Austria, the Jews and Anti-Semitism:
Ambivalence and Ambiguity
An Interview with Karl Pfeifer
• Austria has made a major effort to suppress the
memories of its institutional and popular behavior during the war. Unlike
Germany, there is until today no feeling of shame for what the Austrians did
to the Jews.
• In its hypocritical atmosphere it is the role of the Jewish functionary to
say 'here everything is normal.'
• Anti-Semitism remains part and parcel of Austrian culture with its
strongest hold in politics and the media. It can be found both on the right
and the left.
• Verbal anti-Semitism mainly uses coded expressions.
"Anti-Semitism did not cease to exist in 1945 and
continues to be part and parcel of Austrian political life and culture with
its strongest hold in the political parties and the media," affirms Karl
Pfeifer, Austrian Jewish journalist and former editor of the Austrian Jewish
community's official organ, Die Gemeinde. "Verbal anti-Semitism is rarely
expressed directly, but rather uses coded expressions. This reflects one of
the country's major characteristics – ambivalence and ambiguity toward its
Today Austrian anti-Semitism is not violent to the extent
that Jews are being killed," he explains, "but violence is perpetrated
against non-European foreigners and easily identifiable Jews who sometimes
are insulted or pushed down on the sidewalk. They do not, however, complain
to the police. Jewish cemeteries are desecrated, but the Jewish communities
usually do not publicize this. The police often brush these violations
aside, claiming these are acts carried out by drunken youngsters who cannot
Haider, an Extreme Right-Wing Politician
"A few years ago Austria attracted the international
limelight because of the electoral success of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), then
led by Jorg Haider. In the September 1999 national elections it obtained
twenty-seven percent of the vote. Subsequently, the FPÖ entered into a
coalition with the ÖVP – the conservative people's party, which brought with
it the chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel. To mitigate international criticism,
the two leaders signed a declaration on February 3, 2000, stating 'the
federal government is working for an Austria in which xenophobia,
anti-Semitism and racism have no place.'
"By 1993 the FPÖ had been excluded from the Liberal
International because of its racist and anti-Semitic stance. After the FPÖ
entered the Austrian government, the European Union distanced itself from
the country for a few months. The EU's fourteen other members declared that
relations with the Austrian government would be downgraded to a purely
technical level. This attitude reflected not only the situation in the
country then, but had to be seen also in the context of its tendency to
reject Austrian responsibility for what the Nazis had done. The EU
normalized relations with Austria after a report in September 2000 of the
'three wise men' it had appointed to investigate the Austrian situation on
"In the next elections at the end of 2002, the Freedom
Party received only slightly more than ten percent of the vote, yet the
coalition was maintained. The party's major defeat was due to its inner
contradictions. It wanted to be a government party, continue with its
extreme rightist politics, and to oppose the government, as well."
Says Pfeifer: "In my opinion Haider is not a Neo-Nazi, but
an extreme right-wing politician. Public opinion research showed that in the
1999 elections the main reason most voters supported the Freedom Party was
not that it was anti-Semitic. Forty-six percent of the party's voters did so
because Haider opposed letting more foreigners into Austria. Many issues he
promotes are borrowed from the German public debate, such as that of
possible compensation payments for Germans expelled after the Second World
War by the Czechs from Sudetenland."
Haider's Suit against Professor Pelinka
"Haider very rarely uses the word 'Jew' in any context. He
may speak about 'minorities' instead. In the 2001 election for local
government in Vienna he used the codeword 'East-Coast' to describe the Jews
and made fun of Stanley Greenberg, the American campaign adviser of the
Social Democratic Party's mayor of Vienna. In March 2001, at a public
meeting, Haider referred to Ariel Muzicant – the leader of Austria's Jewish
community – and said that he did not know how somebody called Ariel could
have so much dirt sticking to him.
"Though this remark clearly played on the association with
the Nazi expression 'dirty Jew,' Haider later claimed that Ariel is also a
brand of washing powder. The FPÖ's then 'alibi Jew,' European Parliament
member Peter Sichrovsky – who later left the party – well aware of the
importance his being Jewish had for it – tried to explain the matter away as
a 'joke.' Muzicant brought a formal complaint of anti-Semitic incitement
against Haider, but the Vienna public prosecutor decided there was no
evidence to support this claim.
