I am deeply appreciative of the invitation of Hannah Lessing, my dear friend and Secretary General of the National Fund and General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism (GSF), on the special anniversary of the Washington Agreement between the governments of Austria and the United States and the successful conclusion of the work of the GSF.
I would very much have liked to address you in person and to see so many of the people with whom I worked to make the Washington Agreement possible–Wolfgang Schuessel, the late Maria Schaumayer and Ernst Sucharipa, Hans Winkler, Hannah Lessing, Herbert Pichler, and Ariel Muzicant. But a punishing international travel schedule made this impossible.
I firmly believe that the Washington Agreement was not only important in providing belated justice to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors from Austria and the heirs of those murdered by the Nazis; the Washington Agreement also is a landmark in the modern history of Austria. By coming to terms with your complicated World War II-era history and the wrongs done in the name of Austria, you are a stronger nation today and an exemplar for the world. In recent years, no country has come further or faster than Austria in recognizing its moral responsibility and in taking concrete steps to address its roles during World War II.
To appreciate the historical significance of our agreement, both a general and Austria-specific context is necessary. I learned to my surprise on a visit to Austria while I was U.S. Ambassador to the European Union that my family, which we traced back to the Russian Empire, had almost certainly originally lived in Eisenstadt, Austria. My late wife Fran and I learned from the head of the small Jewish museum there that the Hapsburgs expelled the Jews from Vienna around 1670 and they fled to several towns in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled by the Esterhazy princes, who welcomed them. My family evidently went from there to what is now Belarus, and which had been part of the Russian Empire, and took the name of the Austrian town from which they left. This gave me a powerful personal identification with Austria and some of its history.
The Roosevelt Administration paid little public attention to the emerging fate of European Jewry before, during, and even after World War II, despite the evident goals of Adolf Hitler to persecute and ultimately destroy the Jews of Europe. In part, this reflected a significant degree of public antisemitism in the United States, in part the belief that the best way to save European Jewry was to win the War as quickly and decisively as possible.
Hitler’s original goal was to make Germany Judenrein (free of Jews), not to destroy European Jewry in its entirety. But he saw the world turn its back on Jews as they fled Nazi oppression. Some examples were: no boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; no economic sanctions against Germany until the U.S. entered the War; barred entry in 1939 for the German Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis. The fate of European Jewry was sealed at the 1938 Evian Conference, when the United States, Canada, and other nations failed to agree to liberalize restrictive quotas on immigrants from Central and East Europe, which the U.S. Congress had passed in the late 1920s, sending a signal to Hitler that no country would take the Jews of Germany off his hands, and that he had freedom to treat the Jews as he wished. The Final Solution was not settled Nazi policy until the Wannsee Conference in 1942.
State Department officials made it exceedingly difficult for refugees to enter the United States. On a per capita basis, tiny Switzerland took far more Jewish refugees than the United States. It was only after Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau presented a report to President Roosevelt initially entitled by his staff “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, that FDR established a War Refugee Board under Morgenthau’s leadership, which belatedly saved tens of thousands of Jews, particularly those in Hungary.
Reports began to come out of Europe as early as 1942 of the genocide that was occurring. The courageous Polish diplomat Jan Karski, with the Polish government in exile in London, twice went into the Warsaw Ghetto and reported the brutality he found directly to President Roosevelt in the White House, who sent him to see his trusted confidant Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. The great Justice listened to Karski pouring out his heart, and then said, “Mr. Karski, I am not saying you are lying, but I choose not to believe you.” There were large rallies at Madison Square Garden, but the New York Times buried stories of the massive killing on their back pages, and often did not mention that Jews were special targets.
But no one could have imagined the massive dimensions of some aspects of the Nazi plan. During the War, Nazi Germany inducted 17 million men into its armed forces out of a population of 79 million, requiring conscripted labor, men, women, even children from throughout occupied Central and Eastern European countries to run German factories and operate its farms. Most were Christian “forced laborers” who worked under difficult conditions but were seen as an asset of the state. Jewish slave laborers, by contrast, were literally worked to death or left to die of starvation, disease, or cold weather. At the height of the War, there were some 12 million forced and slave laborers.
