A new museum captures Austria’s ambivalence about its past

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MODERN AUSTRIA turned 100 on November 12th and, as a present, gave itself a history museum. Its first exhibition includes a towering wooden horse that sports the brown cap of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (SA). The Waldheim-Pferd, or Waldheim Horse, was first seen at demonstrations in 1986, when Kurt Waldheim ran for the country’s presidency, playing down his role in the Wehrmacht during the second world war and claiming he had never joined any Nazi organisation. His opponents joked that only his horse had been a member of the SA.

Waldheim won the election, but Austria was changed for ever. “It was the end of the era in which Austria only saw itself as a victim of Hitler’s aggression,” says Georg Hoffmann, a curator at the House of Austrian History, the new museum, which occupies a set of rooms in Vienna’s imperial Hofburg palace. “It was the first time Austria openly debated its co-responsibility for Nazi crimes.” Wehrmacht records are on display near the horse, which show that Waldheim had indeed been a member of the same outfit as his mount.

Austria may have changed in the Waldheim era, but not every Austrian changed with it. Views on the country’s past remained divided, which helps explain why it took 20 years for the idea of a national history museum to come to fruition. (This was just the most recent incarnation of the scheme: the first push for a museum began in 1946.) Austria’s Social Democrats secured the founding of the institution in 2016, while in coalition with the centre-right People’s Party. The latter, now in government with the far-right Freedom Party, honoured this commitment, albeit on a temporary basis. State funding is guaranteed only until the end of next year (though Austria’s parliament has suggested that it may stump up some cash beyond that).

In a sense, then, the House of Austrian History is its own best exhibit, and the most fitting 100th-birthday present the country could receive: a project almost as vexed as the story it tells, and as precarious as the statehood it commemorates has sometimes been.

The myth of victimhood

Like several other European countries, the Austrian Republic was born as the first world war ended, formed from the rump of the 600-year-old Habsburg empire that Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Slovenes had not claimed for their own nation-states. Most Austrians saw Austria as an aberration, cut off from its wheat in the east, its port on the Adriatic and the industry of Bohemia; the Allies denied their wish to join a “greater Germany”. 

These problems of national identity were compounded by severe economic difficulties, and were ultimately followed by the Anschluss of 1938, in which Austria’s own authoritarian government was overrun by Nazi Germany, to the jubilation of millions of its people. Despite the horrors that this greater Germany then inflicted on its neighbours and the world, the Allies in 1943 declared Austria the “first free country to fall victim” to the Nazis. Their hope was to stoke resistance to Hitler, but the revisionism also led to what the post-war Austrian left called the “victim myth”.

“Austria successfully defended this ‘victimhood narrative’ when dealing with the Allies after 1945,” says Anton Pelinka, a political scientist. Victim status enabled the country to differentiate itself from Germany—but it also made it easier for governments to allow former Nazis to take part in the new democracy. “That was the foundation of revelations like those about Waldheim years later,” says Mr Pelinka.

All Austrians were victims; all Austrians were Nazis: these competing simplifications are at the root of Austria’s ambivalence about its past. The museum acknowledges that tension frankly. What, for instance, to call the authoritarian era of Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg from 1933 to 1938? The country’s left for years referred to it as Austro-Fascism, the right as the Corporate State. The museum displays these and other terms, and plumps for the “Dollfuss-Schuschnigg Dictatorship”, at least for now.

“We see ourselves as a forum for debate,” says Monika Sommer, the director. “We are quite comfortable with showing that there isn’t always one view on history.” She hopes that exhibits like the Waldheim-Pferd will prove to be “friction points” that galvanise discussion. There are bound to be controversies, she acknowledges. The museum’s aim is to provide a stage on which to air them, perhaps even to forge a new consensus.

As the House of Austrian History documents, the distortions go all the way back to the beginning. The museum shows how “the state nobody wanted”, as Hellmut Andics, a well-known writer, described the republic of 1918, deserved more esteem and, after the disgrace of Nazism and Austria’s post-war recovery, eventually got it. Some of the republic’s first laws made generous provision for the war-wounded, adumbrating modern Austria’s munificent welfare state. Parts of the constitution of 1920 were incorporated into the current version.

A recent preview at the museum was attended by members of Vienna’s Jewish community. One of them, Awi Blumenfeld, a teacher whose parents survived Auschwitz, enjoyed the Waldheim-Pferd, which he saw as a symbol of Austria’s divisions, and a reminder that lies are unsustainable. (The liberal political group that owns the horse has the right to reclaim it if it disagrees with the curators’ approach.) Mr Blumenfeld was sure the museum will secure long-term funding. After all, even the present right-wing government “understands that we need a national narrative that goes beyond Mozart.”

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