"The clearest demonstration of how Haider operates, as
well as how ambiguous justice is in Austria, is exemplified by the libel
suit and claim for damages Haider brought against the distinguished
political scientist, Professor Anton Pelinka of Innsbruck University. Haider
hired as his lawyer FPÖ member Dieter Böhmdorfer, who later became Justice
Minister in the Schüssel cabinet.
"In a broadcast by the Italian television station RAI in May 1999 Pelinka
said: 'Haider has always made remarks in his career that are seen as an
attempt to apologize for National Socialism. He once called the
concentration camps 'punishment camps.' All in all, Haider is responsible
for making certain National Socialist positions more acceptable. Haider
meant to say in this coded way that as his father had been in such a camp,
the Jews didn't suffer more than others.
"The judge in the lower court awarded Haider – governor of the province of
Carinthia – damages of about $5,000, saying that Pelinka had not quoted
Haider correctly. This judgment led to much criticism. The European Union's
'three wise men' in their report warned that the case against Pelinka was
part of the FPÖ's strategy to prevent criticism by taking legal actions –
which it had done frequently against journalists – and that the court
decision could lead to restrictions on criticism of the government.
"In mid-2001 the appeals court reversed the decision stating that Pelinka
was entitled to his opinions. Pelinka declared that 'Haider is now seen by
the courts as an apologist for National Socialism.' Haider also lost a
second case against Pelinka, which he had brought in October 2001,
concerning remarks the scholar had made about him on CNN. Anat Peri, an
Israeli scholar, has analyzed Haider's anti-Semitism in more detail."1
"When trying to analyze the fragmented expressions of Austrian
anti-Semitism, first and foremost, one central characteristic of the country
must be understood. This is the specific Austrian syndrome of suppressing
memories of its institutional and popular behavior during the national
socialist era – an attitude radically different from how the Germans tried
to come to terms with their Nazi past. Many of the events in Austria since
the end of World War II, including what is happening today, are
incomprehensible to an outsider who is unaware of this important difference.
"Central to the Austrian distortion of its past is the half-truth which was
originally formulated in the allies' 'Moscow Declaration' of November 1943.
It said that Austria was the 'first victim of Nazi aggression.' Austria
claimed it did not exist from 1938 to 1945; therefore it could not be
responsible for what happened to its Jewish citizens; for that only the
Germans had to bear the burden.
"Only in the early 1990s did Austrian politicians begin to admit that the
country's victims' discourse was false. Yet one kept finding this ambivalent
attitude everywhere, even among people who were basically friendly to the
No Feeling of Shame
"Helmut Zilk – the previous Social Democrat mayor of Vienna – attended
Jewish meetings and supported Jewish institutions, probably because he
believed in the power of world Jewry. My wife and I were once present when
Zilk gave a speech while he was not entirely sober. He spoke about his own
family and how lucky he was not to have gone to the Waffen SS like most of
his school comrades who have been persecuted for that until this day. On
another occasion, he said publicly: 'I have two souls in my breast; that of
my father who was a liberal and that of my mother who was a Nazi.'
"In Austria, unlike in Germany, there is until today no feeling of shame for
what the Austrians did to the Jews. This does not exclude that the
government has supported a number of Jewish institutions, such as the
Lauder-Chabad School and the Zwi Perez Chajes School. There is a small
minority of nice and well-educated people who come to the Jewish museum in
the heart of Vienna. Owned and financed by the city, it exhibits the broad
Jewish culture, which existed before 1938. These pleasant intellectuals talk
about what a great loss it was to Austrian culture that there are hardly any
"Yet even this has its subtext. Once I went to the left-wing Republican club
for a discussion about which criticism of Jews and of Israel is
anti-Semitic. One speaker was an anti-Zionist Jew. Then a Philo-Semite got
up to speak and mentioned how much Austrian culture owes to the Jews. I lost
my temper, stood up, pounded the table and yelled, 'True Austrian culture is
Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann. Sigmund Freud was never part of Austrian
culture and never became a professor here. Besides that, every Jewish
cobbler who couldn't recite a single correct German sentence had as much
right to stay in this country and remain alive as Freud.'"
Discussions with Conservatives
Pfeifer adds: "It is better to disagree with Catholic conservatives than
left-wing progressives. My best discussions have been with the former
because they are civilized and do not offend you all the time even if,
probably, a few of them are anti-Semites. Once during the major debate on
President Kurt Waldheim's past, I was invited to a Catholic club of
academics to discuss the issue.
