiesenthal Institute in Vienna, which not only curates his archives but also promotes continual research, is urgently necessary. Then, according to Perz who helped organize the conference, “not so much would happen as one believes” in Holocaust research in Austria: The Historical Commission has already achieved a lot in certain areas, but their research rarely went beyond that of Austria’s borders. “Knowledge as to the background and share of Austrian participation in the Holocaust, for instance, in the Balkans, in Poland or Holland, is still lacking.”