Austrian "Victimmyth" Identity

veröffentlicht am 13. Januar 2020

When the Second World War was over, the new formed Austrian authorities managed to spread a political myth that Austria was the first victim of Hitler-Germany. Not only was that belief distributed among the Austrian population but also Austria was able to convince the world that Austria is not responsible for any crime committed during the Second World War. The popularization of the political myth influenced the society in Austria tremendously and its consequences are present in the Austrian politics until today. This text’s aim is to explain the political situation in Austria which was strongly influenced by the “Victimmyth” over a long period of time.

1 Identity made in Austria
The term identity is a relatively young one. René Descartes was especially responsible for making this term popular. The contemporary identity theory has its roots in Descartes’ influential recognition theory. With his definition of the substance as being something permanent and which has functions in everything as a bearer of the properties, Descartes built the basis for a substantial conception of identity. It was the major concept for identity until the mid of the 20th century. The change came in the beginning of the 20th century with the concept of Sigmund Freud who described identification as a psycho mechanism. With the popularization of this way of thinking the idea that identity is a permanent process also got more and more relevant in the scientific world. However the most responsible for the final scientific recognition of the identity theory was most likely Erik H. Erikson who published the book “Childhood and Society” 1950 in which he argues that identity is formed by several phases of the psychosocial development. The “I-identity” is an emotion of being complete. This emotion is not constant but rather has to be reproduced through the self as a process permanently. The idea of a processual identity conception was established in the second half of the 20th century and has finally been conceptually extended to the recognition of a multiple character and permanent changeability in the postmodernism era (cf. Nicke 2017).
Processual identity is understood in conceptual theory as a temporary, diverse and relative manifestation. It is formed in relation to the situational environment, one’s own self-images and moral concepts, the socio-cultural modes of thinking and behavioral norms (cf. Nicke 2017). This concept is more useful to explain the contemporary society and its actors instead of a stable concept of identity. The advantages insist in the possibilities to consider the multilayered society realities and the plurality of individuals.
Applied to the Austrian Identity processual identity sees it as something which is not given when someone is born in Austria but appropriated through socialization in the Austrian society. This means that the Austrian Identity is influenced by the political narratives who are dominating the political discourse in this country. Politics is impacting the society as a whole, political narrative like the “Victimmyth” are influencing a collective identity using the language at the communication level. The language is the most important collective identification within a nation which defines itself with sharing these common elements in difference to the others (cf. Kolbábek 2012, 26). The national identity can be seen then as a self interpretation of a group which has a historical base and is still self defining in the present (cf. Kolbábek 2012, 27)
When I look at the history of the Austrian nation, I find it easy to see that it is full of controversy views on its identity. First of all the Austrian Identity can be scrutinized by the question if Austria is a nation at all. The Austrian people have a lot in common with the Germans, mostly because of the language. In the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy German speaking people were perceiving themselves as German-Austrians. After the First World War and the downfall of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy the first sovereign Austrian nation was born. A number of people started orientating themselves towards the German nation. This was mainly caused by the shock of losing such a great empire and somehow seen as an indignity. They tried to get rid of the Austrian Identity and turned towards – after the war still big and still growing – German nation. With the annexation to Hitler-Germany in 1938 the term Austria became historical (cf. Bruckmüller 1998, 1ff)
After the destruction of the Third Reich Austria was born again and with this reincarnation it needed to build up the Austrian Identity again. The politicians made a lot of arrangements to make the people feeling as a “we are Austrians” again (cf. Bruckmüller 1998, 8). There happened to be a wave of homeland-films about Austria which depicted the country as a beautiful and peaceful world. These films were used to build a new look of Austria and were the outcome of the collective refuse to work up the past. The art was therefore used to spread the “Victimmyth” indirectly with showing a world full of harmony and cosiness. Also the Habsburg-Dynasty came back in the historical discourse as it was more or less forbidden to talk about the monarchy in the times of the Third Reich. The existence of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy was a welcoming element to shape the identity of the Austrian nation in the sense of a long and great history (Kolbábek 2012, 28f). All this blinding was more or less totally unquestioned until the Kurt Waldheim discussion in the 80s, where a former office of the Wehrmacht became the president of Austria (cf. Uhl 2001, 4).
All together Austrian Identity is a national identity with a history of shame and failure. It can be suggested that this historical experience of losing wars and territory has made the Austrian Identity instable. There is no historical entity within Europe where the existence is so much based on the identity problems as in Austria (Kolbábek 2012, 30).

