May 7th, 2011
Original article: http://www.profil.at/articles/1118/560/296136/gescheitert-wiederaufbau
Last Saturday, the editor-in-chief of the Austrian news magazine profil, Christian Rainer, held a commemorative address on the anniversary of the liberation of the Ebensee concentration camp, which took place on May 6, 1945. The following is a translation of the original speech:
Honored survivors of the Ebensee concentration camp, honored relatives and friends of victims and survivors, ladies and gentlemen,
Ebensee is my home town. I was born and grew up here in Ebensee until I was 18 years old. Me becoming a journalist was a mere coincidence: When Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary General and former member of the SA (paramilitary branch of the NSDAP) ran for the office of the Federal Chancellor of Austria, I felt great anger build up inside of me in view of his lies and the image he portrayed of Austrian history.
I am the father of two twin daughters. Lola and Noomi are the daughters of a Jewish woman and the grand-children of a Jewish woman from Budapest and a Jewish man from Chernivtsi. My children’s grandparents had only barely survived the holocaust before they moved to Vienna after the end of WWII.
I myself am the son of a lieutenant of the German Armed Forces, who fought against the Russians in Russia between 1941 and 1945 and against partisans in Italy. At least that’s what I was told as a child. And this is what I was told again a few weeks ago after my family had proudly learned that I would be giving this speech: my father told me that we had participated in the war and that we had had to sacrifice our youth for the anonymous German Armed Forces; not, however, for the national socialists and Adolf Hitler. I tried to correct my father on that last point during said conversation, without success.
Dear residents of Ebensee, children, parents, ladies and gentlemen: I am sure you will understand that this day and this speech are far more personal to me than for some of the other orators over the past years, and I would like to express my sincere thanks that you invited me to speak to you today.
“Never forget.” Never forgetting the atrocities committed during the Holocaust – that is the reason we have come here today and why we have erected a memorial in remembrance of the Ebensee concentration camp. “Never forget” – those are momentous words. They imply everything that makes us human: the ability to remember and to pass these memories on to future generations for thousands of years. At the same time, “never forget” does not include the element of retaliation for the injustice suffered at the hands of the national socialists and it also goes without the demand for certain actions of compensation, which should naturally result from our memories.
“Never forget” is a silent appeal to the good within us humans. It is the hope that the memories of the past are sufficient to prevent history from repeating itself, such as the brutish murder of over 8000 prisoners here at Ebensee, and the assassination of millions more at the hands of the death machinery of the national socialists. Or should I say “our” national socialists?
But does the concept “never forget” actually suffice? We do not know. But unfortunately there are powerful reasons to doubt that it does. Those reasons are more plentiful today than they have ever been. Why am I saying this? For one thing because of certain decrees that were passed by Austrian politicians: Politicians have “ordered” us to forget, and this order is on its way to becoming entrenched in people’s minds. Secondly, we have to ask ourselves the question of whether, apart from this one and many other memorial sites and a small circle of contemplative human beings – have we ever properly remembered something that may soon be buried in oblivion?
Forgetting on demand, so to speak. When Wolfgang Schuessel formed a coalition government with the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria in 2000 due to his mere hunger for power, things happened that by far exceeded what was reasonable and justifiable. Schuessel decreed to have Austria’s history between 1938 and 1945 deleted from history books. Under flimsy pretexts, this was marketed as an “end to marginalization.”
The truth is that it intended to put an end to the act of condemning the Holocaust; it was a prohibition on calling a spade a spade, a ban on remembering. Let us not be blinded by the fig leaf of restitution negotiations.
Schuessel and his Austrian People’s Party as well as the political elites of the country pardoned politicians and their followers by granting them the status of equals in the government. And by that they did not simply pardon them for past acts, youthful sins or the fact that they had pledged allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Those new members of the government were and still are active holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, and racists, who continue to play down the horrible atrocities that occurred. By empowering them, their mindset was also empowered, and it was granted the status of an equal and valid opinion in the spectrum of ideas.
Including instead of marginalizing them – that required an active act of forgetting, forgetting the atrocities committed during the national socialist era that had been the result of these people’s world view. Now, these people are active members of the government.
Ladies and gentlemen: in the year 2000, it was indirectly decreed to delete our memory of the Ebensee concentration camp because some of the members of the political arena in Austria wanted to live in denial of the atrocities that were committed. Forgetting on demand instead of never forgetting.
The year 2000 had severe consequences: in the course of the last decade, breaking the taboo led to indifference to the exceptional nature of the Holocaust becoming increasingly entrenched in people’s minds. Neo-Nazi homepages are now sometimes accepted as factual. It does not seem to bother people that much anymore to have a German national with a radical right-wing world view as the speaker of parliament. The new head of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who used to be in the middle of a radical right-wing environment a short while ago, is now getting ready for making it to the top of the list of the most popular Austrian politicians. Denial has become commonly acceptable.