After the War, things were little better. Great Britain rejected the request from President Truman to allow 100,000 refugees into Mandatory Palestine as a humanitarian gesture, and from 1946 to 1949 kept 52,000 Shoah survivors trying to reach Mandatory Palestine in squalid camps in Cyprus. Those survivors who had the temerity to return to the homes and villages from which they were expelled by the Nazis and their collaborators were driven off or even killed by the locals, in places like the Lithuanian village of Eisiskes and in Nowy Targ, Poland. Unable to return home, they drifted into Displaced Persons Camps.
Although U.S. military personnel treated the Displaced Persons with dignity in the camps they ran in post-War Europe, the DP camps had such poor conditions that Earl Harrison, the U.S. Representative to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, reported to President Truman, who asked him to investigate the camps, “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except we do not exterminate them.”
The immediate focus of the Allies after the War was understandably on emergency relief and reconstruction in war-torn Europe. As early as November 1943, Nahum Goldmann of the World Jewish Congress signed a memorandum to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration calling for a Jewish relief program that focused on “emergency feeding, shelter, clothing, medical care, child care, repatriation and resettlement of the uprooted, occupational readjustment, and religious and communal rehabilitation”, rather than the property restitution and slave and forced labor compensation we focused-on during our Austrian negotiations.
At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Allied leaders directed the Allied Control Council to manage all foreign-owned German assets, except gold, which the Allies recognized had been plundered by Nazi Germany from conquered countries. The largest trove of looted Nazi gold was found by American soldiers at the Merkers Salt Mine in the foothills of the Alps, worth $520 million in wartime dollars. The Mine also housed over four hundred tons of Nazi-looted art, among the 600,000 artworks the Nazis stole, primarily from Jews. Some of the looted art was eventually returned to the countries, but not the people, from which they were stolen. And the gold was given to a Tripartite Gold Commission based in Brussels for return to the nations from which it had been taken, without recognizing some was taken from Shoah victims, including gold fillings in their teeth. Modern-day Austria has a very positive story to tell the world about its role in restituting art and in dealing with gold remaining in the Tripartite Commission.
There were efforts as early as 1947 to provide restitution and compensation to Nazi victims, and the U.S. military government in Germany enacted a restitution law to return all property that had been confiscated or transferred under Nazi duress, and property taken from those who were killed without heirs: so-called “heirless” property, could be recovered by a charitable “successor organization”. In 1952, the governments of Israel and the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany created the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, known as the “Claims Conference”. Since then, Germany has paid some 80 billion euros to survivors and their families, under their BEG law for damage to health, and deprivation of liberty, damage to professional careers and businesses, and loss of life. No country in history defeated in a War has made the effort of post-War Germany to live up to its responsibilities for the damages it created.
But when the Cold War began, all energies of the West were focused on dealing with the threat to Europe from the Soviet Union, not with justice for Holocaust victims and their families. It appeared that justice for Shoah survivors, and other non-Jewish victims of World War II, would evaporate into the mists of history. [Authors like Elie Wiesel had difficulty getting their books published. No courses on the Holocaust could be found on any American college campus.]
Yet something as monstrous as the Holocaust, the worst genocide in world history, ultimately could not be forgotten. The 1961 capture in Argentina by Israeli agents and trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief henchmen of the Third Reich, was a turning point of putting the Holocaust back on the world’s agenda. Major films like Claude Landsman’s “Shoah”, the NBC mini-series, the publication of numerous books, Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, all contributed. Holocaust courses abounded.
Of all the nations embroiled in World War II, none had a history more complicated than Austria’s. As Austrian President Klestil later recognized, Austria was both “first victim” of Nazism and a collaborator. Both Germany and Austria nursed wounds from their defeat in World War I, Germany strapped with burdensome reparations and Austrian with the loss of its huge, cosmopolitan empire. Both suffered grievously from the worldwide Depression in the early 1930s, when pro-Nazi sentiment rose in Austria.
Austria was a “victim”, forcibly losing its independence as a nation. The Wehrmacht marched across the border at dawn on March 12, 1938, the day before there was to be a plebiscite on Austria’s independence called by Austria’s courageous Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. Instead, Hitler signed a law incorporating his native land into the German Reich. The vote for Anschluss between the two countries on April 13 was a mere formality, winning approval by the totalitarian figure of 99.7%, although perhaps not a true reflection of Austrian public feelings.
