In the case of Austria we focus on the construction of the Austrian Second Republic after the Anschluss (“annexation”) of that country with Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938, and the consecutive establishment of the myth that Austria was Hitler’s “first victim.” The Austrian Second Republic and the construction of an Austrian national identity after the fall of Nazi rule is defined by endemic and denied anti-Semitism as well as the denial of responsibility in the Nazi atrocities. Of the more than 100,000 Jews who lived in Austria before the Anschluss, 65,000 perished in concentration camps. Few returned after the war. Austria’s post-1945 national identity relied on the magnification of a new national unity that was founded upon erasure of past participation in National Socialism and the Holocaust. This amnesia enabled the nation state to evade responsibility for the facts of history in favour of a distinguished purpose as a small and consciously distinctive republic under the guise of neutrality.
It was only in 1986 and due to the Waldheim Affair, during which the Wehrmacht military activity of then future Austrian president Kurt Waldheim was acknowledged, that the taboo against recognition of Austria’s responsibility with regard to the Second World War finally began to be lifted. Before the Waldheim affair and especially prior to the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss in 1988, the “victim thesis” […] occupied a central place in the construction of Austrian identity” (Wodak/de Cillia/Reisigl/Liebhart 2009).
After the Waldheim Affair, Austria was forced to clean up the nation’s image, to begin to compensate the victims and to include National Socialism as a part of its history. Yet, following Veronica Zangl, it is essential “to signify the immense gap between institutionalized memory on the one hand and so-called para- or post-Nazi memory figurations on the other” (Zangl 2013). Austrian filmmaker and writer Ruth Beckerman tackles the vulnerable issue of public and private memory, by bringing the criminal past into collision with discourses of reminisce while critically observing the epistemology of storytelling and documentary. Her uncompromising film “East of War” (1996) overlooks visitors of the exhibition “Vernichtungskrieg. Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944” [“War of extermination. The Crime of the Wehrmacht from 1941 to1944”], which opened in 1995, and was the first exhibition in Austria that publicly showed the war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht. Engaging in conversation with the mainly male exhibition audience, presuming their involvement as soldiers of the Wehrmacht, she exposes narratives of negation and oblivion.
Recent discriminatory discourse and political responses to the influx of migrants and refugees have raised questions over what lessons Austria has and has not learned from its past in regards to the treatment of marginalized groups today. This question remains pertinent and poses a key topic not only for Austria but for Europe.