Austrian diplomats slam Congressman Lantos for Nazi comment
By TOM TUGEND
Austrian diplomats here and in in Washington have taken issue with an indictment of their country by Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) by asserting that Austria’s attitude toward its Nazi past has changed drastically in the past 15 years.
In an address at the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration here last month, the Hungarian-born Lantos declared, “I am tired of being told that Austria was the first victim of Hitler, when in fact Austria was the first ally of Hitler.”
Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor serving in Congress, added, “I look forward to the day, not far in the future, when the Austrian government… will follow suit with the Hungarian government and say: ‘Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.’ [Through my fault, through my most grievous fault],” The Los Angeles Times reported.
Speaking after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lantos concluded, “I look forward to the day when Gov. Schwarzenegger will be in Vienna to help open a Holocaust museum there, where it is so long overdue.”
In a letter to Lantos, Eva Nowotny, Austria’s ambassador to the US, responded to the “harsh criticism” by transmitting a speech by former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky to his parliament in 1991.
In it, wrote Nowotny, “He acknowledged guilt and responsibility for the atrocities committed by Austrian citizens during the Holocaust, a speech which has changed Austria’s official position forever.”
Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Austria’s consul-general here, who was present when Lantos spoke, conceded that his criticism was to the point until about 15 years ago. He even credited Lantos for accelerating the turnaround.
“I was born in 1957, and when I went to school we learned nothing about the Holocaust,” he said. “But now, all schools have a mandatory three years of Holocaust education.”
Relations between Austria and Israel and the Jewish community have been strained a few times during the post-war era.
Much acrimony revolved around the figure of Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the UN and later president of Austria, who was barred from the US for his activities as a Nazi army officer during World War II.
More recently, participation of the far right Freedom Party, led by Joerg Haider, in the Austrian coalition government prompted Israel to recall its ambassador from Vienna.
On the plus side, Launsky-Tieffenthal cited a long list of actions by his government since the early 1990s, including various restitution funds to Holocaust victims, criminal laws targeting neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and close cooperation with Jewish organizations in Austria and the United States.
A showpiece has been the Gedenkdienst, or commemorative service, in which young Austrians are excused from military service to work as volunteers for Jewish organizations or Holocaust museums around the world for 14 months.
Nowotny acknowledged that her country doesn’t have a Holocaust museum. However, she cited two Jewish museums in Vienna and educational exhibits at the former Mauthausen concentration camp and other regional centers, visited by thousands of school children.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, commented that “Austria was quite late in coming to grips with its past and the process may not be completed in our lifetime.
“But it is unfair to say that Austria has done nothing and if a people want to change, we ought to give them credit for it.
Having a Holocaust museum is not a litmus test of their sincerity.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, observed that “Austria has lagged far behind Germany, which has acknowledged responsibility for the Holocaust and maintains a special relationship with Israel.
“But in recent years, Austria has confronted its past and the country has had an impeccable record in aiding Jewish refugees, particularly from the Soviet Union, to reach Israel.”
A request to Lantos for comments yielded a brief response from his spokeswoman that “Congressman Lantos has been in touch with the Austrian Embassy directly. He prefers not to speak with an envoy through a journalist.”