While it is important not to implicate the entire country, many Austrians willingly supported Hitler’s evil aims and others acquiesced in them, with little resistance. Hitler himself was born in Austria and many of his top advisers in perpetrating the Holocaust had Austrian roots, including Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Gestapo.
Anti-Jewish actions proceeded in Austria with great ferocity, with sweeping orders for quick confiscation of Jewish property and businesses, frequently without any or only nominal compensation. Austrians called this the period of “wild Aryanization”, with nearly 7,000 Jewish businesses liquidated between March and June 1938. Jewish religious and cultural institutions– synagogues, schools, hospitals, the famous Hakoah Sports Club–were confiscated or destroyed. In May 1938, the infamous Nuremberg laws were extended to Austria. In August, the Central Office for Jewish Emigration was created — its deputy director a nondescript Austrian-educated SS officer named Adolf Eichmann. And on November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht in Germany extended to Austria, with some fifty synagogues burned and over 4,000 Jewish-owned businesses looted in Vienna alone.
By the end of 1939, 126,000 of Austria’s 185,000 Jews had fled, with stiff exit taxes, and many were pressured to relinquish their property to an Emigration Fund before they were handed their passports. The remaining 60,000 Austrian Jews were killed in Nazi death camps. By the autumn of 1944, 65,000 Hungarian Jews swelled the corps of 700,000 forced laborers on Austrian soil. Austrians played a disproportionately large role in the Third Reich. Although only 8 percent of the combined German-Austrian population, Austrians made up a larger percentage of the SS and the killing force in Auschwitz. Austrians joined the Nazi party at the same rate as Germans. During the immediate post-war period, part of the difficulty of accepting responsibility for restitution of confiscated Jewish property was that Austria stressed being the “first victim” over support for Nazi policies. The Allied powers fostered this attitude. In 1943 in Moscow, the foreign ministers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union promised Austria postwar independence and exoneration, declaring the Anschluss null and void, and Austria “the first victim of Hitlerite aggression.” The Allied declaration also concluded by “reminding” Austria of its “responsibility which it cannot evade for participating in the war on Hitler’s side”. But this qualifying phrase was lost in the fog. While this declaration did not stiffen Austrian resistance to Hitler, it played a critical role in shaping Austria’s collective postwar psyche, treating Austria as a liberated, not defeated nation. Austria, unlike Germany, was permitted to de-Nazify itself. Austria’s de-Nazification was not as complete as Germany’s, and few Nazis were convicted under Austria’s war criminals law.
Under Allied coaxing, Austria passed seven laws between 1946 and 1949 to restore Nazi-seized property to Jews. But these had gaps and shortcomings, with inadequate worldwide notice and short claims periods. In framing the 1955 State Treaty that granted Austria its independence as a neutral democracy and barrier against the Soviet bloc, U.S. government pressure led to language obligating Austria to compensate Holocaust victims for their property or to return it.
A newly free Austria became a model democratic country, with an excellent, transparent public administration, and a worldwide influence well beyond its small size. Austria was generous in accepting refugees from the Hungarian and Czech uprisings against Communism, and was a significant contributor to development around the world. Austria has been a valued member of the European Union since 1995 and supports the tough EU sanctions on Russia for its unprovoked war against Ukraine.
Austria’s positive role in coming to terms with its complex record in World War II began long before class action suits were launched against your companies. One of the most painful postwar episodes for Austria, which thrust Austria’s complex role in the War back on the world’s consciousness, was the disclosure in the late 1980s of the wartime record of Kurt Waldheim, who served two terms as UN Secretary General, before running for the President of his native Austria. In the midst of the presidential campaign, the World Jewish Congress disclosed evidence, that contrary to his own assertions, he had served in the Waffen SS and been in Yugoslavia at the time of a huge slaughter of Yugoslavian Jews, and at Salonika, Greece, the site of mass deportations of Greek Jews. While he won the presidency by a comfortable margin, he became the first head of state ever placed on the “watch list”, precluding him from entering the United States.