"I gave as my view that Catholic anti-Semitism before 1938 had some
rationality because the anti-Semites wanted the jobs of the Jews. I said
that it was the same rationality as that of the thief who puts his hand in
my pocket to steal my wallet because he can gain something from it.
"I then pointed out that present-day anti-Semitism has no such rationality.
There are only 7,000 organized Jews left in Austria and no jobs to be gained
from them or apartments to be stolen, as in 1938. Yet these people were
willing to accept this as part of a debate, even if it was harsh. Afterwards
they took me to a wine cellar until four in the morning."
Pfeifer points out that Austrian post-war history relating to the Jews
consists largely of individual stories with similar motifs. In order to
discuss and analyze Austrian anti-Semitism since the Second World War, the
focus should be on politics and the media – the two areas in which
anti-Semitism has the strongest hold – rather than on public opinion polls
which are sometimes contradictory. Yet it would be mistaken to belittle the
findings of the Eurobarometer poll published in November 2003 in which 59%
of citizens of the European Union were found to consider Israel to be a
danger for world peace. In Austria the percentage was even higher at 69% and
second only to the Netherlands' 74%."
Open and Coded anti-Semitism
"After World War II, the Second Austrian Republic was created. One of its
founding fathers was Leopold Kunschak. He had been the leader of the
Catholic Christian Social Party before the war and was an extreme
anti-Semite. In 1919 he had proposed special laws against the Jews." Writes
historian Bruce F. Pauley: "On countless occasions in 1919 and 1920 Kunschak
demanded the Jewish refugees either be deported or, if possible, placed in
Says Pfeifer, "Kunschak spent some time in prison during the Second World
War. He declared thereafter in December 1945 that he had been an anti-Semite
all his life and was proud of it. Yet he is still honored as a founding
father of the Second Austrian Republic. The ÖVP party until today awards its
Leopold Kunschak prize.
"Austrian anti-Semitism already immediately after World War Two was often
being expressed in a coded way rather than explicitly. The country was then
occupied by the Allied powers. Politicians of the Conservative Party spoke
against those who had returned from abroad, saying that while those in
Austria had suffered from the war, the returnees had had a good time in the
United States. Many Austrians wouldn't call that anti-Semitic, though it was
certainly meant that way.
"On another occasion there were violent verbal attacks on Rosenzweig – a
lawyer of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). His attackers would harp
continuously on his name. These are 'smart ways' of expressing one's
anti-Semitism. A similar pattern exists today.
"In politics it is until today customary that members of one party only see
the anti-Semites of another party. There were former Nazis in every party in
Austria. Between 1938 and 1945, about ten percent of the population –
630,000 Austrians – were members of the Nazi Party. Such a large number of
people could not be excluded from politics. An effort could have been made,
as in Germany, to re-educate them; but this was never done."
Kreisky, a Jewish Anti-Semite?
"One of the better known Austrian Prime Ministers was the Jewish leader of
the Social Democrats, Bruno Kreisky. His first minority government in 1970
had the support of the FPÖ. Its then leader Friedrich Peter served in the
first SS brigade which committed major atrocities in the Soviet Union
against Jews, communists and the Soviet population. Peter claimed he had
never been present on the days the crimes were committed.
"After the 1975 election Simon Wiesenthal disclosed Peter's past on
television. Kreisky, as well as most Social Democrat leaders, attacked
Wiesenthal ferociously. He implied that as Wiesenthal had survived the
Holocaust he must have been a Gestapo collaborator. There were five former
Nazis in Kreisky's first government of 1970. When their pasts were
publicized they gradually dropped out.
"One can argue whether Kreisky was an anti-Semite. Some claim a Jew cannot
be an anti-Semite. Yet Kreisky spoke about Begin as 'a little Polish
lawyer,' a typically coded anti-Semitic remark. Such codes have been
deciphered by Jewish linguist Ruth Wodak, a member of the Austrian Academy
of Sciences, in various books and essays.