Events in the past that needed to be remembered as a warning to future generations were to be forgotten on demand. Two years ago, I wrote an article in my magazine about the “pranks” committed by five youngsters from Ebensee during a memorial service at the concentration camp. Please don’t get me wrong! These attacks on Holocaust survivors were horrific and inexcusable. But how are children between the ages of 14 and 17 supposed to comprehend the dimension of their deeds and the ideological viciousness of their actions if “pranksters” with a similar mindset now commonly hold positions of the utmost political importance and influence in this country?
A few years ago, a prominent politician and orator, who held a speech at this very site, tried to console us saying, and I quote:”It can be stated that a wide-ranging cross-party consensus has been reached on condemning and researching the crimes committed by the Nazis.”
Today, I cannot discern this alleged consensus anymore, if it ever existed on that scale at all. Of course, we must also face the question of how it is possible not to think the unthinkable anymore. How can a country forget the Holocaust and its participation in the military murders of the Second World War? Why is it acceptable for a sly politician to involve and incorporate those who have not accepted responsibility for the Holocaust into our political landscape instead of marginalizing them, thus inducing the country to forget instead of to remember?
Is it maybe because Austria has never really remembered and does not really have to forget something it never held a memory of? What does “never forget” mean if there is nothing to remember?
Ladies and gentlemen: Allow me to tell you a few things about my own life. About 40 years ago when I was merely a child of nine or ten years, I visited the mine here at the Ebensee concentration camp. Back then, safety precautions were scarce and so the mine was like an adventure park for me and my friends. We crawled over the wet ground through tight tunnels with poorly fabricated flashlights and explored the enormous caves in the mountain.
The souvenirs we took with us in our rucksacks from these exploratory tours were stones, feld spar, and pyrite. What we did not take with us was the knowledge of where we had just been. Even though the sign leading the way to the camp’s graveyard, which was scary to us back then, could not be hidden away from us children, the secret of what happened in this mine remained unknown to us at the time.
Did it remain unknown because it wanted to remain hidden? Not at all, it was being hidden from us. There was nobody to tell us what had happened in these mines just a few decades before. Why didn’t anybody tell us that thousands of prisoners had worked themselves to death in the mine, right where I was playing with my buddies? Why did nobody tell us that we were surrounded by dead bodies that had been murdered in the most brutal manner?
And why did nobody tell us about everyday life in Austria and in Ebensee in particular between the years 1938 and 1945? Why did nobody tell us that back then, in the 1970s, the perpetrators and criminals of the NS regime were right there, living in our society, and that people in Ebensee got together in a restaurant in downtown Ebensee, where just 30 years before, people were sitting and dining just before they took off to murder Jews? Why didn’t anybody tell me that the restaurant where my parents regularly sent me to to have lunch at used to be a popular recreational hub of the neighborhood for anti-semites and the Nazis? Why did nobody tell us that a popular sports teacher in Ebensee was a former member of the DNVP, an anti-semitic nationalist German party?
Ladies and gentlemen, remembering is not possible when you have no memories. When you are ignorant of the past, “Never forget” becomes a hope of no avail. I am holding an entire generation responsible for the fact that so many people today do not understand nor do they condemn what happened by excluding those who deny these atrocities from our political landscape.
Let me illustrate that point. It’s not just about perpetrators, about whistle-blowers, and about silent enablers. I am talking about simple soldiers in the German Armed Forces. I am talking about families that feared for their sons and often lost them in battle. I am talking about the silent witnesses of the worst crimes of recent history.
Of course, it was not obligatory to join the Nazis, as Kurt Waldheim claimed to know. Nor was it obligatory to join the resistance movement. But it would have been everybody’s duty to talk about the past without exceptions after the collapse of the Third Reich, despite of everybody’s individual traumas.
It was not important to tell one’s children that one was drafted into the Army against one’s will. It would have been much more important to explain to one’s children that the German Armed Forces and similar institutions were not just neutral institutions. They were just as guilt-ridden as the Nazi machinery itself.
In a nutshell: after 1945, it would have been necessary for everybody in Austria to assume collective responsibility. The post-war generation is and always has been very proud of the economic recovery after the war, the so-called “Wirtschaftswunder.” As far as Austria’s moral recovery is concerned, however, they have failed miserably.
The truth, ladies and gentlemen, is not only acceptable to hear. The truth must be told at all costs, so that it can’t repeat itself. Never forget!
Thank you very much for the opportunity of speaking to you today.