Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Austrian Guilt

Often I cringe whenever politicians try to draw lessons from history. More often than not they prove they are bad historians (or people with bad memories). Such was the case with California Governor Schwarzenegger's speech at the RNC last night:
When I was a boy, the Soviets occupied part of Austria. I saw their tanks in the streets. I saw communism with my own eyes. I remember the fear we had when we had to cross into the Soviet sector. Growing up, we were told, "Don't look the soldiers in the eye. Look straight ahead." It was a common belief that Soviet soldiers could take a man out of his own car and ship him off to the Soviet Union as slave labor.

Matt Yglesias has already written quite a job dissecting the governor's speech (some criticism I agree with, some I do not). However, Schwarzenegger should have thought his speech through more carefully, especially with respect to the issue of the Red Army.

The occupation was a frightening time for Austrians. As a people they were complicit in Germany's war. Indeed, they showed more enthusiasm for some of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime than other Reichsdeutschtum. When the Red Army advanced on Eastern and Central Europe, Austrians (like other Germans) developed an irrational hatred of Russians. They developed fantasies about the persistence of the Russian mob and the crimes they would commit against Germans. The Mühlviertler Hasenjagd reveals the depths that the hatred of Austrians could reach: a village slaughtered a group of Russian POWs who escaped from Mauthausen. Austrians did not dread Russians in the same manner that Americans had; their emotions had monstrous roots.

There is no benign occupation, no foreign army whose presence does not elicit feelings of powerlessness and shame. There were places where the Red Army committed crimes of war. The fear that the governor spoke of was, in part, a carryover of the war that Austrians helped to fight. Governor Schwarzenegger was young: he grew up in a generation who described themselves as the “first victims of Nazism.” The truth is more sinister, and it has been difficult to accept.

Crossposted to Cliopatria.

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