March 7, 1995

By Steve Pagani

VIENNA, March 7 (Reuter) - When Austria, like the rest of Europe, commemorates the end of World War Two this spring, its people will come face to face with a taboo that has troubled the national psyche for the past 50 years.

Was Austria liberated or was it occupied in April 1945, when Soviet soldiers took control of Vienna from the German and Austrian Nazi SS?

For more than 45 years after the war, Austria presented itself as the first victim of Adolf Hitler's Nazi aggression, buckling when German troops marched into Vienna in the 1938 Anschluss.

Germany has apologised repeatedly for the war, but officialdom here washed its hands of wartime atrocities committed on Austrian territory.

Yet many of the men who ran the industrialised murder of the Jews, including Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Alois Brunner, were Austrian, as were many concentration camp commandants.

"It's as if the nation is suffering from a collective lapse of memory," said Vienna historian Florian Freund.

"Virtually nobody wants to recognise that Austria was implicated in mass extermination."

It was only in 1993 that an Austrian leader explicitly admitted that his country was also a servant of Nazism.

Some historians and political analysts say Austria's reluctance to come to terms with its past as a willing member of the Third Reich has a direct bearing on a resurgence of rightwing extremism and the ability of the far right Freedom Party to capture nearly a quarter of the vote in last October's general election.

"The resurgence of the neo-Nazis is a symptom of not coming to terms with the past," said Willi Lasek of the Centre for Contemporary History. "There are, of course, other factors such as unemployment...but the past cannot be separated from it."

Neo-Nazi activists carried out a letter bomb campaign in December 1993 and another last October. A neo-Nazi group said it was responsible for a bomb which exploded in southeast Austria on February 5, killing four gypsies -- the worst single act of racist violence since World War Two.

"It's frightening that 50 years after the end of the war, extreme nationalist subversive activities can still sow fear and terror in the country," said Erwin Budicek, a member of the young Social Democrats.

Instead of atoning for the misdeeds of their compatriots as in Germany, postwar Austrian leaders broke clean with the past, immediately introducing laws outlawing national socialism.

They rarely mentioned that most of the country backed Austrian-born Adolf Hitler and gave the local-boy-made-good a hero's welcome when he addressed more than a million Viennese in the central Heldenplatz in 1938. No air time was given to Austria's complicity in the extermination of Jews.

Historians say it was more a wave of voluntary assimilation rather than collaboration, making Austria's wartime record different from that of Nazi sympathisers in the rest of Europe.

Lasek said the Allies failed to bring to book some of Austria's 600,000 Nazis, many of whom assumed key positions in society, in the justice system and police, after the war.

"Former Nazis were once again socially accepted because of their jobs," he said. Chancellor Franz Vranitzky admitted Austria's guilt on a visit to Israel in June 1993 and begged the forgiveness of victims of the Holocaust.

"Just as we claim credit for our good deeds we must beg forgiveness for the evil ones, the forgiveness of those who survived and the forgiveness of the descendants of those who perished," Vranitzky said in a speech in Jerusalem.

"We share moral responsibility because many Austrians welcomed the Anschluss, supported the Nazi regime and helped it to function," he said.

A year later, President Thomas Klestil, the first Austrian head of state to visit Israel, told the Knesset his country had failed in the past to acknowledge its role in the Nazi Holocaust or do enough to help Jewish survivors.

"Both speeches were extremely important...but they came too late," said Vienna University doctor of history Gustav Spann.

Some commentators say that because Austria ignored the past for nearly half a century, it could take another generation for Vranitzky's words to seep into the national psyche, if ever.

Historian Freund has launched a huge project to compile the names of all the Jews who lived in the country before 1938.

No official list of names exists in Austria of the 190,000 Austrian Jews who fled the country or were rounded up and sent to death camps. Nor is there a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Postwar Austria was also marked by 10 years of Allied occupation. The Soviet Union left the country in 1955, with U.S., British and French troops, only when Austria agreed to enshrine neutrality in its constitution.

With the Kremlin looking over its shoulder, Austria became sidelined in European affairs, a position that was only really broken with the collapse of the Soviet communist bloc and Vienna's entry into the European Union in January this year.

Austria's aversion to outside interference was clear in 1986, when the country elected as president former U.N. secretary-general Kurt Waldheim, despite the international outcry over charges that he covered up his wartime past with Hitler's army in the Balkans.

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said the World Jewish Congress (WJC) campaign against Waldheim ensured his victory.

"Waldheim got 100,000 votes more than he expected in the presidential election. But they were not votes for Waldheim, they were against the WJC," he said in an interview.

Analyst Oliver Rathkolb said the future looked rosier because the majority of the younger Austrians held strong anti-Nazi views, but one imponderable was the rise of the far right Fredom Party led by the charismatic Joerg Haider.

Haider, whose party took nearly one in four votes and became the biggest far right parliamentary grouping in Europe in October's election, drew support from young working class voters and is beginning to attract professionals.

Rathkolb said there was a danger that once Haider won control of a power centre such as Vienna in 1996 elections, his party would attempt to rewrite history.

"Austria has not yet come to terms with its past though we seem to be getting there. One turning point will be the elections in Vienna in 1996," he said.