How Austria Addresses World War II Crimes

Painful lessons from the darkest period of Austrian history and the challenges for the Austrian National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism were the main topics of a lecture at the Austrian Embassy on October 29, 2018.

“Can you give me back my childhood? Can you bring my mother back from Auschwitz?” these were the questions Erich Lessing raised years ago when his daughter Hannah Lessing asked him what he would expect from her as the incoming Secretary General of the Austrian National Fund for the Victims of National Socialism. Erich Lessing, the most successful Austrian post-war photojournalist, fled Nazi occupation of Austria as a teenager. His mother – Hannah Lessing’s grandmother – was subsequently murdered in the holocaust. Erich Lessing passed away this August at the age of 95.

“No, I couldn’t [give him back his childhood]. I knew,” Lessing recounts the painful lesson she learned on that day. This realization, however, didn’t mark the end of her efforts to stand up for survivors. On Monday, Lessing held a talk titled “Austria – the first victim?” at the atrium of the Austrian Embassy. During her captivating speech, Lessing discussed post-war measures to address the crimes committed by Austrians during one of the darkest periods of human history.

 Hannah Lessing, Secretary General of the Austrian National Fund, holding a lecture on Austria’s post-war measures for the victims of National Socialism.

Hannah Lessing, Secretary General of the Austrian National Fund, holding a lecture on Austria’s post-war measures for the victims of National Socialism.

As Lessing acknowledged, the National Fund is not able to give people their lives back. But it offers recognition and support to all victims of the Holocaust: “Since the 1990s, many things have taken a turn to the better in Austria.”

For the longest time, the country had painted itself as the first victim of National Socialism. It is what children were taught at school. Years would pass until the devastating role of many Austrians in the Nazi machinery would be accepted, compensation funds set up and restitution implemented.

“Acknowledging the injustice and apologizing to the victims is an important step. But the words must be followed by deeds”, Lessing said. And even though she and her team have spent countless hours tracking down survivors, listening to their accounts and compensating for their ordeal in the best possible way, the work is far from being done. In fact, the nation is about to face one of the greatest challenges yet.

“How will you spread your message when all the survivors are gone?” one audience member asked. Lessing pointed out that there is no ultimate answer to this question yet, but “digital technology allows us to come up with new ways to transmit their story.”

 Thorsten Eisingerich, director of the Austrian Press and Information Service at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC, welcomed Hannah Lessing.

Thorsten Eisingerich, director of the Austrian Press and Information Service at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC, welcomed Hannah Lessing.

But as Lessing stressed, in the fight against historical amnesia, there is something that goes beyond all tangible means: moral responsibility. It is everyone’s social duty to not forget about what happened in history. “Passing on the knowledge about the Holocaust enables us to plant the seeds of a better future amidst the soil of a bitter past,” Lessing said, citing the declaration of the Stockholm International Forum of the Holocaust.

Following the lecture and Q&A, discussions among attendees continued over Austrian wine, beer and cheese. See the photos of the evening.

The event was held in memory of the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss in March and the November pogroms. It was part of the Austrian Lecture Series, a speaker and discussion series jointly organized by the Embassy of Austria in the United States, Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation. This specific event was also co-sponsored by the Botstiber Foundation, home of the Botstiber Institute for Austrian-American Studies.


Event Video:


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