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Last Updated: Friday, 7 March 2008, 18:26 GMT
Austria still haunted by Nazi past
By Chris Bowlby
BBC Radio 4

Ilse Roemer in 1940
Ilse Roemer in 1940
As she listened to the cheering crowds and roars of enthusiasm as Hitler and his army entered Austria in March 1938, teenager Ilse Roemer was fascinated at first.

But then her father told her that the cries of "Sieg Heil" were a signal for the Nazis "to start hunting the Jews".

She had barely been aware of her Jewishness before. "Nobody ever asked if I was Jewish," she recalls.

Now everything changed.

She went to a cafe with her best friend, whose father was an ardent Nazi. Suddenly Hitler's voice came on the radio as he spoke euphorically of his Austrian homeland's absorption into the Third Reich.

I didn't have the feeling that Austria was guilty but that many individuals had been guilty
Gabriele Matzner, Austrian ambassador to UK
The waiter insisted that everyone stand and raise their right arms in the Hitler salute.

Her friend told her to do likewise.

"It was the last time I went to a cafe because it was unbearable that I had to greet the Fuehrer," she says.

The 70th anniversary of the Anschluss this month will be sombre and low key.

It is still a deeply troubling episode for Austrians, who grew up in post-war decades with the idea that they were victims of Nazism, not its supporters.

Homes taken over

The wartime Allies against Hitler first encouraged the idea, hoping to stimulate Austrian resistance. And it provided a comforting myth for post-war Austria, masking a frequent refusal to face up to what had really happened.

Ilse Roemer managed to escape in 1938 as a refugee to Britain, where she worked as a nanny in Yorkshire.

Ilse Roemer, now called Ilse Aschner, in 2007
Ilse Aschner in 2007
Her parents were less fortunate, prevented from crossing the German-Dutch border as war broke out in 1939, and murdered in a concentration camp a few years later.

After the war, Ilse, now married with a baby and named Aschner, returned to Vienna to reclaim her family's substantial flat.

It had been "Aryanised" - given to a loyal Nazi family.

Her ownership claim, backed with documents, was dismissed by the local authorities, who scolded her for trying to "throw people out on the street".

Wall of silence

The guilty past was either wilfully ignored, or proved too painful to face.

Gabriele Matzner, a historian born in 1945 and today's Austrian ambassador to Britain, says: "I didn't have the feeling that Austria was guilty, but that many individuals had been guilty."

Her own family was divided between those who had resisted Nazism and those who had prospered under it. Many people, in family life and in politics, preferred silence.

That was broken in 1986 when former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, standing for election as president of Austria, was shown to have concealed wartime service in a German army unit which had been involved in war crimes.

Waldheim was never linked directly to such crimes, and was elected president.

But he was shunned by much of the outside world, and his repeated claim - that he had simply been "doing his duty" during the war - became less and less acceptable.

Slowly but steadily, debate has opened up.

Belated recognition

A significant gesture came last autumn when Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian farmer executed in 1943 in Berlin for his refusal on religious grounds to fight for the German army, was beatified by the Catholic Church.

Franz Jaegerstaetter
Franz Jaegerstaetter refused to fight for Germany
His home village near Salzburg embodies the Nazi period's lasting division of Austrian society.

Some villagers opposed the Nazis but were betrayed by the village midwife, a Gestapo agent.

Jaegerstaetter's widow, Franziska, who is in her 90s, still lives there.

She remembers that many villagers "were not good to me" during and after the war, as they felt her husband's actions had undermined the dutiful war service of local men.

Her husband's beatification last October has offered satisfying, if very late, recognition of the price her family paid.

But progress remains patchy towards restitution for all those, like Ilse Aschner, whose family property was stolen under Nazi rule.

Decades-long wait

Multi-million dollar funds have been established by the Austrian government, paying out limited amounts to claimants after often long and painstaking investigations. Some claimants die of old age before they receive anything.

This is Austria - here things take a little bit longer
Ilse Aschner
Hannah Lessing, whose father was Jewish, runs the restitution funds on behalf of the government in Vienna.

She admits the frustrations, but says her enthusiastic staff prove "there is a young generation that is willing to do it differently".

Meanwhile Ilse Aschner, who grew up in pre-Anschluss Vienna in her parents' smart flat, now lives aged 89 in a council flat up several flights of stairs with no lift.

She has received a few modest payments in compensation, and is waiting for more.

She sometimes walks past the old family flat, sees its current owners looking out of the windows "and I know that those were our windows. It's hard, but that's it".

Asked why compensation, first applied for in 1946, has taken so long, she laughs ruefully and replies: "This is Austria, here things take a little bit longer".

Austria - A Convenient Victim is on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on 10 March


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