Seventy Years After Anschluss, Austrians Urged Not to Bury Their Past

BERLIN - Austrian leaders urged their countrymen yesterday not to dismiss the Nazi past as no longer relevant, at a special session of parliament marking the 70th anniversary of the "Anschluss" annexation.

The session was to be followed after nightfall by a silent candle-lit vigil in Heldenplatz (Heroes Square) in the heart of Vienna, where huge crowds once cheered Hitler's return to his homeland at the head of Nazi legions.

On March 12, 1938, tens of thousands of Wehrmacht troops crossed the German border into Austria, sent by Adolf Hitler at the request of the Nazis' Austrian partners, to ensure a smooth takeover.

It was the first step in Nazi Germany's bid to take over most of Europe in WW II, and met with no Austrian resistance. Three days later, Hitler basked in the adoration of hundreds of thousands of cheering Austrians who packed the downtown Vienna square.

These events marked the beginning of Austria's Nazi period, during which it supplied officers and soldiers to the SS forces and supported the German war effort. They also ended Jewish life in Austria. The country's 200,000 Jews were violently cast out of public life, their property confiscated, tens of thousands forced to flee penniless, and some 65,000 murdered in concentration camps.

Some 80,000 candles were to be lit in Heldenplatz, representing each Austrian killed under Nazi tyranny - including the 65,000 Jews.

The Austrian leaders' public contrition reawakened the discussion about the extent to which Austrians were victims of Nazism or willing accomplices. Most Austrians now agree, after decades of denial, that they were deeply complicit in the Nazi machinery of war and genocide.

"We cannot draw a line under the past because the events of 1938-'45 retain resonance today," said parliament President Barbara Prammer, referring to polls in which 60 percent of Austrians were weary of talk about the past. A quarter of those age 14 to 24 still yearned for a "strong leader," the poll found.

The post-war position that Austrians were victims of Hitler had proven to be "a fiction of history", she said. But Austria only "belatedly acknowledged injustices" done in its name by agreeing to a reparations fund for Jews within the past decade.

Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and President Heinz Fischer presided over the special parliamentary session of soul-searching speeches about Hitler's annexation of Austria - a decidedly dark chapter in the nation's history.

Gusenbauer said no amount of restitution would ever make amends. "No compensation can ever diminish the wrong that the Nazis did to our Jewish fellow citizens," he said, adding: "No payoff can undo the inexcusable."

"I can only humbly beg survivors and their relatives to accept this gesture for what it is: a trifling acknowledgment of the injustice that was done to you," Gusenbauer told the assembly.

Austria had refused for decades to accept responsibility for the fate of its Jews, and only in 2000 did the government sign an agreement to compensate Jews whose property had been confiscated or looted.

Despite this, Vienna has been blasted by Jewish organizations for limiting the overall compensation for Jewish property to $210 million - an estimated 13 percent of the lost property's worth.

As part of the memorial events, the Austrian government and the Jewish community on Tuesday inaugurated the Jewish sports club Hakoach, which had been seized by the Nazis 70 years ago.

Vienna's once-vibrant Jewish community founded the club in 1909, and it produced a number of Olympic athletes. But the Nazis seized it in 1938 after Hitler's annexed Austria, and organizers struggled for years to acquire property for a new clubhouse.

Separately, Gusenbauer and conservative leader Wilhelm Molterer announced the establishment of a Vienna branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which hunts Nazi war-crime suspects.

The Center has accused Austria and some other countries of lacking political will to ferret out war criminals on their soil.