My great grandparents were dragged from Vienna to a gas chamber. How sorry is Austria today?

On Holocaust Memorial Day all decent people pay their respects to the six million who were murdered. But events in modern Austria suggest the path to repentance is not at an end

A chilling scene: Auschwitz-Birkenau main track
Simone Dinah Hartmann
On 27 January 2012 10:01

When my grandfather's parents were taken by the Gestapo from their home in Vienna and sent to the Lublin Ghetto, my grandfather — then a  14 year-old boy — sailed to the shores of the future Jewish state to take shelter.

There, he was spared the horrors of the following years that resulted in six million dead Jews, murdered by those who made no secret of their intentions. My grandfather’s parents didn’t think it could ever happen, and were sent to the gas chambers.

Since then, many of us were brought up with the mantra: “Never Again”! It was instilled into us from the moment we had an inkling of what had happened.

This January marks the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference where the Nazi elite decided upon the deadly fate of millions of Jews in Europe.

No doubt this anniversary will be honoured – even in Austria, despite the fact that its ideological and practical involvement in the “Final Solution” is still talked of by some of its citizens and political leaders in terms of Austria as “the first victim” of National Socialist imperalism.

Conferences will be held, memorials organized and TV documentaries broadcast to commemorate the occasion. Talking about dead Jews has become business as usual – if not an obsession – in the successor states of the National Socialist empire.

While many nations will mark the international Holocaust remembrance day on January 27th, the very day Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, a different kind of event will also take place on that very date here in Austria.

Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, official residence of the Austrian president Heinz Fischer, will host – as in previous years – the annual ball of the infamous Vienna Korporationsring, an association of German-nationalist fraternities who maintain a gateway between the extreme right, namely the Austrian Freedom Party(FPOE), and the neo-Nazis. In past years this ball has served as a networking event for Europe’s extreme right.

The history of these fraternities (“Burschenschaften”) reaches back to the 19th century, the birth years of a German nationalism that was based on a “völkische” ideology which was antisemitic as well as antiliberal at its core.

At the founding hour of these fraternities, the Wartburgfest of 1817, books by Jewish authors and the Code Napoleon were burned by Teutonic students which led a witness of those times, German poet Heinrich Heine, to write in 1821: “That was only a prelude, where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”

It was no surprise therefore that the German-nationalist fraternities played an important role in the rise of National Socialism. Key figures of the Austrian and German extermination machinery were members of these fraternities. Even in the present day, most of these “Burschenschaften” are proud of being “judenrein”.

Members of these fraternities are central figures in the Austrian Freedom Party today, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, and the third president of the Austrian parliament, Martin Graf.

Graf is a member of the notorious “Olympia”, that not too long ago hosted a German band who wrote the following lyrics: “The fun starts with six million Jews,  the oven will stay on until six million Jews (…) We have enough Zyklon B (…) At six million Jews it’s far from closing.”

David Irving, a well-known British Holocaust denier, was arrested right before his scheduled lecture at that very fraternity.

Now, what would my grandfather think about a country where figures like these dance a waltz close to the Heldenplatz, where hundreds of thousands of Austrians welcomed their “Führer” in 1938?

What would he think about a government that doesn’t put a stop to this? The Hofburg Palace is owned by the Austrian republic which leased it to a private company, the Wiener Kongresszentrum Hofburg Betriebsgesellschaft.

The company’s shareholders are several hotels, the Austrian travel agency and Casinos Austria. At the last shareholders meeting, it was decided – due to protests by a broad coalition -- to terminate the contract with the Korporationsring as of 2013.

However, the contract with the Korporationsring for 2012 remains intact. As the Austrian human rights organisation “SOS Mitmensch” has pointed out, seconded by a prominent Austrian lawyer, the Austrian state has grounds to threaten the cancellation of the lease agreement on the basis of a paragraph that states that events held at the Hofburg have to be in accordance with the interests of the republic.

In light of the current threats the world is facing, a ball involving far-right activists in Vienna seems rather irrelevant.

But considering the latest polls indicating that the Freedom Party might have a chance to win the elections in 2013, and acknowledging the countless expressions of support and sympathy for the Islamic Republic of Iran by members of this party, it is rather alarming that Austrian officialdom is not prepared to draw a red line.

On the contrary, there are influential voices in both the Social Democratic and the Conservative Party in favour of forming a potential future coalition with the FPOE.

It would have pleased my grandfather, if just for once, Austrians would take a firm and resolute stand against anti-Semitic forces. I really wonder when that day will come.

Simone Dinah Hartmann is founder of the European coalition, Stop The Bomb and its Director in Austria. She has written extensively on matters related to Austria's far-right and antisemitism and is co-publisher of two anthologies on Iran and its international supporters

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