This memorial should help Austria to confront its past

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The unveiling today of Rachel Whiteread's memorial in Vienna to victims of the Holocaust is, we must fervently hope, a sign that Austria may, just, be starting to confront its history. Its importance should not be underestimated.

The unveiling today of Rachel Whiteread's memorial in Vienna to victims of the Holocaust is, we must fervently hope, a sign that Austria may, just, be starting to confront its history. Its importance should not be underestimated.

It is, in many respects, a fine memorial, though not without its critics. Some complain that Whiteread is not Jewish. Others dislike its "slab" design for aesthetic reasons. It is being built in Judenplatz, where 80 Jews committed suicide rather than turn themselves over to Christian forces during a pogrom in 1421. When the site was being readied a few years ago, the remains of an old synagogue were found, and the project attracted criticism because it disturbed an important piece of Jewish history. And, of course, some local shopkeepers and politicians have complained, ostensibly on the grounds that it took up parking space. In reality, it has to be suspected, they are acting on the deep strain of anti-Semitism that runs through Austrian society to this day. (And despite the fact that many of those Judenplatz premises were stolen from Jewish families during the Nazi era.)

The important point, however, is not the controversy about the memorial, but the fact that it is being built at all - something that would, sadly, have been inconceivable for most of the post-war period. It is a notable moment in Austria's history and should prove a much-needed catalyst for the country's often half-hearted efforts to come to terms with its past.

The location is significant. Vienna, after all, was long an important centre of European anti-Semitism. Before 1848, Jews were not allowed to live in the city. It was in the coffee houses and hostels of pre-First World War Vienna that the young Adolf Hitler picked up much of his anti-Semitism. When he returned to his homeland after the 1938 Anschluss, the greetings for the Nazi "liberators" were a little too enthusiastic, and the anti-Jewish outrages a little too spontaneous, to sustain the post-war myth that Austria was a brutally occupied state in the same sense that, say, Poland was.

And it is enough to mention the names of Kurt Waldheim and Jörg Haider to realise how little Austria has done, in marked contrast with Germany, to recognise both the sins of the past and the dangers of the present wave of xenophobic hostility to immigrants.

The creation of this memorial, however inadequate and trivial against those realities, is a symbolic act. At the least, it will give today's visitors to Vienna's coffee houses something to think about.

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