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With Nazism, Forgetting Becomes a Form of Escape

June 08, 1986|Paul L. Montgomery | Paul L. Montgomery is an American journalist based in Belgium

BRUSSELS — On a warm evening last week in an unfashionable part of this city, Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress gave another installment of his continuing speech about Kurt Waldheim. For four months Singer's organization has been conducting a brave and relentless campaign to make known the Nazi past of the former U.N. secretary general now running for president of Austria.

Singer told an audience of 200 people in the small meeting hall of the Lay Jewish Community Center that there would be little comfort in today's presidential voting in Austria. Despite revelations that he had at least lied about his past, Waldheim won 49.6% of the 4.8 million votes cast a month ago against 43.7% for Kurt Steyrer of the Socialist Party and 5.5% for Freda Meissner-Blau of the Greens. In today's reprise Waldheim is still the favorite.

Singer's audience included many old people; at least 11 were survivors of Auschwitz, greeting each other with hugs before the speeches and listening intently during them. As the evening wore on it became clear that Waldheim and his record were barely the issue. What was in contention was the value of memory.

"The campaign is not against Waldheim," said Singer, "it is against Waldheimism, against planned forgetting."

Indeed, Waldheim's career has been strewn with forgetfulness. Until he was reminded by several persistent journalists and the World Jewish Congress researchers, he had apparently forgotten having served as a lieutenant in the German army after 1941 (he had said in his memoirs that he was a law student in Vienna). Later he forgot that he was not a translator, as he had said, but a key intelligence officer.

In addition, the United Nations forgot Waldheim had been cited by one of its commissions as a potentially important war criminal, though there was never any legal proceeding. And oddly enough, many countries, East and West, forgot they knew about Waldheim's record.

There is a temptation to regard Austria as an anomaly in Western Europe as regards remembrance of the Nazi past. In one widespread view, Austria has managed to paper over collaboration and outright enthusiasm for the Nazi cause by remaining silent while other countries, such as Germany, have paid with trials and reparations. A survey of 1,000 Austrians by a team at the University of Vienna two years ago found that 57% of those interviewed "never again" wanted to be reminded about the extermination of Jews in concentration camps.

Other interesting responses also emerged. The researchers found that 25% of those interviewed had a "pronounced" anti-Semitic attitude and that a further 25% expressed lesser prejudice; 64% said they thought that Jews in Austria were too influential in business and politics. (About .01% of Austria's population today is Jewish. Before the Nazis arrived in 1938, the figure was 2.8%.)

Austria also has a political pool of demonstrably pro-Nazi supporters, a group it would be difficult to so clearly locate in other countries. The pool once held 660,000 former Austrian Nazi Party members who were identified after World War II and temporarily deprived of the vote. When their voting rights were restored, Austria's political parties had to take account of them. Though their numbers have diminished with time, the group still exists and forms part of Waldheim's support.

There is even a precedent of sorts for Waldheim remaining undisgraced despite the evidence. In 1975, Simon Wiesenthal, who is Austrian, revealed that Friedrich Peter, the leader of the right-wing Freedom Party and coalition partner of the Socialists, had been a lieutenant in an SS brigade that operated behind Russian lines in the Ukraine. The revelation had no affect on the coalition or Peter.

Despite some of the bizarre turns in recent Austrian history, there is no indication that its citizens are alone in their appetite for forgetfulness. Those who would now be affected by evidence of wartime activities are a diminishing group, but the tendency can be seen throughout Western Europe. Belgium, for example, has archives from the war that cannot be opened until the next century. The Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe persists in withholding records of the activities among its bishops during the war. Many large companies that had contracts with Germany during the occupation of their countries will not let researchers see corporate files to this day.

Programs about the war in countries that have state television are especially sensitive. "The Sorrow and the Pity," for example, the best of the documentaries about life in occupied France, was made for West German television in 1970 and was shown as a film in France in 1972. However, opposition kept it off state television until 1981. The Western European Communist parties, who collaborated energetically with the Nazis until the German invasion of Soviet Union, have avidly attempted to expunge all evidence of their behavior during those times.

Whatever happens in Austria, time and scanty resources favor forgetfulness. Singer says that researchers seeking evidence against Waldheim in the National Archives in Washington in the last few months have found that in most cases they have been the first ones ever to open the microfilm reels.

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