Austria’s past encroaches on its poll campaign

VIENNA: Austria’s most infamous son, Adolf Hitler, is rarely mentioned in his home country. So it came as a shock to many when presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen reached into a folder during a recent live TV debate and produced a photo montage including two images of the Fuehrer.
The former Greens leader was complaining at a Facebook post in which a campaign picture of him walking his dog had been juxtaposed with photographs of Hitler and his German shepherd dog at the Nazi leader’s mountain retreat.
“Do you find that in order?” Van der Bellen demanded of his opponent, Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO), naming an FPO official as one of the people who had shared the image online.
Hofer, who in the November 20 debate described the post as “dreadful”, has protested at the daubing of his own campaign posters with swastikas and Hitler-style moustaches. It was the latest uncomfortable moment in a long, tortuous campaign for Sunday’s election in which Hofer, who despite his anti-immigration platform disputes the label ‘far-right’, says he has drawn encouragement from Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the United States.
Against the background of the migration crisis, the contest will be watched across Europe as a barometer of anti-establishment sentiment and a test of support for populist right-wing politicians, following Britain’s Brexit vote in June and ahead of elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany next year.
Some historians see the use of Hitler’s image to slur both candidates as another sign that Austria, annexed by Germany in the ‘Anschluss’ of 1938, has yet to come to terms with its own Nazi past. That stands in contrast with the sense of collective guilt every German has grown up with since World War Two.
“It’s only since the second half of the 1980s that Austria’s responsibility has become a topic of discussion,” said Hannes Leidinger, a history professor at Vienna University. Austria long presented itself as the first victim of the Nazis, a narrative initially supported by the Allies even though large parts of Austrian society celebrated the Anschluss and many took on roles in the Nazi war effort.
The so-called ‘victim myth’ only began to crumble in the 1980s when an international scandal unfolded around Kurt Waldheim, who played down his past as an army intelligence lieutenant attached to Germany military units and became United Nations Secretary-General and president of Austria.
The process is still going on. Until 2013, visitors to an Austrian exhibition in Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most notorious death camp, could see a display reading “Austria — First Victim of National Socialism”. Austria is still updating the exhibit.
At a seminar last week next to picturesque Lake Ossiach near Austria’s border with Slovenia, schoolteachers discussed ways to make Austria’s past more accessible to teenagers. — Reuters