About memory and historical responsibility

Corona-conditioned in smaller frame than in the previous years this year’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust was celebrated by the Austrian Parliament on Wednesday. In the Palais Epstein, the President of the National Council Wolfgang Sobotka, the writer Jennifer Teege, the President of the Jewish Community Graz and member of the Board of Cults of the IKG Vienna, Elie Rosen, and the contemporary historian Barbara Stelzl-Marx discussed under the title: “Time to talk”. The event took place without an audience and was broadcast by ORF television.

Nationalratspräsident Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP)

There was plenty to talk about: the topics ranged from the individual perspective of one’s own life story to Austria’s collective approach to the Nazi past and the question of how to deal with anti-Semitism today. Sobotka emphasized above all the aspect of the responsibility of today’s Austria.

“We owe it to the murdered Jews to preserve their memory. We have six million reasons to commemorate. It is the heritage of all of us and thus also our duty to raise our voices on behalf of the victims.” And, “Anti-Semitism is not only a threat to Jews, but to democracy and open society as a whole.” Jewish life, culture and history are an important part of Austria’s identity, he said. “We need to make Jewish life more visible in order to reduce fear of contact.”

Sobotka himself has faced up to his family history. One of his grandfathers was a NSDAP member and leader of the SA in Waidhofen an der Ybbs. He was not just a follower, the grandson says today when reading the letters of his grandfather. It is clear from his letters that he was a convinced National Socialist. It was also the confrontation with his grandfather’s attitude that led him to study history, Sobotka said.

Schriftstellerin Jennifer Teege

Teege, a writer, also came to the subject of National Socialism and education about it through research on her grandfather Amon Göth, an SS man and concentration camp commander, to which she devotes much of her work to this day.

Rosen emphasized that today it is not a matter of blaming subsequent generations, but rather of recognizing and acknowledging the responsibility resulting from the Nazi era. In his view, the Waldheim years brought about a change in the discourse here. Stelzl-Marx sees the reason why for a long time people only talked about victims, but not about perpetrators, in the “Moscow Declaration. With it, “a real doctrine of Austria as the first victim of National Socialism developed,” the historian stated. For many people, it was apparently a relief that they were allowed to feel like victims and did not have to deal with the role of perpetrators.

The president of the Jewish community in Graz went one step further: several generations had even been brought up to remain silent about the crimes of National Socialism. Breaking this silence, he said, was important to prevent history from repeating itself. On the positive side, he noted that since the 1990s several governments in Austria had set clear signals – both on the issue of coming to terms with the past and on that of compensation. Most recently, the current government presented a package of measures against anti-Semitism.

On this topic, both Sobotka and Rosen noted that, on the one hand,

Präsident der Jüdischen Gemeinde Graz Elie Rosen

anti-Semitism has always been at the center of society – the President of the National Council also referred to the role of the Catholic and Protestant churches over the centuries and of the political parties – and, on the other hand, it has never disappeared. Today it only manifests itself differently, Rosen emphasized. As a student, he had been confronted with a derogatory remark by a teacher about alleged wallowing in the role of victim. As president of the Jewish community in Graz, he sees above all anti-Semitism that presents itself in the guise of criticism of Israel and comes from a politically left-wing spectrum. But social media today also offer opportunities to spread hate messages.

Stelzl-Marx also referred to a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly apparent in the current Corona crisis: inappropriate comparisons are being drawn with the Nazi era, for example when a lockdown is equated with the situation of Anne Frank or resistance to the Corona measures with the commitment of Sophie Scholl. The contemporary historian is of the opinion that this is primarily about provocation. However, there is also a danger of relativizing National Socialism. In turn, right-wing extremist groups would jump on this trend and once again transport anti-Semitic ideas into the middle of society. History has shown that it is precisely in extreme situations that images of the enemy are created and scapegoats are sought.

Historikerin Barbara Stelzl-Marx

It is therefore important not to forget the past. There are fewer and fewer contemporary witnesses – Stelzl-Marx therefore appealed for as many conversations as possible, even within the family. Many eyewitness interviews already exist, either in written form or digitally as audio or film recordings, and she pleaded for the various recordings to be brought together in one place and thus made accessible to researchers.

A recording of the panel discussion is available in the parliament’s media library.