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The Victim Myth

In Nuremberg and elsewhere
Caption: "But he ordered me to do it!" Neues Österreich (newspaper), July 20 1946

"Since we are all innocent, we must also always have been innocent; we were at most helplessly misinterpreted." Elfriede Jelinek: Wir, Herren der Toten [We. Lords of the Dead]

Austria presented itself after 1945 as collective victim of National Socialist Germany. This interpretation of history was supported by the "Moscow Declaration" of November 1, 1943, in which the Allies stated their goal of re-establishing a free and independent Austria. In this document Austria was called "the first victim of Hitler's typical policy of aggression," but it was also held responsible for its participation in the war on the German side.

"From this altogether balanced assessment, Austrian post-war governments always selected and emphasized the victim aspect in order to attain the State Treaty and full sovereignty more quickly, but also in order to ward off justified claims for reparations." (Wolfgang Neugebauer: Opfer oder Täter [Victims or Perpetrators], Vienna, 1994)

Successful employment of the victim-theory indeed brought Austria the desired State Treaty in 1955, and at that point, the theory was elevated into the founding myth of the Second Republic: On the eve of signing the State Treaty, the "responsibility and complicity clause" was erased, and thus consigned to oblivion. As Anton Pelinka said, there was a certain kind of "double speak": Austria emphazised its resistance in the international debates (and so fulfilled also a requirement of the "Moscow Declaration" from 1943, that asked for Austria's active contribution to its liberation from National Socialism). On the other side refugee fighters and Anti-Facism as such had to struggle for tribute in Austria.

The war generation rejected the pain of coming to terms with the dark chapter of their own history, and quite frequently the war damage suffered by the Austrian population was put on a level with the suffering of the Jews in the Shoa.

"That is history as one would like to have it: Our tale of woe, our sacrificial path. (...) First of all we were the victims of radical political change against which we had no chance to defend ourselves. Then, as if that had not been enough, we became the victims of total collapse, reduced in effect to ashes." (Josef Haslinger: Politik der Gefühle. Ein Essay über Österreich [Politics of Feelings], Vienna, 1988)

Not until the middle of the 1980s - not least because of the Waldheim affair - did Austria face up to a critical debate and as a result to a demythologizing of the victim doctrine. When the then Chancellor Franz Vranitzky on his visit to Israel in 1993 asked the forgiveness of the victims of Austrian perpetrators in the name of the Republic, he did not only signal thereby its parting from the political myths of the postwar period but also its orientation to a transnational European consciousness of history, which sees the confession of complicity in the Holocaust not as an end in itself, but as a political commitment to stand decisively against racism and right-wing extremism.

Therefore the interview with Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel that appeared in the Israeli daily newspaper, "Jerusalem Post" on November 9, 2000, the Day of Commemoration of the Reichspogromnacht ("Crystal Night"), set off violent arguments when he said: "They took Austria by force." In the matter of investigating history, he thus again foregrounded the fate of Austria as the first victim of Hitler-Germany. Only after questioning did he profess his belief in the responsibility of Austria for Nazi crimes.

For the historian Heidemarie Uhl this revival of the victim theory signals despite the results of the Historical Commission, that showed how strongly the Austrian people took part in the "Aryanisation" and how half-heartedly the Republic acted in terms of restitution and compensation - a distancing from a European consciousness of history that has increasingly crystallized in recent years. ("Konsens des Schweigens", [Consensus of Silence], Standard (newspaper), November 24, 2000)

The two exhibitions (1995 in Vienna and other cities und 2002 in Vienna) on the German Army (Wehrmacht) showed that criticism on the victim myth can provoke many Austrians even today. For the first time the exhibitions showed a broad public, that the Wehrmacht was involved in war crimes and crimes of the NS-system. Many Austrians regarded this demolition of the "clean picture of the Wehrmacht" as a personal defamation.

For the historian Heidemarie Uhl, Schüssel's statement signals very strongly a revival of the "victim-doctrine," despite the conclusions of the Commission of Historians which showed how actively involved the Austrian population was in the "aryanization-robberies," and how hesitantly the Republic of Austria proceeded in reparation and restitution after 1945. Uhl also sees in this a disassociation from the European consciousness of history that has taken shape increasingly in recent years ("Konsens des Schweigens" [Consensus of Silence, Standard, 24. Nov. 2000).

And also in the "Jubilee Year 2005," Uhl demonstrates considerable difference in official commemorative policy in Austria and Europe: While, in the year 2005, official Austria commemorated predominantly the signing of the State Treaty of 1955, it was liberation from Nazi rule that was central in the European context. In Austria the Second Republic was celebrated as a success story - self-critical analysis of Austrian involvement in Nazi crimes took place at best peripherally and for the most part in the framework of independent projects. Uhl sees in this a " graphic example of the persistence of national commemorative traditions." (Heidemarie Uhl: "Europäische Tendenzen, regionale Verwerfungen [European Tendencies, Regional Rejections], in: Werner Koroschitz et al: "Heiss umfehdet, wild umstritten..." [Heated Feuds, Savage Disputes] Kalgenfurt/Celovec, 2005)

Maria Wirth


Station: The Victim Myth
(Last update: 02/2006)

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