“After all, we experienced first-hand in 1938 what it means to be abandoned," foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg said on Sunday night
On Sunday night, foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg appeared on the late night news from Brussels, though as Colette M. Schmidt observed in the Standard, the combination of the evening rain and the street lighting behind him gave the scene a infernal orange glow, making it seem as if he was being beamed in from the pits of Hades. Appropriate, given the interview soon became the professional diplomat’s own personal hell. Reflecting on the Ukraine crisis, Schallenberg mused most unwisely: “After all, we experienced first-hand in 1938 what it means to be abandoned.”
It is been several decades since Austria, prompted by the shame of the Waldheim Affair, officially gave up its victimhood myth: the idea that, following the Anschluss in March 1938, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, Austria became the ‘first victim of National Socialism.’ “We acknowledge all the facts of our history and the deeds of all sections of our people, the good as well as the evil,” chancellor Franz Vranitzky told the Austrian parliament in 1991. “And just as we take credit for the good, we must also apologize for the evil to survivors and relatives of the dead.”
Schallenberg never meant to invoke the myth of Austrian victimhood, or so he said the next day. But he said what he said, and to hear those words escape from the mouth of Austria’s number one diplomat, even if late on a Sunday at a testing time given events in Ukraine, was incredibly jarring. It is true, to be unnecessarily generous for a moment, that Mexico was the only country to protest the Anschluss at the League of Nations. It is also true that Adolf Hitler heaped tremendous political and military pressure upon Austria in the lead-up to the Anschluss, and viewed one way, it did constitute an illegal occupation and annexation of one state by another, as an Austrian foreign ministry communiqué framed the event in 2008.
But the victimhood myth was just that and its death came not a moment too soon. Austria was an independent state before 1938, but it was also a fascist one modeled on Italian fascism with a close relationship to the Catholic Church. Austria had a small but active and incredibly violent Nazi Party, and Nazis such as Arthur Seyss-Inquart were incorporated into the Austrian government before the Anschluss. 200,000 Austrians turned out to cheer and welcome Adolf Hitler’s proclamation of the Anschluss on March 15, 1938, a development welcomed by among others the prominent social democrat Karl Renner and the Archbishop of Vienna.
If Schallenberg’s intent was to draw parallels to an event in twentieth century European history, a more apt comparison, as Hans Rauscher argued in his Monday morning polemic, may have been Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland and its amputation from Czechoslovakia in October 1938. Not only was this an example of nationalist irredentism, playing on fears of looming Czechization of the Sudetenland, but the West, as is well-known, rather than standing up to Hitler acquiesced to his demands in the mistaken belief that Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment would buy peace in our time.
And here’s another comparison. Russia has moved forces into Ukraine, and continental Europe could be on the verge of its first war since the Balkans caught aflame in the 1990s. Milošević and Tuđman’s attempt at that time to impose a Molotov-Ribbentrop pact upon Bosnia-Herzegovina brought with it violence, displacement, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, as well as years of Western intransigence all while the Yugoslav Wars played out on CNN for a primetime audience. Perhaps Schallenberg should think on these things—and those mistakes—before rehashing the myth of Austrian victimhood once more.
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