Austria's re-evaluates its Nazi past – slowly

7th September 2007, Comments 0 comments

7 September 2007, Vienna (dpa) Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Vienna Holocaust memorial can be regarded as a strong indication of his intention to continue the Catholic Church's reconciliation with the Jewish community. His predecessor John Paul II had gone to great lengths attempting to bridge the gap between the two faiths. At the same time, Benedict's trip serves as a reminder to Austria's Catholics not to forget the ambiguous role their church played during Austria's Nazi era (193845) and in its afte

7 September 2007

Vienna (dpa) Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Vienna Holocaust memorial can be regarded as a strong indication of his intention to continue the Catholic Church's reconciliation with the Jewish community.

His predecessor John Paul II had gone to great lengths attempting to bridge the gap between the two faiths.

At the same time, Benedict's trip serves as a reminder to Austria's Catholics not to forget the ambiguous role their church played during Austria's Nazi era (193845) and in its aftermath.

Theodor Innitzer, a Cardinal, and Franz Jaegerstaetter, a farmer, best exemplify the pattern of accommodation with the regime by the Church hierarchy and resistance coming from the bottom.

Similar to Austrian society, it took the Church decades to stop glossing over the years when the country was part of Nazi Germany, and to acknowledge that the Holocaust was not just something that happened to other people.

Only around 1988, the 50th anniversary of the annexation, the need for more soul searching was broadly acknowledged. Yet, the Church's actions after 1945 in particular are still largely being ignored.

"We are only at the beginning of coming to terms with it," said Dr Maximilian Liebermann, professor of church history at Graz University.

While the role of the Church under Nazi rule is well documented, Austria's Church still needs to deal with the way it treated both perpetrators and victims in the years after 1945.

A number of Austrian Catholics opposed the Nazis on grounds of their faith and often paid for their resistance with their lives. The official Church however refrained from actively resisting the regime after first signs of persecution in 1938.

Church leaders, closely cooperating with the previous Austro- fascist regime and stressing their opposition to the Nazis, then showed support for Austria's annexation, only to find their hopes for co-existence with the Nazis dashed.

Widely-publicized images of Cardinal Innitzer shaking hands with Adolf Hitler served as a focal point of criticism for decades to come.

Innitzer thought that the people had to accommodate with the regime to prevent the worst. After the annexation, the official Church line was to "save what could be saved," Liebermann said.

"They accommodated with the regime to a great extent," he said, adding, the Church had leaned itself way too far out of the window.

Austria's bishops failed to acknowledge that Catholics had the right or duty to actively oppose the Nazis, as Hitler was regarded a legitimate leader - a line supported by the Vatican.

But despite the lack of support from above, priests and ordinary Catholics continued to resist.

In recent years, the Church has focused on the Catholic martyrs who died at the hands of the Nazis, with the Upper Austrian farmer Franz Jaegerstetter being the most widely-known example.

Jaegerstetter was beheaded in 1943 for conscientious objection and is now in line for sainthood. His beatification is scheduled for October 26.

There was also his female counterpart Sister Restituta, equally executed in 1943 for high treason. Her crime was refusing to remove crosses from hospital walls.

They were not the only ones. More than 700 Austrian priests were imprisoned, a number of them died or were executed. Another 110 were deported to concentration camps, 20 did not survive, while 1,800 were either expelled or banned from preaching or teaching.

The discourse about the post-war period is slowly taking a more self-critical note, questioning the Church's behaviour towards erstwhile Nazis and its treatment of priests returning from concentration camps.

"The main question is how we treated the criminals and the victims after 1945," Liebermann said.

The Church wanted to win back former Nazis into its fold, and that was only possible if they would not be burdened with accusations regarding their past actions, Liebermann said.

The Church did not pay enough attention to the victims, whether they were members of the clergy or not. The issue of how priests released from death camps fared back in their congregations was equally neglected.

"The Church worked to keep many things quiet," according to Liebermann.

Austria's Church will have to increase its efforts to deal with its accommodation of the Nazis and its later reluctance to face responsibility. And it will have to do so quickly, before the last ones who can remember these days have passed on.

DPA

Subject: German news

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