Forty-two percent of Austrians believe that “not everything was bad under Hitler,” according to a poll conducted by the Viennese newspaper Der Standard. That’s very telling, especially this week when Austria marks the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss – its merger with Nazi Germany.
In the postwar years, Vienna sought to shirk all responsibility for the Holocaust by pretending that it was merely another conquered and victimized European country, whose citizenry was forced against its will to endure German occupation. But not all truth can be conveniently rewritten.
The indisputable fact is that the homeland of both Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann enthusiastically cheered what was later expediently portrayed as a hostile takeover. Hitler’s so-called annexation was cause for rapturous celebration and no one – not even the Germans – matched the Austrian alacrity to rob the Jews, persecute them, humiliate and brutalize them. In many ways Berlin learned pernicious lessons from Vienna.
Given all that, the anniversary-eve poll exposes an old mindset that, much as it was once assiduously denied, appears to survive vibrantly among significant portions of the population.
Besides nostalgia for the Hitler era, other findings attest to lack of contrition. Thus 54% of respondents thought that neo-Nazi groups might succeed in Austrian elections, had they not been barred by law from running. In other words, over half the Austrians believe it probable that Nazis could today be elected if only allowed to campaign.
As far as 61% were concerned, Austria had already adequately dealt with its Nazi record. Presumably Austrians can put it all behind them and quite well out of mind.
But perhaps most disturbing was the finding that 61% of Austrian adults want to see their government headed by a “strong man.” This relates not to perceptions of the past but to the here and now.
This is scary because it pertains to more than Austria, which anyhow is not anywhere near the power it was a hundred years ago. But Austria is still quintessential Europe and its moods reflect sentiments elsewhere on the continent, both east and west.
Austrian public opinion, which on par with other European countries has never spared Israel its stinging disapproval of our self-defense or national revival, can be regarded as a touchstone. It indicates just how fragile European democracy is, despite copious political correctness and seductive lip service to human rights.
Beneath the ostensibly civil and progressive surface, other passions seethe. Foremost, the yearning for a “strong man” at the helm is not a throwback peculiarity exclusive to Third World states. In many democracies, despite all their undoubted advantages, there lurks a wish that an omniscient and dominant leader would take things firmly and decisively in hand.
This predisposition becomes all the more dangerous in times of economic crisis, as the German-Austrian experience taught us all too traumatically. There is no denying that the world is again in the grips of recession and unpredictability that can unleash the worst in apparently very cultured nations.
True, historical analogies are never absolute. There are no breadlines lines in front of soup kitchens and no runaway inflation of the sort that provided such propaganda fodder for Hitler and assorted European fascists.
The world has changed a great deal since the 1930s.
For one thing, Europe has lost its crucial clout and is not threatened by homegrown tyrants who wait in the offing for their opportunity. But there is too much socio-political alienation and superficiality to afford us smug comfort.
Demagogues and hate-mongers are getting elected to European parliaments. Even if they do not threaten the status quo, they indicate deep disaffection.
Anti-Semitism among Europeans – to say nothing of Muslim immigrants – is on the rise as never before in the postwar era. Even if today’s Judeophobia seems subtler, it is no longer concealed. It is furthermore especially treacherous, given its persistent and duplicitous pretexts of opposition to Zionism (the Jews’ national liberation movement) or to the policies of Israel (the Jewish state).
Three-quarters of a century after the Anschluss, too much of its noxious legacy lingers.