Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Exposing Waldheim's Nazi past awakened Austrians

Jerusalem Post:
Revelations about the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim and the subsequent international ostracism of Austria during his presidency prompted Austrians to re-examine their wartime role, one in which they long identified as Hitler's victims rather than his allies. ...

Looking back, the controversy was the best thing that happened to Austria, the head of the Vienna Jewish Community said.

"It opened the eyes to Austrians that they had to stop living a lie and come to grips with what they did in the past," said Ariel Muzicant, who currently serves as the umbrella group's president and was vice president when the accusations surfaced against Waldheim in the mid-'80s.

Waldheim's cover-up of his wartime service as a Nazi intelligence officer in the Balkans came to represent the collective amnesia to which critics said Austria succumbed after World War II. ...

In response to criticism, the Austrian government in 1998 commissioned international historians to investigate its former president's past. The panel found that although Waldheim's actions were not criminal, they were tantamount to collaboration and his denials of involvement were insupportable.

"The major problem of Waldheim was that he was a liar," Muzicant said. "He didn't have to say he had a personal guilt, but he could have talked about historical guilt. Instead he falsified and did what many Austrians did and pushed things under the carpet."

My wife and I also visited Vienna on last year's trip. In marked contrast to conditions in Berlin and Prague, there seemed remarkably little contemplative engagement with the Nazi period or Austria's treatment of its Jewish community. We tended to be drawn to Vienna's historic outliers and outcasts, some of whom it now celebrates--Klimt and the Secession, Hundertwasser, Freud. We found no markers of Herzl's life in Vienna.

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