The Anschluss – 75 years on

13 Mar

The text below was written on 12 March 2008 after I attended a commemoration ceremony at Heldenplatz. It is no less timely today.

Vienna, 12 March 2008 – Islands of Light

It was a beautiful evening today at Heldenplatz—clear, cool without being cold, with graceful clouds passing through overhead. Perhaps it wasn’t all that different 70 years ago when the German troops marched in to annex Austria and to clear the way for Hitler and his historic speech to over 200,000 cheering Austrians on 15 March 1938 at Heldenplatz.

This evening, in 2008, the thousands who gathered came to light candles—one for each of the over 80,000 Austrian people who suffered imprisonment and were killed under the Nazi regime. They came to light candles against intolerance. Many came, too, to be strengthened in their resolve never to let such a violation of human rights, human dignity, and human life happen again.

Although the organizers of the commemoration called it “Die Nacht des Schweigens” (The Night of Silence) in deliberate contrast to the rowdiness the night of Hitler’s speech, there were speakers. A prominent Austrian historian, now 83, who has spent her life speaking out against race hatred; a former Austrian Chancellor who was the first high-ranking Austrian official to challenge Austria’s image as poor victim and to speak officially also of Austria’s role as perpetrator; a young woman of 19 involved in a project commemorating victims of the Holocaust called A Letter to the Stars; and a survivor of five concentration camps now 82, who had to watch her mother go to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

I take away three messages from the speakers: that it is impossible to make reparation for crimes of this magnitude, that the fight goes on, and that it is important also to remember each person who suffered and was killed.

Reparation implies being able to repair a situation and to indemnify people, that is, to restore them to the position they were in before disaster occurred. The German equivalent Wiedergutmachung when taken apart piece by piece means to make good again. Essentially, we can never understand what it was—or still is—like for the victims and their families and no matter how much money we pay to restore property or compensate for slave labor, for example, we can never make it up to the people who suffered, were tortured and killed. We cannot make it good again.

As we stood under the stars and moon at Vienna’s Heldenplatz, peaceful and unthreatened, amid islands of light created by the 80,000 candles, the other message was that the battle goes on. Precisely because we can never truly make reparation once such crimes have been committed we all have a responsibility to make sure that our countries do not participate in such crimes again. Although we, at the moment, have democracy, peace, enough to eat and are relatively tolerant of the ethnic and other minority groups in our midst, that can change. We are in all probability facing the kinds of times where life gets tougher, where the feeling that there is not enough to go around makes it harder to be tolerant and to act justly. Those are the kinds of times when it is easier for unscrupulous or fanatical leaders to mobilize large numbers of people to oppress, imprison and finally murder their fellow citizens. We must beware.

It is hardly to be hoped that we have more resources for behaving bravely and morally than the people who came before us. For this reason, knowing what we know about the years of the Nazi regime, we need to re-commit every single day to fighting the forces that allowed such a regime to gain power. We need to combat anti-semitism and other forms of racism and intolerance wherever and whenever we encounter them, and if we fail to do so one day we have to get up the next day and try again.

In the words of Susanne Lamberg, the survivor of five concentration camps mentioned above: “When the candles that we light tonight go out we must light more tomorrow. We must decide every day to light the candles. It is tiring. But it is our only chance.”

As I was leaving Heldenplatz the Night of Silence had begun along with the commemoration of the 80,000 victims. The name of each man, woman and child was being projected on a screen—four screens, one name per screen, two seconds per name. The projection is to go on until six o’clock in the morning to get through the names of all the known victims.

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One Response to “The Anschluss – 75 years on”

  1. Jodi Fisler March 14, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    So powerful. Thanks for sharing.

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