2 Austria was the first victim of Hitler-Germany
After the victory of the Anti-German Allies, the world became more and more aware about the extent of the killing machinery developed by the National Socialists. The old borders between Germany and Austria were reestablished and Austrian politicians formed a new government with the permission of the victorious powers who wanted to recover a democratic and sovereign Austrian state. During the time of one big German speaking nation Austria did not exist as a legal state so Austrian politics started to use this fact for their interests (cf. Switkes vel Wittels 2010, 1). Technically it cannot be blamed for the crimes that have been done. There was the paradoxic situation in which people from Austria have been even more successful in deporting and dispersing the Jewish minority but did not really suffer from any punishments. For example were the Austrians seen as very cruel in Jewish policy and were distributed over the whole occupied area inside crucial positions (cf. Grigat/Markl 2012, 111; Uhl 2001, 4).How did it come that Austria do not see itself as responsible for the crimes of Nazi-Germany regime and why did the world let the Austrian population live in the narrative of a victim?
The answer can be found in the Moscow Declaration from 30th October 1943 where the Allied pointed out that “Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination” (Switkes vel Wittles 2010, 2). This means that the main point of the victim thesis is that Austria was forcibly occupied in March 1938 and liberated in April/May 1945 by the Austrian resistant and the Allied. In this period it suffered from a foreign domination with persecution and had a resistant movement to liberate Austria again (cf. Uhl 2001, 3). This declaration was mainly used by the Austrian government to convince the world community to Austria being the first victim.
This thinking was provided by the government in several steps. First of all they started to emphasize the Austrian resistance movement. They published a book where they pointed out that the resistance movement was much bigger than it really was. Another step was the redevelopment of the Austrian armorial where the eagle from the first Austrian Republic was redesigned and became bombing chains as a symbol of liberation (cf. Switkes vel Wittles 2010, 1; Uhl 2001, 3). Both of these actions had and still have a symbolical meaning for the Austrian society but this assumption is totally ignoring the historical facts of the width approval through the population to the annexation as well as the identification of the Austrian people with the German Wehrmacht and the virulence of anti-Semitic aggression. Also Robert H. Keyserlingk and Günter Bischof showed in their studies that the Moscow Declaration was not a plan of an Austrian post-war order but more a propaganda document to support the Austrian resistance (cf. Uhl 2001, 3). On the other hand there is the historical reality which shows that the majority of the people in Austria wanted to be part of the Third Reich and even identified with a great German nation. Austria wanted to take part in the killing machinery and was even more effective than the German themselves due to the fact that they had to give a bit more of effort as they wanted to be part of the collective identity although they did not share a common history.
The objective outcome of the “Victimmyth” was a paradoxic situation where the real victims of Nazi-Germany like Jews, Romani people or people with disabilities had to negotiate with a state whose nation pretend to be the victim itself. In the end unfortunately the real victims did not get what they disserved (cf. Switkes vel Wittels 2010, 4). They did receive a little compensation because the Austrian government knew exactly that Austria had been responsible for the crime even if they pretended it not. Furthermore a number of people who were active members of the National Socialist Party managed to take important positions in the Austrian publicity (cf. Grigat/Markl 2012, 112). The de-nazification was just a small process directly after the war where more than 90% of the accused were acquitted of a charge (cf. Uhl 2001, 4)
To sum up, the Moscow Declaration was a powerful document for the new Austrian government to enforce the victim status argumentatively towards the Allied governments. “Where there is no state there is also no responsibility”, was the common slogan within it was even possible to get rid of the joint responsibility provision in the Austrian state contract (cf. Uhl 2001, 4). The Second World War is an important happening in the world history but not in the Austrian history. Austria did not participate in this war as a state. This is more or less the basis of a new Austrian Identity (cf. Switkes vel Wittels 2010, 3).

3 “Victimmyth” and its influence
The new designed narrative of Austrians history was a welcoming identification offer for the masses in Austria (cf. Switkes vel Wittels 2010, 1). Stephan Grigat and Florian Markl see Austria as the country whose population in complicity with the Austrian government managed to leave behind the killing machinery and leading the society in a post fascist democracy (cf. Grigat/Markl 2012, 111). This proceed has an impact on the Austrian identity even until today and Theodor W. Adorno shows from a psychological perspective why it is still so influential.
Adrono writes that by working up the past, it is not meant to seriously process the past, to break its spell with bright consciousness but rather to draw a line and to deled the memory (cf. Adorno 1997, 3) This means that the Austrian people wanted to get rid of their past when they tried to see themselves as a victim. Identifying as a victim is quite easier to live with. This causes a dangerous situation because it means that the fascist thinking was not defeated after the Second World War. It is still living inside the Austrian society.
In the Austrian Identity nowadays it can be even seen as something negative to treat the Austrian people as being responsible for this what happened during the Second World War. It is said that the collective dept is the first which is producing a situation of avoiding in the mind of the people so that they do not want to think about what happened because the others blame them as to be immoral people. Adorno made research in which he proved that the people have a neurotic relation to the past (cf. Adorno 1997, 3). They try to find something positive in the past or name negative occasions in a positive way for example calling the Pogrom in November 1938 as “Reichskristallnacht” which takes the scare and negative meaning away. He also claims that a lot of people see a stubborn remembering of the past as harming for the Austrian reputation in foreign countries. The Austrian identity is connected to the Austrian nation and a bad view is also making a bad identification.
At the end the not recent working up has an impact on the democracy. Adorno writes that the people do not see democracy as something what they are living for, which is part of their identity but more a system like a lot of other systems as monarchy, fascism, communism (cf. Adorno 1997, 5). That means that democracy will not be a forever lasting society circumstances.
The current political situation in Austria shows quite obvious how the Austrian victim identity affects the sovereign Austrian democratic state. It suffers from a situation which is not thinkable in Germany. A party which is founded by mostly former members of the National Socialist Party went into a coalition with a conservative party which still adores the fascist leader Engelbert Dollfuß who was in power before Hitler and build a fascist Austrian state. A post-nazi party is sharing the governmental power with a post-fascist party. It is already the second time this is happening but the difference to the past was that the party is now mostly managed by members of the German national student fraternity who have a confession for a great German Empire in their statutes. These leaders are openly speaking of concentrating refugees inside big camps or questioning the Austrian Prohibition Act of 1947 with the freedom of speech.
Fascism is still threatening the Austrian society today and the working up of the past was not successful because the objective requirements in the society, which provided the base on what fascism could grow, are still continuing. Democracy did not bring the anticipated improvements. It is not an optimistic feeling for the people to live an autonomous responsible life on which democracy applies to. That is why the people hide behind the collective identity of a nation (cf. Adorno 1997, 9).
In conclusion, the Austrian Identity is influenced by the self identification as the first victim of Nazi-Germany. The collective trauma of losing a great nation again after the Second World War, while Austrians already lost the Habsburg Empire, has led the people to flee from responsibility. The Austrians knew about the crime done by the National Socialists but also they knew how to difference this knowledge from the acting and thinking in the society. To answer the questions from the beginning this political myth has to be seen in the historical situations and has influences until the present political environment. The political culture which is based on displacement and negation produces a compulsion to repeat that what was not worked up and overcome.

4 References
Adorno, Theodor (1997): Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit. In: InstitutsGruppe Geschichte der Universität Wien (Hg): Wiener Schnitzel, Antifaschismus und die Krone! Österreich und sein postfaschistischer Grundkonsens. Reader, Seite 3-12
Bruckmüller, Ernst (1998): Die Entwicklung des Österreichbewusstseins. In: Kriechbaumer, Robert (Hg.): Österreichische Nationalgeschichte nach 1945. Die Spiegel der Erinnerung: Die Sicht von innen, Band 1. Böhlau, Wien/Köln/Weimar, Seite 369-396
Grigat, Stephan; Markl, Florian (2012): Österreichische Normalität: Postfaschismus, Postnazismus und der Aufstieg der Freiheitlichen Partei Österreichs unter Jörg Haider. In: Grigat, Stephan (Hg): Postnazismus revisited: Das Nachleben des Nationalsozialismus im 21. Jahrhundert. Freiburg: ca ira Verlag, Seite 229-263
Kolbabek, Andreas (2012): Österreichische Identität. Konstruktion einer österreichischen Nation unter Berücksichtigung von Parteiprogrammen. Diplomarbeit Universität Wien
Nicke, Sascha (2017): Der Begriff der Identität. Online: Last visit: 21.1.2018
Switkes vel Wittels, Malte (2010): Österreich, die Moskauer Erklärung und der Opfermythos. Online: Last visit: 21.1.2018
Uhl, Heidemarie (2001): Das “erste Opfer”. Der österreichische Opfermythos und seine Transformation in der Zweiten Republik. In: Österreichische Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft (ÖZP), Heft 1/2001. Seite 93-108


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