The Auschwitz All Around Us

Members of the League of German Girls wave Nazi flags in support of the German annexation of Austria in Vienna, Austria, March 1938 (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

What follows is the last comment in a long thread on the limits of the state to bring itself to justice. Particular attention was paid to Austria in our conversation. The historians provoking this conversation are Tony Judt and Tom Segev.

I want to make sure this comment doesn't get ignored:

One of my grandfathers fought at the Russian front; his wife, my grandmother, still uses expressions like "like der ewige Jud" ("like he eternal Jew") - as an expression for a greedy, malicious person. Some time ago, a then-collegue of mine in highschool found documentation for a history project that Jews where transported through the village I have grown up in, and held captive in barns there. When I asked my grandmother about it, she told me that she'd never heard about it. Given the size of the village (about 1000 inhabitants), that's close to impossible. Apparently, nobody has ever heard about it.

My other grandfather was member of the NSDAP and (as we put it in Austria) "had to hide" after the war, i.e. he faced prosecution. Still today, one of my aunts shows me his Arierausweis (the document "proving" that he is "Arian") with apparent pride.

This is not to demonstrate how my family has an antisemitic background (though that's true), but rather to give an example of a really very common (if not near-universal) situation in Austria. It is sometimes said that the reintegration of Nazi officials after the war was inevitable to keep the country running. But this stinks a bit of rationalization. Rather, I think, it's a consequence of the sheer scale of shame. A whole generation of children and grandchildren would have had to admit that their (grand)fathers participated, implicitly or explicitly, in one of the most cruel abominations of mankind. This can perhaps be done if individual families are concerned - but a hole society will rationalize their deeds. And given that Austria could hide in the shadow of Germany, it was that much easier, I guess. Only in the nineties, then-chancelor Vranitzky officially recognized Austria's liability and complicity in the Holocaust (without naming it, he only talked about WW II), as an answer to the rising popularity of Jörg Haider who used antisemitic (and xenophobic, and racist... you get the picture) rhethoric to fish in the pond that are generations ashamed of their (grand)parents'. Eight years later, Haider's party was in a coalition forming the Austrian government. Haider is now dead, but not his political philosophy and party: a couple of weeks ago, the party got 21 percent in the general elections (note that Austria has currently six parties in the parliament, so that's a lot - the leading social democrats got 27 percent).

2008, Otto von Habsburg (yes, THAT von Habsburg, the old emperors' family, imagine that!) held a speech during a commemoration of Austria's "annexation" in front of representatives of the ÖVP, Austria's peoples party (in government for most of the time after WW II, as it is in the moment). He defended Austria's "role" as "Hitler's first victim" to standing ovations.

Here in France, when I walk through the city center, I often think how good it is that these old structures get diluted when I see how many "blacks" and "beurs" there are. Apart from my own underlying racism here, I then remember why there are so many "blacks" and "beurs" here compared to Austria (or Germany, for that matter). How France has still not managed to reconsider its past as a colonizer (and who would force them?), how Marine le Pen has phantastic poll numbers, etc. Or, how de Gaulle, THE founding savior/hero of the present République, had to say this:

"Vous savez, cela suffit comme cela avec vos nègres. Vous me gagnez à la main, alors on ne voit plus qu’eux : il y a des nègres à l’Élysée tous les jours, vous me les faites recevoir, vous me les faites inviter à déjeuner. Je suis entouré de nègres, ici. […] Et puis tout cela n’a aucune espèce d’intérêt ! Foutez-moi la paix avec vos nègres ; je ne veux plus en voir d’ici deux mois, vous entendez ? Plus une audience avant deux mois. Ce n’est pas tellement en raison du temps que cela me prend, bien que ce soit déjà fort ennuyeux, mais cela fait très mauvais effet à l’extérieur : on ne voit que des nègres, tous les jours, à l’Élysée. Et puis je vous assure que c’est sans intérêt."

Somehow it's all fascinating: that we can look at this history and wonder how we managed to get through it the whole time.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.


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