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Vergangenheitsbewältigung: the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg Trials, possibly the most infamous legal proceedings in the whole of human history. Nearly 200 defendants were tried in total, of whom 37 were sentenced to death, including some of the most senior figures of the Third Reich regime.

The defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, November 1945. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to 2020, and the legacy of Nuremberg has by no means diminished; media and news channels from around the world reflected on this key historical moment. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an official address to recognise the 75th anniversary, whilst German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly addressed the legacy of events in an official speech. With such a long-standing and far-reaching importance, it is hardly surprising that “trials” is the first suggestion when you type “Nuremberg” into Google. Even in the 21st century, the two terms appear to go hand in hand, an inseparable and even inevitable linguistic combination.

This certainly raises the question as to whether Germany, even in the modern age, will, or indeed should, ever be able to separate its own geography from associations with the Third Reich. Germany is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes: it is arguably one of the most forward-looking countries in the world, a pioneer of technology, science, and engineering, and yet simultaneously inescapably shrouded in the legacy of its past.

This is in part thanks to its own efforts of Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("overcoming the past"), which have rendered the act of remembrance a moral and national objective. With such an indelible legacy, it is perhaps unsurprising that many foreign nations make the rise of the Third Reich, the history of the Shoah, and the downfall of the Hitlerian regime within Germany, a feature of their national curriculum. However, focus is often just that: within Germany. A focus on German structures, German decisions, German politics, and ultimately German responsibility. It is therefore perhaps all too easy to forget the complicity and active collaboration of other nations within all of this. France and Austria - unlike their German counterpart - were shielded for decades by the respective myths of resistance and victimisation, unaided by the Moscow Declaration of 1943 (according to which Austria was declared the "first victim of Hitler's typical policy of attack").

Opinions shifted in the 70s and 80s as a new generation began to engage with and uncover that which had been repressed from Austrian social consciousness. It was arguably a series of political scandals - the Kreisky-Peter-Weisenthal Affair, the handshake of Friedhelm Frischenschlager and former SS Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, and finally, the most famous of all, the Waldheim Affair - which prompted backlash on an international level and the temporary alienation of Austria from the world stage.

It is the recognition of Waldheim Affair which is frequently branded as the turning point in Austria’s treatment of its Nazi past, but there is arguably great danger in this. For it is not a simple cut-and-dry story of ignorance followed by a moment of self-revelation, and it would be unfair to see it as such. In fact, the immediate post-war years in Austria saw considerable judicial proceedings taken against some of its own, in conjunction with measures aimed to rehabilitate victims of the Shoah ('Opferfürgesetz'), although the latter were not without their fair share of problems.

Mass denazification actions were taken, in which former members of the National Socialist Party lost their jobs and civil rights. Many were prosecuted following the introduction of the NSDAP-Verbotsgesetz in May 1945, the Kriegsverbrechergesetz in June 1945 (which gave prosecution of war crimes a new special legal status) and the Nationalsozialistengesetz in 1948. It fell to the Volksgerichte to judge these old Nazi war criminals in the first post-war decade, however these courts were dissolved in 1955, leaving 4742 cases still pending.

Whilst mass trials were taking place over the border in Germany throughout the 60s and 70s, we see no such thing on Austrian soil; the few which were held mostly ended in acquittals (as was the case of Fritz Earl Ertl and Walter Dejaco, two of the Auschwitz architects). Prosecution was now in the hands of the Austrian penal courts, who charged only 46 individuals. Seven cases were dismissed following the deaths of the defendants or the withdrawal of charges. With the exception of one trial in 2003 (of Dr Heinrich Gross), no more trials of Nazi criminals took place in Austria after 1975.

As with Germany and France, the way in which Austria treats the legacy of its Nazi past remains subject to an ongoing debate. Whilst the last thirty years have seen immense progress, Bundeskanzler Vranitzky acknowledged the pain caused by his country “upon other people and peoples” in a famous speech of 1991, and began rebuilding relationships with the US and Israel. Whilst the Historikerkommission ('Historian commission'), tasked with investigating the theft of Jewish belongings and property during the Shoah, was established in 1998, and a 2003 report looked into the damaging effects of the obscurantist Opfermythos which had plagued the nation for decades, moments of controversy remain.

We need look no further than the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2 in 2005, which was hailed in Austria as the beginning of their “freedom” from Nazi rule and tyranny, arguably raising the old issue of the victimisation myth and the question of whether the nation has the right to view the day as a “celebration” at all.

Whilst 2020 may mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WW2, the legacy of the latter is therefore far from a clear-cut affair within Austrian social consciousness, and with the dwindling number of first-hand testimonies from the period, it is more important than ever to understand and engage with the nuances, complexities and myths surrounding one of the bleakest periods of human history.


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