As painful as this episode was for Austria, it was a watershed for the country. It led Austria on its own volition, and without the pressures of class action suits or outside pressure to come to terms with its mixed role during the War. In 1987, Austrian Cardinal Franz Konig gave a speech implying that as Christians and Austrians his fellow citizens shared responsibility for the Holocaust. In 1990, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky established a fund for Jewish victims who had been children in 1938 and ineligible for prior programs. In 1991, Chancellor Vranitzky took the dramatic step of acknowledging Austria’s culpability for Nazi persecution and its moral responsibility for assisting Jewish victims. In 1994, Austrian President Thomas Klestil became the first Austrian president to visit Israel, and in his speech in front of the Knesset, he unequivocally declared Austria’s active participation and guilt in the Holocaust.
In 1995, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Austria’s Second Republic, the National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism was created, under the inspired leadership of Hannah Lessing, to make payments of 70,000 shillings, about 5000 Euros, to Austrian Holocaust survivors and to support Jewish museums, synagogues, hospitals, old-age homes, counseling services, and education to combat antisemitism. The National Fund has distributed upwards of $150 million to about 30,000 Holocaust survivors, with additional payments to the needy. A Holocaust memorial was designed at this time and inaugurated in Vienna’s Judenplatz in 2000. And in 1998, before the first class-action suits were filed against Austrian corporations, the Austrian government established a historical commission headed by Clemens Jabloner, president of the Austrian Administrative Court, to investigate the status of Austria’s postwar restitution program. The Jabloner Commission was a key factor in identifying the gaps in the seven postwar restitution programs and opening up the basis for a settlement of our property claims negotiations.
Another example of Austria’s courageous leadership on Holocaust issues in recent years came with the 1996 disclosure by the World Jewish Congress that there remained 6 tons of Nazi looted gold under the jurisdiction of the Tripartite Gold Commission that had never been distributed. The great bulk of the looted gold, about 330 metric tons, had been given over the past 50 years to the central banks of the ten European countries from whom it had been stolen. But none was returned to Holocaust victims, whose gold was also taken–jewelry, even gold fillings. I called a 1997 meeting of the ten countries at the Commission’s offices in Brussels. Again, Austria took the lead. Ambassador Hans Winkler, one of your most distinguished diplomats, who will be speaking at this 20th anniversary conference, took the floor to pledge that all of Austria’s remaining share of the gold should go to survivors–“We have a moral obligation to the survivors of the Holocaust, and to make their remaining days better,” he declared. This broke the ice and one country after the other followed Austria’s lead.
At the 1998 Washington Conference, we developed voluntary, nonbinding principles for the restitution of Nazi looted art. Many countries did not follow through on them. Austria again took the lead. I met with your Minister for Culture Elisabeth Gehrer, and was inspired that Austria enacted binding domestic legislation, one of the few countries to do so, and created a claims process. This has led to the return of hundreds of artworks from Austrian federal museums and collections, estimated at several hundred million dollars. Another example is that Austria permits looted art without any living heirs to be given to the National Fund to be sold for the benefit of Holocaust survivors. Your national library discovered 8,000 heirless books which had belonged to Jewish families, donated the books to the National Fund, and purchased the books back with the proceeds going to support survivors of the Holocaust. This is an extraordinary gesture. Austria can be proud of the fact it was the first European nation to adopt and implement art restitution legislation. As I stressed at the Terezin II Conference a few days ago in Prague, it is important to keep the momentum of art restitution going when it comes to both minor and major artworks looted by Nazis.
In the 1999 parliamentary elections, the right-wing party led by Joerg Haider won 27 percent of the vote. Wolfgang Schuessel, the leader of the People’s Party, won the chancellorship by bringing Haider’s party into a coalition. This not only secured him the chancellorship, it helped neutralize the other party, whose vote in the 2002 parliamentary elections fell to only 10 percent.
Class action suits were filed by American lawyers against Swiss banks for their dormant bank accounts; then against German companies, and later against Austrian companies, which used slave and forced laborers. These suits led to my being asked by all stakeholders to mediate a solution. By the time I commenced my negotiations on behalf of the Clinton Administration with Austria, the difficult, divisive and emotional negotiations with Swiss banks had already been concluded with a $1.25 billion settlement, which generated much ill-will from Switzerland, forced to face a wartime record at variance with their self-image as a neutral country and bulwark against Nazi Germany. And we were nearing completion with our negotiations with German companies and the German government on what became a 10 billion DM, $5 billion agreement, again with considerable acrimony from the German private sector.
