Andreas Whittam Smith: This Austrian shame is compounded by history

They thought of themselves as Hitler's first victims, but then came the Waldheim affair

How the Austrians come to terms with Josef Fritzl's terrible crimes will be conditioned by their history as much as by the facts of the case. What is striking about the Austrians is that they have the weakest sense of their own identity of any people in Europe. Whenever they decide who they are, something comes along to show them that it was an illusion.

After the Second World War, for instance, they thought of themselves as Hitler's first victims. Had not Hitler forced them into dependency upon Germany in 1938 by marching his troops into Vienna? But then, in 1986, came the Waldheim affair. Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary General of the United Nations, was campaigning to become Federal President of Austria when suddenly questions were asked about his wartime record. As a member of the Austrian army fighting alongside German forces in the Balkans, had he been involved in war crimes? And although the official report into the allegations published in 1988 cleared him of committing any personal acts of atrocity, it was found Waldheim had been "instrumental" in the deportation of the Greek Jews, and he had incurred "a certain guilt" simply by his proximity to legally incriminating acts and orders. That rang a bell with many Austrians.

In 1938 Hitler had addressed an audience of 250,000 from the Hofburg, the old Habsburg palace in the centre of Vienna. Hitler told the huge crowd, one seventh of Vienna's entire population, that "the old eastern province of the German nation shall from now on be the youngest bulwark of the German nation." Here Hitler gave his own answer to the question regarding Austrian identity which has taken a thousand years to resolve: was there such a species, separate and apart, as Austrians, or were they just southern Germans? One reason, for instance, why there was no opposition to Hitler's invasion was that the Austrian chancellor of the day, Schussnigg, "could not shed German blood".

The Republic of Austria had been created by the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Austria had been an enemy state. When the delegation from the shrunken Austrian empire arrived at the negotiating table, they called themselves the "plenipotentiaries of the German-Austrian Republic". Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, informed them that they represented merely "the Austrian Republic". Thus union with Germany, Anschluss, was taken off the table. Austria was reduced from a huge multinational empire to just slightly more than 6 million people. Clemenceau pointed to the map of Central Europe, with its newly created Slav states, and said: "Ce qui reste, c'est l'Autriche." What remains is Austria. And when the delegation got back to Vienna, they found that people called their new country "a republic without republicans" or a "nation without a state" or a "land without a name" or "a country which had no right to exist" or "the state nobody wanted".

This absence of a purely Austrian patriotism was a function of the incredible success of their ruling family, the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs gained control in the 1270s of a belt of land, settled by German Franks, which stretched along the middle Danube from the River Emms to the outskirts of what was to become Vienna. By marriage alliances and successful military campaigns, they created a huge empire in the centre of Europe.

Loyalty to Austria was subsumed into loyalty to the ruling dynasty – and why not, since for hundreds of years it was a Great Power, rivalled only by France and, in the background, Russia. The Emperor Francis II, who was on the throne during the Napoleonic invasions, on hearing one of his subjects being praised for patriotism, asked, "is he a patriot for me?" Manifestos designed to mobilise popular resistance against Napoleon were usually addressed to "The Germans" or "The German Nation", and where Vienna was singled out for mention, it was as a "precious part of Germany".

Britain's leading expert on the Austrian royal family and their subjects, the late Gordon Brook-Shepherd, a journalist who chose to make his German not only Austrian-accented, but at times an echo of the coded vernacular of the Habsburg court, came to the conclusion that, paradoxically, it was only during the Second World War that Austrians began to think of themselves as Austrians. Although by 1942 more than a quarter of the population belonged to the Nazi party or had members of their families who had signed up, they found the experience increasingly distasteful. In 1943, a Swedish journalist reported that many ordinary people were asking themselves: "Are we really the same people as the Germans?" Now they have a different question to ask: are we really the same people as Herr Fritzl?