In the heart of Vienna, the first monument of its kind in Austria was dedicated Friday to Austrians who deserted the German army during World War II.
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“It’s high time our country commemorated those who disobeyed the orders of the inhuman Nazi regime,” Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl said. As Austrian President Heinz Fischer put it, “Hitler’s army was not our army.”
The monument, named is another phase in Austria’s dealing with its past, which included its annexation to the Third Reich in 1938 — “Most of the Austrian population happily accepted this move,” the Yad Vashem website says. Tens of thousands of Austrian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
The monument to the deserters was created by the German sculptor Olaf Nicolai. It consists of the letter X, symbolizing anonymity, alongside the words “alone” and “everyone.”
Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis sentenced to death some 30,000 deserters and similar opponents; around 20,000 were executed. Of this number, 1,500 were Austrians. For years after the war they were considered traitors in Austria.
Only in 2009 did Austria’s parliament rehabilitate Austrians who had deserted the German army; they or their descendants received compensation from the state. Fischer said the new monument was an important act “from a political, historical, human and moral point of view.” He stressed the difference between deserting the Nazi army and deserting the army of a lawful state.
“Everyone must know that the choice of following one’s conscience and standing on the side of right, of dealing with an inhuman and brutal dictatorship, is respectable,” Fischer said, adding that Austrians should be ashamed of the treatment of deserters after the war.
Opponents of the monument say that not everyone denounced as a traitor by the Nazis deserves to be so honored. Others say a resistance movement against the Nazis hardly existed in Austria, adding that in 1938 the Viennese welcomed Hitler, accompanying the enthusiasm with large-scale outbreaks of anti-Semitism.
According to Yad Vashem’s Hebrew-language website, “The Austrian Nazis were quick to catch up to their comrades in Germany in harming Jews, disenfranchising them and expelling them from the economy, culture and society, and even outdid them.”