Often I cringe whenever politicians try to draw lessons from history. More often than not they prove they are bad historians (or people with bad memories). Such was the case with California Governor Schwarzenegger's speech at the RNC last night:
When I was a boy, the Soviets occupied part of Austria. I saw their tanks in the streets. I saw communism with my own eyes. I remember the fear we had when we had to cross into the Soviet sector. Growing up, we were told,"Don't look the soldiers in the eye. Look straight ahead." It was a common belief that Soviet soldiers could take a man out of his own car and ship him off to the Soviet Union as slave labor.
Matt Yglesias has already written quite a job dissecting the governor's speech (some criticism I agree with, some I do not). However, Schwarzenegger should have thought his speech through more carefully, especially with respect to the issue of the Red Army.
The occupation was a frightening time for Austrians. As a people they were complicit in Germany's war. Indeed, they showed more enthusiasm for some of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime than other Reichsdeutschtum. When the Red Army advanced on Eastern and Central Europe, Austrians (like other Germans) developed an irrational hatred of Russians. They developed fantasies about the persistence of the Russian mob and the crimes they would commit against Germans. The Mühlviertler Hasenjagd reveals the depths that the hatred of Austrians could reach: a village slaughtered a group of Russian POWs who escaped from Mauthausen. Austrians did not dread Russians in the same manner that Americans had; their emotions had monstrous roots.
There is no benign occupation, no foreign army whose presence does not elicit feelings of powerlessness and shame. There were places where the Red Army committed crimes of war. However, the fear that the governor spoke of was, in part, a carryover of the war that Austrians helped to fight. Governor Schwarzenegger was young: he grew up in a generation who described themselves as the “first victims of Nazism.” The truth is more sinister, and it has been difficult to accept.
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Clayton Earl Cramer - 9/3/2004
"Schwarzenegger and Robinson were talking about the immediate aftermath of the war, when the vast majority of living, healthy Austrian adults could reasonably be assumed to have supported the war political and/or materially." Even in Germany, Hitler's support was probably not the "vast majority." There was certainly a majority who supported his actions, and I am prepared to believe that was the case in Austria. But "vast majority"? That's quite a strong claim to make in a society where speaking in opposition could get you beheaded.
A friend's uncle made an uncomplimentary remark to a co-worker just before heading out the door one day. By the time he bicycled home, the Gestapo was waiting for him. Fortunately, he was an engineer, and after six weeks of jail, he was allowed back out.
I don't know what the "vast majority" of Austrians felt, and neither do you.
Nathanael D. Robinson - 9/3/2004
The idea that a perpetual guilt hangs over a nation is absurd. However, Schwarzenegger belonged to a generation in which myths about Austrian victimization were made, and the reasons why it was subjected to allied occupation have not been examined. The myth of victimhood allows many Austrians to ignore problematic parts of their own political culture (like xenophobia and resistance to returning looted property, neither of which are reflected on Schwazenegger's politics).
Jonathan Dresner - 9/3/2004
In the long term, sure. Schwarzenegger and Robinson were talking about the immediate aftermath of the war, when the vast majority of living, healthy Austrian adults could reasonably be assumed to have supported the war political and/or materially.
Clayton Earl Cramer - 9/2/2004
"As a people they were complicit in Germany's war." Individuals are guilty; whole nations aren't. I thought we had gotten past that matter of holding an entire group guilty for things done by their ancestors.
Hugo Schwyzer - 9/2/2004
Nathanael, my father was a "mischling" (1/4th Jewish), born in Vienna in 1935, so even though it is not my area of expertise I have more than a passing interest in Austrian history.
Austria has come a long, long way around the Holocaust. In 2000, my father finally received a reparations payment from the government (long after West Germany had given such payments). But still, I know well, many Austrians hold on to this sense of having been a doubly-victimized people (first by Hitler, then by the Soviets). As the old line goes, "Austria's greatest achievement is convincing people that Hitler was from Bonn and Beethoven from Vienna.")