As Viennese wags have been saying for years, Austria's supreme diplomatic achievement since World War II has been to convince the world that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German. If there was one event that has tarnished this accomplishment, it was the Kurt Waldheim scandal that exploded in the international press in March, 1986.
It was 50 years ago this Spring that Hitler annexed Austria and the Viennese poured into the streets to welcome him with rapturous joy. The Waldheim scandal touched on the memory of those days of ecstasy that many Austrians would much rather leave buried beneath the debris of the past. Yet it was Waldheim's spirited defense of himself as a man who was "only doing my duty" as a Wehrmacht officer that brought the long-suppressed memory to the surface. If Austria was, as it insists today, "the first victim of the Nazis" (paraphrasing the famous Moscow declaration of the Allies of 1943) was it the patriotic duty of an Austrian to fight with or against the Nazis?
Indeed, the actual number of Austrians who regarded it as their patriotic duty to fight the Germans was minute, while the overwhelming majority served in the German army (and, incidentally, supplied a disproportionately large share of the Reich's death camp personnel). This discrepancy between what actually happened during the war and Austria's public stance since then lies at the heart of what has become known as the "amnesia" that has ruled much of the country's political life. Waldheim's own amnesia, which simply removed from the public record an inconvenient part of his personal history, therefore struck a very responsive chord in the Austrian electorate. "You did this, my memory tells me. You didn't do it, says my pride. In the end my pride wins." These words by Friedrich Nietzsche (the authors of "Waldheim" quote them at the beginning of a chapter entitled "The Lie, a Way of Life") could well serve as an epitaph for Waldheim and his compatriots.