From my vantage point, Austrian leaders were determined not to drag-out the negotiations, and to avoid public recriminations. Still the negotiations were difficult, especially those over property issues. The class action lawyers and the World Jewish Congress insisted on combining the slave and forced labor claims with the more complex property negotiations, while Austria wanted them separated.
I felt fortunate that Wolfgang Schuessel was the Chancellor. I would never have been able to achieve the great breakthroughs without his leadership. He was a tough negotiator for Austria’s interests, but he also recognized the need to squarely face Austria’s moral responsibility, even in the midst of poisonous allegations by some of the key stakeholders in the process. Because of U.S. concerns about having the FPO in the government, I became the first U.S. official to meet with the Chancellor.
One of his most brilliant first steps was his appointment of one of the truest Austrian treasures, and one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, Maria Schaumayer, the former head of the Austrian Central Bank. We all miss her greatly. She was the model negotiating partner. She told me that she had grown up near the Hungarian border and had a haunting image of seeing the forced march of Hungarian Jewish slave laborers in the bitterly cold winter of 1944-45, but had not realized what this was until half a century later when she heard a historian’s presentation. Maria had a clear sense of what she wanted to accomplish, and we concluded the labor phase of our negotiations in record time. She wanted to go beyond the German slave and forced labor agreement, without the lengthy haggling we had with the German companies. She did not want to struggle like the Germans over the status of agricultural workers; they would be covered. The German agreement depended upon the German private sector paying half the total 10 billion DM ($5 billion). She improved the payments in the German agreement, announcing on her own that the Austrian government would create a fund of 6 billion Shillings, approximately 436 million euros for 132,000 Jewish and non-Jewish slave and forced laborers, with the bulk of the funds for non-Jewish forced laborers. Austria actually paid out 352 million euros, with the remainder going to the National Fund and other humanitarian-related projects, especially Austria’s Future Fund. The government picked up about three fifths of the total and the Austrian business community two fifths. The labor agreement was signed on October 24, 2000, following a last-second side letter agreement I reached to have the Austrian labor fund pay the Jewish Claims Conference an additional $15 million for Jewish slave laborers at Mauthausen and the Dachau sub-camps in Austria, in case there was a shortfall in payments to them from the German agreement.
Since Maria made clear her mandate was only for slave and forced labor, the second crucial decision Chancellor Schuessel made was to appoint the late Ernst Sucharipa, dean of the Austrian Diplomatic Academy, as his envoy on the much more difficult property restitution issues. Ernst was a prince of a person and a reliable counterpart. I feel his premature passing deeply. Because of their complexity and political sensitivity, the Chancellor was directly involved in the negotiations as well. The appointment of a respected judge, Clemens Jabloner, to head a historical commission examining past compensation and property programs was an important step, as I have noted. The Jabloner Commission’s final report was released in 2003, but its preliminary report identified one major gap in past programs of the 1950s, namely long-term leases and household property of Jewish victims in Vienna. This led the way to an agreement with Mr. Sucharipa and the Chancellor in October 2000 for payments of $150 million, representing about $7000 per family, to some 23,000 survivors and heirs of victims for leased apartments, businesses, and household furnishings.
On October 5, 2000, the Chancellor and I, often meeting alone, and then joined by our negotiating teams, had all-night negotiations, interrupted only by Chancellor Schuessel sending out for pizza from his favorite Italian restaurant, Ninfea. We called these the Pizza Negotiations. They led to a framework agreement, which together with another face-to-face negotiation with Chancellor Schuessel on January 10, set the stage for the last negotiations with only a few days left in the Clinton Administration. I wondered if the Chancellor would wait until a new Administration came into office, perhaps less committed to finish this process. But again the Chancellor, as did his country, rose to the occasion. Although it took frantic phone calls back to him in Vienna, and intense negotiations with some of the recalcitrant lawyers and with Mr. Muzicant, the head of Austria’s Jewish community, the final agreement was reached as the hourglass for the Clinton Administration ended. We added Nazi-confiscated insurance policies, as an expert from the Jabloner Commission reported that the Austrian insurance holders received only about 5 percent of the 1938 cash surrender value, with no accounting for the passage of time.
