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Europe

Austria's Reds Check for Brown Spots

Austria has traditionally claimed that it was one of Nazi Germany's first victims when it was annexed in 1938 but reality tells a different story. Now, the country's Social Democrats are churning up the party's past.

Adolf Hitler enters Vienna in March 1938

It's often said of Austria that it has not done enough to come to terms with its Nazi past. The country became part of the Third Reich when it was annexed by Hitler in 1938. It's often described as Hitler's first victim, despite the fact that many Austrians welcomed the Nazis and held prominent positions in Hitler's regime.

Populistic Austrian politician Jörg Haider has been frequently criticized for pro-Nazi remarks

This hasn't gone unnoticed in the Alpine country. An old inside joke among Austrians is to compare politicians to "punschkrapfen" -- sweet cakes which are iced pink (left wing) on the outside, but are chocolate brown (the color of the Nazis) on the inside.

Austria's Social Democratic party (SPÖ), arguably the most powerful political movement in the country during the post-war period, has served up its fair share punschkrapfen -- members with a Nazi past who took up powerful positions in the fledgling democracy after 1945. Historian Maria Mesner has just completed her report on Austria's post-war period, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture of the Socialists.

Red is not always red

In the study, she revealed that just over 10 percent of the Socialists' parliamentarians and senior officers in the immediate post-war years had once been members of the Nazi party.This was a time when Austria was occupied by the victorious allied powers and memories of Nazi atrocities were fresh.

"In the beginning, the Social Democratic Party really tried to keep former Nazis out of the party, or remove them," Mesner said.

But political pragmatism quickly replaced the distaste for those who'd been part of the totalitarian regime. When it came time for elections in late 1945, votes became more important than grappling with the recent past, Mesner said.

"It became clear that the first elections would be held already in autumn 1945 and all the political parties started to compete for voters," the historian said. "The number of people related to or connected to Nazis was a rather big part of the electorate."

2005: An important year

The year 2005 marks an important year for Austria. Not only does it mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation from Nazi Germany, but 50 years ago, Austria regained its sovereignty from the Allies after a decade of occupation.

Austrian President Heinz Fischer

But the opportunity to talk openly about the country's collective memory with regard to Nazi Germany has been avoided to a great extent. Austria's president, Heinz Fischer, a former Social Democrat who's been active in left wing politics for nearly 40 years, admitted to Austria's reluctance to talk about the past.

"It took quite a long time until we found the right language for some problems," the 66-year-old Graz native said. "The national fund for victims of the Nazi era wasn't established until 1995...so you can say it was very late. Some say it was too late."

High ground no longer possible

The revelations about the Social Democrats, who have been in power in Austria either in coalition or ruling in their own right for most of the past 50 years, struck a blow to the party. In the past, they've generally taken the moral high ground when it comes to denouncing former Nazis and the far right, but according to Mesner, the left wing of politics has gone along with the rest in repressing the past.

"When a large share of a population is involved in a regime like that, as was the case with the Third Reich, then how things are talked about becomes an important issue. And they were not talked about," she said. "People were rewarded, so to say, if they didn't talk about it."

Heinrich Gross was alleged to have killed children in a mental institute

The collective silence led to later embarrassment for the SPÖ, for example, with the case of Heinrich Gross (photo), a former Social Democrat. Gross was a successful forensic scientist during the Nazi regime, because he dissected the brains of hundreds of children killed under the Nazis' euthanasia program at a Vienna clinic. He was linked to the deaths of nine children, but was able to remain a party member until 1981.

"There were several cases like this," said Mesner. "This was the most prominent one and the most disturbing one. I think it was a commitment by elites not to discuss it."

The Heinrich Gross affair provided the incentive for the Social Democrats to begin the airing of their dirty laundry. But if brown stains have been found on Austria's reds they're sure to turn up on other political colors, too. The Social Democrats are now calling on the governing Austrian People's Party to conduct an investigation into their dealings with former Nazis, in the hope that such a report will provide even more shameful reading than their own.

DW.DE