Books,  History

The Austrian Resistance: 1938-1945

Guest post by Karl Pfeifer

Austria today is one of the most prosperous democratic countries in Europe. The majority of those who were brought up in the Second Republic reject National Socialism, anti-Semitism, right-wing extremism and German nationalism and hold that Austria should have resisted Hitler in 1938.

Sweeping judgments on Austria are often heard in and outside Austria. As late as 1971 a star columnist of Austria’s most widely read newspaper poured scorn on the Austrian resistance by calling the Documentation Center for Austrian Resistance (DÖW) an “archive for the documentation of an Austrian resistance that never really existed”. On the other hand, for many years the “official” Austria, when communicating with the outside world was exploiting the fact, that there was an Austrian resistance and exaggerated the role played by it.

The book (The Austrian Resistance: 1938-1945, Edition Steinbauer, 2014) by the historian Wolfgang Neugebauer, from 1983 to 2004 Director of the DÖW, is a model of original research and the ultimate scholarly study of the many-faced Austrian Resistance against Nazi rule. It was not until July 1991 that Federal Chancellor Franz Vranitzky stated in parliament: “We acknowledge all the facts of our history and the deeds of all parts of our population, the good as well as the bad”. On his visit to Israel in 1993, Vranitzky admitted the “moral responsibility” of the Austrian perpetrators and asked the victims and their children and grandchildren for forgiveness.

The book reflects the impartiality and cross-party character of the DÖW. Therefore, the author is considering not only resistance groups and currents, including small religious groups and small groups of political dissidents, but also forms of resistance and opposition outside the narrower political sphere. Quantity and quality of the resistance and the courage and commitment of resisters can only be appreciated in the light of a full presentation of the machinery of Nazi repression.

Chapter 2 describes the Gestapo, the Nazi judicial system, the concentration camps and other instruments of persecution. Neugebauer emphasizes Nazi ideology’s penetration of broad sections of the population. Chapters 5-18 present a survey of the groups and groupings that put up resistance to the Nazi regime, including the Communists and other leftwing organizations, the Christian, conservative and monarchist camps; resistance by Jews; Austrians in exile; commando units mounted by the Allies; the Partisans, particularly the Carinthian Slovenes; and resistance in the military, including desertions and the assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July 1944. Throughout the book and in the final chapter the actual results and the value of the resistance are assessed with reference to the reminder to Austria issued by the Allies in the Moscow Declaration of 1943 that “in the final settlement, account will inevitably be taken of her [Austria’s] own contribution to her liberation.”

The book contains also the story of a fatal misjudgment. Most Jews active in the KPÖ (Austrian Communist party) did not see themselves as Jews in the religious or national sense and were completely dedicated to the world Communist movement. In France, Austrian and German Communists formed the “Travail Anti-Allemand” (TA). After the defeat of the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943, the Communist resistance activist believed – in a very optimistic assessment – that the end of the Nazi regime was drawing near and that the time had come to return to Austria and take up the struggle for liberation there. Disguised as French foreign workers, more than forty Communist functionaries gradually came back to Austria where they began – above all in Vienna – to rebuild the party structures that had been smashed by the Gestapo. With few exceptions, the Gestapo smashed this network of returnees from France and most of them did not survive the war.

The volume includes a useful index and bibliography. It is ideally suited to supplement courses in the Humanities, Austrian Studies, Holocaust studies and Central European history, and is written in a style that is accessible to all educated readers, while its original findings and synthesized argument will appeal to specialists in a wide variety of fields. This essential work includes an abundance of previously un- or under-examined material– a must for any academic library. Neugebauer’s book is an integral part of the contemporary discourse on Austria.