"Once after a public meeting in 1973, in Klagenfurt, people spat at Kreisky
and called him a 'Jewish pig.' He, however, stated thereafter that 'there is
no more anti-Semitism today in Austria…I never felt any anti-Semitism.' He
was a perfect 'alibi' Jew because many Austrians expect Jews to make similar
statements. In the hypocritical atmosphere of Austria it is the role of the
Jewish functionary to say 'here everything is normal'"
The Waldheim Affair
"Anti-Semitism, however, was never the dominant motif in post-war Austrian
politics. The one exception was the international crisis which occurred in
1986 when Kurt Waldheim was a candidate for the presidency on behalf of the
ÖVP. He had not been an SS butcher or even an SS member. Waldheim was a
captain of military intelligence with the general staff in the Balkans. He
had been stationed in Salonika when the Jews, who formed one-third of the
population, were deported to the death camps.
"Yet Waldheim told the New York Times that he did not know what had
happened. This was incredible; all the more so, as he pretended to be a good
Christian. Claire Tréan of the French daily Le Monde asked Waldheim on May
3, 1986, why the international press was so critical of him. He answered
that the reason was its domination by the World Jewish Congress.
"On May 21, 1986, Waldheim gave a public speech in Vienna. Its manuscript,
handed out in advance to journalists, contained a paragraph which mentioned
that one had to make sure that there would never be an Auschwitz again. It
also included the statement 'that we, in the spirit of tolerance and
reconciliation, should promise each other to forgive but not to forget.'"
Pfeifer then wrote an article saying that he understood what he could
forgive the perpetrators for, but it was not clear to him what he had to ask
them forgiveness for. It later turned out that in his actual speech Waldheim
had deleted the paragraph.
Socialists against Israel
"It would be a mistake to mention only the anti-Semitism of the right.
Substantial parts of the political left have found anti-Zionism a
comfortable cover for anti-Semitism. Karl Blecha, a former social democrat
minister of the interior and now president of the Socialist Association of
Retired (Pensionistenverband), said according to the weekly Format (2/2001):
'The Zionists, who wanted to found in the whole of Palestine an exclusive
Jewish state, have been exposed by their reaction as what they are –
racists; and their state became an example of an unlawful racial
discrimination state.' He also said, that 'faithlessness has been a Zionist
"Johann Hatzl, the SPÖ president of the Vienna regional parliament, rejected
an invitation for a Keren Kayemet ball last year. He stated: 'I cannot feel
myself at present comfortable at an Israeli ball if a disgraceful Israeli
government throws away all principles of civilized society and leads a
merciless fight against another people. Who fights in this form terrorism,
makes himself – and that is valid especially for your Prime Minister Sharon
– a state terrorist.'3
"Every year in Vienna at the demonstration in solidarity with the intifada,
an incited mob burns Israeli and American flags; this year, however, 'only'
USA flags were burned. Despite this, Hannes Swoboda, spokesman for the
Austrian social democratic members of the European parliament and Susanne
Jerusalem, a Green Party member of the local Vienna parliament, spoke both
last year and this year (on September 27). The demonstration was organized
by the left wing anti-globalist 'Austrian Social Forum' (ASF) which
condemned terror against Iraqi civilians and against international
institutions, but did not mention Israeli civilians."
The Neue Kronenzeitung
"The media are the other major environment where one can find Austrian
anti-Semitism. One yellow-press daily, Neue Kronenzeitung, accounts for
forty-two percent of the daily readers of Austrian papers. On weekends the
percentage increases to sixty-five percent. It carried articles of Holocaust
denial. For instance, on May 10, 1992, its columnist Richard Nimmerrichter –
under his penname 'Staberl' – wrote an article claiming that only several
hundreds of thousands of Jews were gassed in the Holocaust; the others, he
said, died of sickness. He compared being an Austrian in a Soviet prisoners'
camp to the plight of the Jews in the war. Under Austrian law, it is
forbidden to diminish the crimes of the Holocaust, but you have to minimize
it 'grossly' and the authorities did not intervene.
"In September 1992 Nimmerrichter and Neue Kronenzeitung, however, had gone
too far even for Austria. The columnist wrote, 'Whoever has survived Hitler
will also survive Mr. Grosz' [then president of the Jewish community.] Both
were charged and had to pay fines. There was a time when there were
anti-Semitic texts almost daily in Neue Kronenzeitung. Again, often these
were coded; for instance, they would make fun of the name of Doron
Rabinovici, a young Jewish Austrian historian.
"Muzicant brought a court case against Neue Kronenzeitung. In 2000 this was
withdrawn after a conversation between him and the paper's publisher, Hans
Dichand. Vienna's mayor, Mr. Michael Häupl, had intervened, telling the
publisher that anti-Semitism harmed Austria internationally. Dichand agreed
that he would no longer publish crude anti-Semitic material. When Staberl
sent an anti-Semitic article to the paper in spring 2001, it was rejected.
