Austria’s Jewish population numbered about 192,000 when Nazi Germany annexed the country in March 1938. Between 1938 and 1940, approximately 117,000 Jews fled Austria to countries across the world, including some that would later be occupied by Nazi Germany or were members of the Axis. By November 1942, only about 7,000 Jews remained in the country. Approximately 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Austria’s Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance has identified records pertaining to more than 63,800 Jewish victims.
In 1938, 99.7 percent of Austrians voted in a plebiscite to join the German Reich, but for decades following the war, the national consensus was that Austria, through an “unwanted Anschluss” (annexation), had been Hitler’s first victim. The country later struggled to come to terms with an ambiguous and dark past. The so-called “victim theory” was a fundamental myth of Austria’s post-war society, bolstered by language in the Allied Powers’ Joint Four-Nation Declaration from the Moscow Conference of October 1943, which included an explicit declaration on Austria and its annexation by Nazi Germany. The wartime activities of Kurt Waldheim, who served as the president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, sparked a national debate on the country’s role in the Holocaust that started during the election campaign in 1985.
While Austria instituted several restitution programs in the immediate post-war era, they were widely acknowledged as insufficient to address the country’s wartime responsibility. In 1991, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky gave a speech to the Austrian parliament in which he acknowledged the co-responsibility of Austrians for the suffering inflicted on the country’s Jewish community. In July 1993, Vranitzky reiterated this admission in a speech before the Israeli Knesset.
Austria’s acknowledgement of its role in the Holocaust triggered a reassessment of the country’s post-war restitution programs. An independent commission of historians found in February 2003 that “although the majority of the seized properties were restituted or the subject of settlements, the restitution proceedings of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were considered unsatisfactory by many restitution claimants. The range and complexity of the various restitution acts and deadlines, and the lack of state assistance for the victims of the seizures in their attempts to achieve restitution, were deciding factors in this regard.”
Beginning in 1995, the Austrian government set up several programs to address gaps and deficiencies in post-war restitution and compensation programs and made legislative changes that provided social welfare benefits to Austrian victims of the Nazis. These included in 1995 a compensation fund called the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism and in 1998 an art restitution law. Moreover, the October 2000 U.S.-Austrian Agreement on Compensation for Forced and Slave Laborers and the January 2001 U.S.-Austrian Washington Agreement on the Settlement of Questions Concerning Compensation and Restitution for Victims of National Socialism, negotiated by Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and an interagency U.S. government team, obligated the Austrian government to set up restitution and/or compensation funds. These agreements also obliged Austria to address the restoration and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries, provide easy access to archival documents, support and implement projects for Holocaust remembrance, and extend Austrian social benefits to Holocaust survivors living abroad.
When it was discovered that some six tons of Nazi-looted gold were still in the possession of the Tripartite Gold Commission established shortly after World War II, the U.S. government took the lead in encouraging countries to give their share of the looted gold to their Holocaust survivors. Austria was the first state to adopt the recommendation; it also encouraged other countries to do so.