We agreed finally that Austria would establish a $210 million General Settlement Fund that would pay compensation for a wide range of property losses, including insurance benefits. There were essentially two programs, one for the return in rem of any property held by the Austrian state, and the other for compensation for property now in private hands. This process has been very professionally managed by Hannah Lessing of the National Fund. Frankly, as much as a breakthrough as it was, it has been inadequate to meet the needs. The total value of claims submitted to the GSF was $1.5 billion. Thus, the money in this fund could cover only about 14 percent of the value of the claims. On the other hand, there were dramatically improved social benefits for Holocaust survivors.
There are unsung heroes in these negotiations: Herbert Pichler, Managing Director of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, and Christoph Leitl, the Chamber’s president. When Chancellor Schuessel felt he could not contribute more from the state treasury, Mr. Pichler and Mr. Leitl rallied the Austrian private sector to make up the difference I needed to satisfy all the parties.
Another example of Austrian leadership was the critical role played by Ferdinand Trautmannsdorf, Austria’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, in making the June 2009 Prague Conference on Holocaust Assets and the Terezin Declaration a reality.
The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report from the State Department in 2020, in which I played a part, gave Austria positive marks in implementing the Terezin Declaration. Regarding immovable property, communal and religious property, and heirless property, the Washington Agreement setting up the General Settlement Fund included an arbitration panel on in rem restitution for publicly owned property formerly owned by individual Austrian Jews or the Austrian Jewish community and restituted property in 140 cases worth 48 million Euros. For losses not sufficiently covered by past restitution agreements it approved over 18,000 claims totaling approximately $1.5 billion but because of the cap of $210 million they received about 20% of the value of their claims. The City of Vienna also restituted the formerly Jewish-owned Hakoah sports club and the Austrian government set up a Fund for Jewish Cemeteries in accordance with the Agreement. Regarding heirless property, the Austrian government provided compensation to Jewish organizations after the re-establishment of Austria’s sovereignty through the 1955 Austrian State Treaty.
On Nazi-confiscated art, Austria was one of the few countries that incorporated the Washington Principles into binding national legislation and has restituted more than 32,000 art objects. Problems remain with privately-owned collections. But heirless art objects, in accordance with the federal art restitution law, were transferred to the National Fund, which has posted a database of more than 9,000 entries.
Regarding Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property, supplementing a 1960 law which provided for one-time payments of over $11 million as compensation for damaged synagogues and other religious properties owned by the Jewish community, plus an annual allocation, the General Settlement Fund and an in rem arbitration panel were also used to seek restitution of communal properties.
Austria has generally implemented the Washington Agreement stipulation that better access be provided to the Austrian State Archives for researchers working on Holocaust issues.
Austria has set an excellent example for the world in implementing the welfare commitments of the Terezin Declaration. Under the Washington Agreement, the Austrian government provided 180 million euros in nursing care payments based upon their level of disability to Holocaust survivors living abroad, and also entitled Holocaust survivors living abroad to receive benefits under the Austrian pension system, one of the few countries in the world to do so. The National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, set up in 1995, provided lump sum payments for Holocaust survivors and extra benefits for needy survivors. The National Fund has made around 30,000 payments totaling 157 million euros. The Reconciliation Fund set up in 2000 in our bilateral agreement issued payments to slave and forced laborers. Furthermore, the National Fund since 2001 has disbursed more than 175 million euros for seized tenancy rights, household effects and personal valuables.
Why were the Austrian and other Holocaust negotiations important and what broader significance did they have? Was this simply a short-term effort at getting more money by pressuring governments and private companies? Did the negotiations actually lead to a rise in antisemitism?
First, there obviously was a monetary element at the heart of the negotiations to settle American class action cases, as there always is in civil litigation to correct wrongs done by one party to another in any country with a rule of law. But in the Holocaust cases, this provided belated and only imperfect justice to human beings who suffered grievous injuries on a scale without historic precedent. This included brutal slave and forced labor, much by private companies that left lifelong physical and psychological scars that had never been healed or compensated, unpaid insurance policies, unreturned looted art and cultural artifacts, and the confiscation or forced sale of family homes, businesses and personal effects that were never returned.