"Since then Neue Kronenzeitung has limited its attacks to blacks, drug
dealers and other foreigners. This shows that the protection of human rights
has to be extended to all groups discriminated. In many other countries,
such a paper would be boycotted, but not in Austria"
Ambivalent Experiences with Austrian Law
"The Zur Zeit weekly – which received a government subsidy to the tune of
$80,000 last year – is close to the FPÖ, and has clear anti-Semitic
tendencies. For instance, in 1997 a right-wing Catholic, Dr. Robert
Prantner, wrote that the Jews should apologize for the crucifixion of Christ
and for the so-called 'ritual murder' of Anderl von Rinn centuries ago. He
then still held the exalted post of 'Extraordinary Envoy of the Knights of
Malta.' He was, however, thereafter relieved of this position by the Order
for 'reasons of health'"
Pfeifer has had his own painful experiences with the Austrian press and the
law. He brought a libel action against Zur Zeit and Andreas Mölzer, its
editor. Pfeifer objected to an article and a fundraising letter which the
paper had sent to its subscribers in 2001. In them, Pfeifer was accused of
causing the death of Werner Pfeifenberger – a right-wing academic. The
latter had been investigated in 2000 under Austria's anti-Nazi laws because
of his statements in the Freedom's Party's 1995 yearbook.
Pfeifenberger sued Pfeifer for libel because he had said that the article
had Nazi overtones and glorified the ethnic German community (from which the
Jews were excluded). Pfeifenberger lost that court case; the judge stated
explicitly that the conclusions Pfeifer had drawn were true. In 2000
Pfeifenberger committed suicide. Now, however, a Vienna high court judge has
decided that Zur Zeit had the right to make the statement about him, because
after all, Pfeifer is "only morally responsible" for his suicide.
Historians Tell the Truth
There is a second side to this issue which does not, however, neutralize the
first. Pfeifer says that there have been a number of Austrian and foreign
historians and intellectuals who have confronted the historical past of
their country. "Pelinka is one of them," he pointed out, "and others include
Richard Mitten, Hans Safrian, and Erica Weinzierl."
"Many years ago Gerhard Botz wrote an excellent book about the occupation of
Vienna by the Nazis. There he explained how the Austrians robbed the Jews
and that the German Nazis had to put brakes on them. This was because the
Nazis were accustomed to robbing on behalf of the state, and not on behalf
of one's private pocket, as many Austrians did. Already in 1939 an English
liberal journalist, G. E. R. Gedye from the News Chronicle, had written a
book on the Austrians' behavior. He had been stationed in Vienna from 1934
till 1939. So knowledge of this subject has been available for a long time.
"In addition, the Austrian Ministry of Education has published much valuable
material on the Holocaust and the Jews. There are also many teachers who try
to teach youngsters Holocaust history. Every school class is taken to the
Austrian concentration camp, Mauthausen. The Holocaust is thus part of the
Austrian educational curriculum. Yet what happens in the media and at home
is a different story.
"In light of the above it is typical that even Austria's belated admission
of some guilt included many gray areas as well. When finally, in July 1991,
socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky declared in the Austrian Parliament
that Austrians were partly responsible for the suffering of the Jews in the
Second World War, he did not do so in a special statement; because even then
it would have been politically unacceptable. Vranitzky inserted it into a
declaration about Austria's neutrality in the war in Yugoslavia. Nor did he
say that Austria as a state was responsible, but that citizens of the
country had brought that suffering over other human beings and nations."
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
Appeared first in:
Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism
No. 15 1 December 2003 / 6 Kislev 5764
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
1. Anat Peri, "Jorg Haider's Antisemitism," Analysis of Current Trends in
Anti-Semitism, 18 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University), 2001.
2. Bruce F. Pauley, From Prejudice to Persecution: A History of Austrian
anti-Semitism (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press,
1992) p. 86.
3. APA, Standard online 05.05.2002.
Karl Pfeifer is an Austrian journalist and former editor
of the Jewish community's newspaper, Die Gemeinde. He has published several
books, including a selection of his articles under the title Nicht immer
ganz bequem [Not always quite accommodating] (Vienna: Verlag Der Apfel,