For the first time ever, a head of state of Austria has admitted that a large proportion of Austrian citizens openly welcomed the Nazis when Hitler annexed Austria:
The president of Austria has become the country’s first head of state to admit that a large number of its citizens welcomed Adolf Hitler with open arms when the dictator annexed the country.
Heinz Fischer said that a “not inconsiderable portion of the population” greeted the Anschluss or annexation in 1938 with “euphoria”, despite knowing that “Hitler meant war”.
In addition many had celebrated Hitler’s initial military successes, he said.
Surveys show that most Austrians continue to deny that 200,000 people welcomed Hitler’s troops as they marched into Austria, despite the overwhelming evidence that ecstatic crowds gathered at Heldenplatz in Vienna’s city centre to hear him deliver a rousing speech.
The view most commonly held still is that the Anschluss was forced on a reluctant people.
Mr Fischer picked holes in the 1955 declaration of independence which he said had helped establish the false picture of the country’s history which still endures.
“I find the version of history which it presents very problematic,” he said. “It is full of cliches that for decades stood in the way of an honest appraisal of what happened in Austria and why it happened.”
The declaration re-established Austria’s sovereignty, following almost two decades during which it was part of Nazi Germany and then controlled by the allied powers: Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union.
It stated that Austria was the “first victim” of Nazi oppression, an image which even the Allies helped to feed.
The result was that Austria was slow to recognise its own complicity in the Holocaust.
“Austrians were victims during the Nazi period but they were also the guilty,” Mr Fischer told the newspaper Der Standard. “Here is the complete truth.”
This is a huge admission on the part of the Austrian President, even though there is a large body of evidence that Austrians enthusiastically welcomed Hitler. For example, having recently read the second volume of Richard J. Evan’s history of the Third Reich, entitled, The Third Reich in Power, I found this passage describing the entry of German troops in Austria, I found this:
As they drove and marched slowly towards Austria’s main towns in the course of the morning, the Germany troops were greeted with ecstatic crowds shouting “Heil!” and throwing flowers at their feet.
And this is a description of Hitler’s reception the first time he entered Austria, shortly after the Anschluss:
Arriving at 3:50 in the afternoon at his birthplace, Braunau am Inn, he [Hitler] was greeted by jubilant crowds, who cheered him on his way. Later in the evening, after a four-hour journey by road, constantly slowed down by the enthusiastic crowds that lined the streets, he reached Linz, where he joined a group of leading Nazis, including Himmler and Seyss-Inquart. As the church bells rang out, Hitler addressed a huge crowd from teh balcony of the town hall, repeatedly interrupted by chants of “heil!” and chants of “one people, one Reich, one Leader”… After laying flowers on his parents’ grave at Leonding and visiting his old home, Hitler returned to his hotelto consider how the formal union of Austria with Germany could best be achieved. Initially, he had thought merely of becoming President of Austria himself and holding a plebiscite on union, which would keep most of Austria’s existing institutions intact. But the rapturous reception he had received now convinced him that a full incorporation of Austria into the Reich could be achieved immediately without any serious opposition. “These people here are Germans,” he told a British journalist.
Here’s video of Hitler’s triumphant speech to 200,000 Austrians at the Heldenplatz.
Soon after, the Holocaust came to Austrian Jews, who fell under the same increasingly Draconian laws that were in effect in Germany and ultimately suffered the same fate as German Jews, with some 65,000 of them ultimately having been deported to the East for extermination.
It is indeed commendable of President Fischer to admit that, in the beginning at least, Naziism was very popular in Austria and that the Anschluss was very popular and to admit that his nation assisted Germany in carrying out the Holocaust. He’s taking a risk, because many in Austria still deny that Hitler was enthusiastically welcomed when he annexed their nation. Nobody wants to admit that their nation abetted an enormous time within the lifetime of many who are still alive.
It is also easy to see how, in this background, Austria as a nation may be more sensitive to Holocaust denial than we are here in the U.S., hence the persistence of laws criminalizing such denial, laws under which David Irving was imprisoned late last year and sentenced to three years in prison in February. No, I haven’t changed my mind about such laws being an extreme offense to free speech and that, even though such laws may have been justifiable in the early aftermath of World War II, they are counterproductive now. I’m merely pointing out that it is understandable why Austria might be particularly sensitive to Holocaust denial. It will be interesting to see what the reaction is to Fischer’s interview.