While the overall amounts seem large, (in Austria’s case, including funds from the National Fund and our U.S.-Austrian agreement some $1 billion; in Germany’s $5 billion) the actual payments to individuals were small. Slave laborers received a one-time payment of roughly $7,500 and forced laborers $2,500, no more than a symbolic payment. And those whose property in Austria was torn from them have received a tiny fraction of their actual value. And all of these payments came only over 50 years later. Nor did the class action lawyers enrich themselves, as some believe. I assured that in the final settlements, they received only about one percent of the total amount.
But from the Austrian and German settlements, almost one and half million forced and slave labor victims were paid something. For most the amount of money was less important than the simple recognition that their suffering had in their final years not been forgotten; that there was some accountability.
Moreover, despite the small individual payments, they were at least modest help in assuring that those who suffered so grievously in their early years would have some relief from the poverty many are enduring in their last years. Recent studies indicate that of the 275,000 remaining Holocaust survivors, fully one half live below the poverty line. This includes some 30 percent in the United States, 35 percent in Israel, and over 80 percent in Central and Eastern Europe. One of their most pressing needs is home care. Here, again, Austria has been a leader. Beginning in 2001, your country has provided assistance for nursing home care to Austrian Holocaust victims wherever in the world they live, on a scale equal to what you provide your own citizens; this has been estimated to amount to $112 million over 10 years.
But the recipients who may be most in need were the Christian forced laborers from Central and Eastern Europe, who had never been compensated by any government at any time, unlike many Holocaust victims, many of whom had received some funds from Germany.
In addition, a significant part of our work was to return communal property to the re-emerging communities in the former Soviet-dominated East who survived the twin evils of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism — churches, synagogues, schools, community centers, even cemeteries—so they would have the physical infrastructure to rebuild their shattered communities. This work continues, and often imposes financial burdens on the Jewish communities to renovate deteriorating properties.
Second, I do not believe our negotiations actually increased antisemitism in Europe over the long-term. While Jorg Haider attacked Ariel Muzicant with slurs against his name, when Chancellor Schuessel brought Haider’s party into the coalition, his Freedom Party’s vote dropped by more than half in the next election. Moreover, Haider’s party supported the outcome of our negotiations. Editorial comment and public opinion polls in Austria, Germany and France supported the justice provided to Holocaust victims. Antisemitism decreased as a result of Austria’s own efforts at reconciling with its past and the results of U.S./Austrian negotiations. Lingering antisemitism is partly a vestige of ancient forms of antisemitism, rather than an outgrowth of our work. It is unrelated to our negotiations.
It is important to point out that of the $8 billion in total settlements for the entire Holocaust negotiations of recent years, the majority went to Christian victims of Nazi brutality. Ours was not just a Jewish effort; it was designed to help all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, although Jews were Hitler’s primary target.
At the same time and apart from the Holocaust negotiations, antisemitism and now anti-Muslim attitudes, remain in small parts of the European and Austrian public. There has been a growth of right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in many countries throughout Europe, including in Austria.
With the historic page that Austria has turned through the Holocaust negotiations we commemorate today, it is important that Austria continue to make certain its better angels prevail in fighting darker impulses, particularly at a time of economic distress, high unemployment, and significant immigration. It is important to learn lessons from the past and build on the success of the negotiations by continuing to stress tolerance towards minorities and those with different backgrounds.
Third, the most important part of our efforts were about memory, not money — about finding out the truth and learning its lessons, not seeking unrealistic financial recoveries. We have a historical responsibility to search for the truth – a responsibility to the survivors, to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, including one and half million children, and to the millions of non-Jewish victims of Nazism, including persons with disabilities, LGBTQI+, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.
This was a cataclysmic event in world history, the most barbarous genocide in world history, and it must be understood in all its facets to assure future genocides are prevented.
