VIENNA (Mar. 13)
President Kurt Waldheim apologized Thursday night for Austrians’ Holocaust crimes and called for reconciliation, but insisted that Austria was the first victim of the Third Reich.
Waldheim, whose controversial history led to his prohibition against speaking at any official event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Austria’s annexation by the Third Reich, made his apology during a five-minute television address.
“An avalanche of suffering went down on this country, which was the first victim of Hitler’s aggression, but the worst ever happened to our Jewish compatriots,” Waldheim declared.
He said the victims of the Holocaust “have to be a steady warning for the future. Although we do not accept the idea that there is a collective guilt, I do want to apologize as head of state for the crimes committed by Austrians.”
“Austria has also proven in the past 40 years that it is guarding and respecting the values of freedom, human rights and tolerance,” he continued. “We are also open vis-a-vis criticism, but as head of state I also ask the critics for fairness and objectivity and to refrain from collective condemnation and generalization.”
Waldheim began his speech with a personal reminiscence of the Anschluss. “On this very sad and traumatic day for Austria, we were all sitting at home listening the radio,” he recalled.
“When Chancellor Dr. Kurt Schuschnigg said those historic words, ‘We give way to violence, God save Austria,’ we all knew that a tragedy was happening to our dear fatherland. I was 19 years old then. After listening to the radio, my mother cried and tears were running down her checks.”
The president said his family’s experience “was not the exception. There were hundreds of thousands who felt like that. But let us not deny the fact that also hundreds of thousands welcomed the annexation of Austria to the German Reich. Austrians were not only victims; they were also involved in terrible crimes and atrocities.”
Waldheim, who has admitted trying to conceal three years of service in the German army, said: “The days of commemoration must also be days of thinking and evaluating the things which happened. There is only one lesson to be learned from the past, and that is to bridge the differences and restrain from any feeling of hate.”