European Times Vienna: `Nazi euthanasia' doctor on trial

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The Independent Online
AUSTRIA IS not a backward country. Opera is subsidised by the state and the streets are safe to walk at night. Parks are well maintained and public transport is cheap and efficient.

At this time of year it seems particularly civilised. The pace of pavement life slows to a stroll as the sunshine prompts a blossoming of cafe tables on the streets.

Suitably enough, the change taking place in Austrian society is manifested as more of a breeze than a wind. A new generation has taken its place in most areas of the establishment - and it seems more willing than its predecessors to try clearing up the anomalies from the Second World War, which remain unresolved.

But this willingness is conditional. Although the new generation wants to take a closer look at the sins of its fathers, there remains a reluctance to ask why those sins were often compounded by 50 years of official inaction.

What the postwar generation is now examining is best illustrated by the forthcoming trial of Dr Heinrich Gross, accused of involvement in the Second World War "euthanasia" murders of disabled children at Vienna's notorious Am Spiegelgrund Children's clinic.

This is not just another war crimes hearing; Dr Gross, now more than 80 years old, played a fully fledged part in the post-war order. The establishment honoured him with a research institute of his own, a medal for the work he did there and expert witness status with the High Court, a post he resigned only two years ago.

The difficult part for anyone to stomach is that his reputation was built on research, conducted largely after the war, on the preserved brains of children killed in the clinic.

Dr Gross says: "I had nothing to do with the killing of these children. I knew about the killings but I was not involved in them."

As he goes to court, the case should be surrounded by a storm of questions. How did he rise to such a high position in postwar society? Why didn't the politicians and judges who worked with him question his past, which was, after all, an open secret?

But Austria is not convulsed by debate on the matter. It never has been. Marianne Enigl, the journalist who broke the story of the respected court doctor's past, said her articles exposing him in the news magazine Profil in 1995 were like "dropping a stone into a pool but seeing no ripples". She said people simply did not want to confront the past. "No one wants to go back."

The newspapers are not running commentaries on the Gross case; the Austrian equivalent of the BBC, the ORF, has never made a lengthy documentary on the story to ask why so many people who knew what happened at the clinic failed to accuse the doctor.

But things are moving, even though, as Dr Gross's lawyer Dr Nikolaus Lehner freely admits, it is now very late. His theory is that only now, when those in power are postwar educated, does the Austrian establishment have the confidence and desire to examine the events of the Second World War. A number of Third Reich cases have emerged during the past year. But although restitution and compensation are being made, questions might also be asked of why the post-war establishment did nothing sooner.

The world-renowned Pernkopf anatomy reference book was put under the spotlight last year after it was admitted that the illustrations used were probably of beheaded victims of the Nazis. Swastikas drawn next to signatures on the book's illustrations had been airbrushed out over the years.

A Vienna University investigation revealed that more than 1,000 Austrians killed for minor infractions of Nazi laws ended up on medical dissection tables and that photographs of some of them were still being peered at by medical students revising for exams.

But the book is not being withdrawn - the researchers have instead called for a suitable explanation to be added to further editions.

The art world has also been shaken from a stupor of complacency. Two state-owned paintings by the expressionist Egon Schiele were confiscated in New York after claims that they had been effectively stolen from their rightful owners in the aftermath of the war.

An artwork with a shady past is not news here but it was only after the Schiele case that a national inventory of state-owned art was ordered.

Within the last few months, 250 pieces have been returned to the Rothschild family alone. But there have been few demands for the heads of those museum officials who blackmailed the art from impoverished refugees or hid the fact that this had been done.

The deep stains left by the Third Reich were not washed out by war crimes trials and have not faded completely with the passing of time and the establishment of a democracy in Austria. The postwar generation has had to confront many unresolved questions from the Nazi era - and the fact that many of their predecessors decided the easiest, or only, way to establish a new society was to ignore the blood on many people's hands.