We are fast approaching the tragic time when there will be few eyewitnesses left. There are 275,000 survivors, who are passing away at the rate of six percent per year. The Terezin Declaration stressed the enduring importance of “Holocaust Education, Remembrance, Research and Memorial Sites,” and the just-completed Terezin II conference in Prague gave special emphasis to Holocaust education. Holocaust education is not only looking back at what happened, but learning the lessons for the future of why it happened, how did lawyers, doctors, judges, academics, and others become followers of the evil Nazi regime. It is a lesson as we look forward of what happens when the rule of law breaks down, when tolerance toward minorities is compromised, when the “other” is treated as sub-human and dispensable. In the year 2000, I was involved in creating the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, with the leadership of Swedish prime minister, now the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) with 35 member states. Austria has been an active member.
The JUST Act report noted that “Holocaust education forms an important part of school curricula, and there are Holocaust remembrance projects throughout Austria.” The Austrian government also funds research projects on a regular basis, and the National Fund of Austria continues to do educational programming.
Moreover, the Finance Ministry has entered into a landmark 20 million euro, multi-year program to help repair over 60 Jewish cemeteries throughout Austria, including five in Vienna, which requires funds from both the Jewish community and municipalities. I hope the municipalities will follow the example of the federal government.
Much work needs to be done on promoting Holocaust education. A recent survey by the Jewish Claims Conference of several countries, including the United States (2018) and Austria (2020), demonstrates the paucity of knowledge of the Holocaust. There are only 22 of 50 states in the United States that have mandatory Holocaust education. And almost two thirds of American Millennials and Generation Z could not identify Auschwitz. In Austria, more than half (56%) of those surveyed did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust–58% among Millennials and Generation Z. Thirty-six percent (36%) of Austrian respondents said there are a “great deal” or “many” neo-Nazis in Austria, compared to 50% who said that there are a “great deal” or “many” neo-Nazis in the U.S. And a 38% plurality of Austrians? believe that Nazism could come to power again in Austria.
Twenty-one countries, from Argentina and Brazil to Latvia and Lithuania and Austria, established some 28 historical commissions to examine their role during World War II or their efforts at restitution and compensation. The Jabloner Commission did an excellent job for Austria. The most comprehensive and searching self-examinations were undertaken by the Bergier Commission in Switzerland and the Matteoli Commission in France.
In 1994, long before there were any class action suits or outside pressures, Austrian President Thomas Klestil delivered an emotional apology before the Israeli Knesset for Austria’s role in World War II. And in the grand Hofburg Palace when we signed the Austrian labor agreement on October 24, 2000, President Klestil said the following: “We Austrians are finally looking in the eye of the historical truth—indeed, the entire truth. All too often we have spoken about Austria as the first country that lost its freedom and independence to National Socialism, and all too seldom about the fact that many of the most malicious executioners of the National Socialists’ dictatorship were Austrians.” Then in my presence and that of Austrian survivors like Kurt Ladner, he added, “In the name of the Republic of Austria, I bow with deep sorrow before the victims of that time…At the end of the 20th century we are finally making an effort to overcome the last barriers on the way to a better future, and this based on a shared commitment to the principle, ‘Never Again’.”
Herbert Pichler of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber told me that “These talks have had a great impression on me. It is hard for my generation to understand and appreciate the extent of the suffering.”
One distinctively Austrian Holocaust education program to which your government committed itself in our agreement was to contribute to the Holocaust education program established at the Salzburg Global Seminar. I hope Austria will continue to annually recognize the importance of this educational forum as an appropriate interpretation of our agreement.
Our Holocaust negotiations were another step forward in the ongoing progress in dealing with human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
In addition, one of the unrecognized breakthroughs of our negotiations was that for the first time in history, private corporations paid substantial sums for wartime injuries they inflicted. Our efforts underscore a growing and positive trend of major multinational corporations having a much greater awareness of the reputational and legal risks of engaging in activities that threaten the environment, that employ workers in what are considered sweat-shop conditions, and cooperation with regimes with poor human rights records. OECD Codes of Conduct for multinational corporations, the UN Compact, and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative all promote this higher level of conduct by major corporations.
In conclusion, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-Austria Washington Agreement and the establishment of the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism (GSF), Austria has much of which it can be proud. It is a stronger country, more certain of its future, because it has learned more about its past, and made a major effort to rectify its wrongs. I congratulate you.