Anschluss and Austria's guilty conscience

Seventy years after the Nazis' annexation of Austria, questions remain over whether its citizens were victims or accomplices

The black and white photo was taken in Vienna 70 years ago this week: it shows a crowd of ordinary Austrians and a handful of officials sporting swastika armbands. All of them are grinning or smirking. At their feet six raggedly clad Jews are on their knees, being forced to clean the pavement with brushes.

The picture is a snapshot of the instant "people's justice" meted out by Aryan Austrians against the perceived enemies of the Third Reich. It was taken only hours after 105,000 Nazi storm troopers, many of them singing, marched into the country on 12 March 1938 and formally declared political union or "Anschluss" with Germany.

Last night, 80,000 candles were lit on Vienna's Heldenplatz square to mark the 70th anniversary of the darkest chapter in Austrian history. The candles represented the total number of Austrian Jews and other victims who lost their lives as a result of Nazi rule.

In March 1938, tens of thousands of Austrians gathered in the square to welcome home Adolf Hitler, who was born in Austria, like a prodigal son. In deliberate contrast to that loud enthusiasm, yesterday's sombre ceremony was called "The Night of Silence".

Despite open displays of remorse about the Nazi era, the 70th anniversary of Austria's annexation has inevitably revived a long-running debate about whether its citizens were victims or willing accomplices of the Third Reich.

Public reluctance to confront the issue was underscored this week by Otto von Habsburg, the 95-year-old son of the country's last emperor. He told a meeting of the ruling conservative People's Party: "No state in Europe has a greater right than Austria to call itself a victim." He went on to dismiss an Allied wartime declaration that Austria shared responsibility for the Nazis as "hypocrisy and lies". The thousands who greeted Hitler were just like "high-spirited football fans", he insisted.

His remarks followed publication of an opinion poll on Tuesday which showed that almost two thirds of Austrians wanted an end to what was described as the "endless discussion" about the country's role during the Second World War. (The result of a similar poll conducted eight years ago was the same).

However, new evidence and a growing mass of research about Austria's role during the Third Reich suggests that the argument that the vast majority of its citizens were willing accomplices to Nazi rule has become incontrovertible.

Less than a month after German troops marched into Austria, Hitler ordered that the invasion be ratified by plebiscite. The poll conducted on 10 April 1938 showed that 99.75 per cent of Austrians were in favour of the annexation. Subsequent claims that the results were doctored by the Nazis were later substantiated. But recent research suggests that the actual number in favour of Nazi rule was still about two thirds of the electorate.

Professor Gerhard Botz, a historian at Vienna University who has researched the period closely, said yesterday: "Hitler was welcomed into the country as a successful Austrian who was returning home from abroad and suddenly letting his own people take part in his successes. He was a sort of ersatz monarch."

Gershon Evan, an Austrian Jew whose parents were arrested and killed by the Nazis, recalled during a television broadcast yesterday how quickly racial persecution took hold in Vienna, a city in which every 10th citizen was then Jewish. "What happened in Germany over five years, happened in Vienna in five days," he said. "We had no idea that we would face such violence."

Austria's Jewish community numbered some 200,000 before the Second World War and was considered one of Europe's most vibrant. Most, like Mr Evan, managed to flee the country after the Anschluss, but 65,000 were murdered in the Nazi death camps. New research has shown that the number of Austrians who held key positions in Nazi concentration camps was disproportionately high. Today, Austria is home to 10,000 Jews.

Film footage of the jubilant reception given to Hitler in Vienna has frequently been dismissed in Austria as stage-managed Nazi propaganda. "This kind of argument is used by the Austrians who claim that they are innocent and the Nazis were the invaders," said the Viennese author and historian Brigitte Hamann.

However, new independent film material about the period was shown for the first time in Germany this week. The colour footage, shown on Germany's ZDF channel, was taken from 90 minutes of film shot by an Austrian forester called Marilius Mayer in March 1938. The film shows images of a provincial town in which the locals have turned out en masse to demonstrate their support for the invading Nazis. The streets are hung with hundreds of red, black and white swastika banners and the town square has been hastily renamed "Adolf Hitler Platz".

Earlier this week a poignant ceremony was conducted by Vienna's now tiny Jewish community to mark the anniversary. Seventy years after it was forcibly shut down and taken over by the invading Nazis, members gathered to reopen the Hakoah sports club – an institution that once produced Olympic champions for Austria.

The club was evidence enough of the prevailing attitudes in 1930s Austria before it was shut down. It existed because the overwhelming majority of the city's other sporting organisations refused to accept Jews as members. Hakoah, founded in 1909 and named after the Hebrew word for "strength", produced athletes who won Olympic medals in swimming and wrestling.

After the Second World War, Vienna's surviving Jews refounded the club but their attempts to return to their former premises were thwarted by bureaucracy and official reluctance to acknowledge Austria's Nazi role or pay compensation. The club finally secured a site close to its original premises in 2002 under a £100m reparations settlement for Jewish victims of Nazi rule.

Ronald Gelbard, the manager of the reopened Hakoah club, insisted that Austria's non-Jews were welcome. "We are a Jewish organisation but anyone can use the facilities regardless of faith," he said.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent