Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Mauthausen and Austrian denial

From AP:

Bodies stacked like firewood. A concrete slab where dead victims were dumped for the Nazis to knock out their gold fillings. Former U.S. soldier Harry C. Saunders says he'll never forget the searing images first burned into his memory more than half a century ago. 'The people were just living skeletons,' said Saunders, who came back to Mauthausen Sunday to mingle with former inmates, their relatives, Austrian officials and others gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of its liberation. 'Some of them were too weak even to crawl.' *** Many survivors have grim stories to tell of the fortress-like camp and its subsidiaries that claimed more than half of the 200,000 people they held during World War II. Most prisoners were killed by gassing, shooting, hanging or beating, but in Mauthausen itself Nazi guards mostly worked inmates to death in an adjacent quarry, where starving prisoners had to hoist huge granite boulders up the 186-step "Stairs of Death." *** Described Sunday as a "piece of hell on earth" by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Mauthausen was the last big Nazi death camp still operating when the U.S. Third Army's 11th Armored Division arrived on May 5, 1945. Even though its Nazi guards had fled, locals were manning the guard towers, when Saunders, then a young Army sergeant, drove his armored car through its heavy gates. *** The commemoration was a reflection that official Austria has acknowledged the country's role in the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities after decades of denial fed by arguments that the country was the first victim of Hitler, who annexed the country the nation in 1938. That version of history started fraying in the mid 1980s. Since then, the government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to Nazi victims or their offspring, and political and church leaders routinely speak out against anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance that fed the rise of Hitler in this country and Germany. Still, Joerg Haider led the rightist Freedom Party into the government in 2001 with populist rhetoric sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism. And a poll published earlier this month had more than 40 percent of the hundreds of respondents saying that Nazism brought Austria good things as well as bad.
I toured Mauthausen almost twenty years ago, and was struck then but how the Austrians had completely whitewashed the Holocaust aspect of it. Jews were mentioned maybe once. The Soviets had a big monument there; the gypsies had a big monument there; the Austrians had nice clinical discussions about the tables on which the bodies were looted; the horrific quarry, where thousands committed suicide by hurling themselves in the pit; and the crematorium itself. They just had nothing about the Jews. Good to know that things have changed at least a little since then. Having said that, I think it's a mistake to make present day Germans and Austrians wallow perpetually in the guilt of Nazi-ism. They were guilty as hell, and the older generation fills me with revulsion. Still, the Germans at least paid gazillions in reparation (helping fund Israel's economy for decades through these reparations), and that generation is almost completely dead and gone. It is, I think, dangerous for the modern Germanic psyche to be forced to bear the perpetual burden of their forebearers' guilt. It's going to create a backlash hostility to Jews that is going to perpetuate this dreadful cycle. UPDATE: Just read this from David Frum (it's part of a longer column):
But people want to be proud of something. If you tell a large and mighty nation that it can never be proud of itself, the natural egotism of human beings will seek some other outlet, less wholesome than normal patriotism. Many in Germany support the unification of Europe much less as a rational response to real needs, and much more because they yearn to feel for "Europe" the loyalty and pride they cannot allow themselves to feel for their own country and their own culture. The terrible irony is that this united Europe is emerging as a much greater threat to the Atlantic Alliance and to European democracy than the Federal Republic of Germany would ever be.
UPDATE II: And here's Chrenkoff about the horrible malaise and depression that dogs the Germans as they are unable to escape their past:
By contrast, Germany's dark twelve years of the Thousand Year Reich are a neverending source of deep shame and national depression. Germany wants to move on from the war for the same reason that Russia keeps returning to it - because it was an exceptional time which distorted everything that happened before and after, and as the Ambassador says, it still makes many forget that there is and ever was so much more to Germany than the Hilterian madness. Germany has an understandable grievance that for a country with such a rich and varied history, including cultural and intellectual history, she seems forever reduced to a brutal and monstrous caricature. Suddenly, the contrition and self-reflection of the last sixty years might sound like a bad bargain if they merely serve to continually remind the world about the past. Contrast this with Russia's unapologetic attitude towards its own long dark totalitarian night last century. Putin doesn't seem to care, and he knows that most others don't seem either.