November 15, 1994

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Austria's president apologized for his country's role in the Holocaust on Tuesday and said his countrymen have belatedly recognized that "many of the worst henchmen in the Nazi dictatorship were Austrians."

"No word of apology can ever expunge the agony of the Holocaust," President Thomas Klestil said. "On behalf of the Republic of Austria, I bow my head with deep respect and profound emotion in front of the victims."

The speech before Parliament capped Klestil's three-day visit to Israel, the first by an Austrian head of state.

The two countries had frosty relations during the 1986-92 presidency of Klestil's predecessor, Kurt Waldheim, who served as an officer in the German army during World War II and was posted in the Balkans, near the site of Nazi atrocities.

For years Austria rejected responsibility for the persecution of Jews on its territory, arguing that it was the first victim of German aggression. Hitler's Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

Klestil said his countrymen were reappraising their past.

"Today, we Austrians recognize that an acknowledgement of the full truth was long overdue," Klestil told Parliament.

"We know full well that all too often, we have only spoken of Austria as the first state to have lost its freedom and independence to (Germany), and far too seldom of the fact that many of the worst henchmen in the Nazi dictatorship were Austrians," he said.

Many Austrians enthusiastically supported the Austrian-born Hitler. About 70,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. About 15,000 Jews live in the country today, compared to 180,000 before 1938.

At a news conference, Klestil and his foreign minister, Alois Mock, played down the danger of growing support for right-wing extremists in Austria.

The far-right Freedom Party, which catered to anti-foreigner sentiment, made significant gains in Oct. 9 parliamentary elections, winning almost a quarter of the vote.

Klestil was evasive when asked whether the Freedom Party might be asked to join a governing coalition.