On 21 March of this year, the trial of the 84-year-old psychiatrist Heinrich Gross, who stood accused of having participated in a wartime Nazi programme of euthanasia of disabled children, took place in Vienna. The proceedings were suspended after only 30 minutes, when the accused was reported to be suffering from dementia and deemed unable to follow the court deliberations.
Roughly two weeks later, on Thursday 6 April, the recently designated chairman of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), Alfred Gusenbauer, published a declaration which admits that the party had not always reflected on the necessity to "fight the Nazi within" and had been a refuge for some former members of the Nazi party after the war: "We deeply regret these mistakes and ask... for forgiveness..." Gusenbauer also emphasised the duty of the party to "fight even more decisively all tendencies towards fascism, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia".
What prompted this statement was the fact that after 1945, Gross had become a member of the SPÖ (and remained one until 1981), and the party had significantly helped to "whitewash" Gross's past and further his career as a respected psychiatrist. In the declaration, Gusenbauer confesses that "a man like Dr Gross should have had no place in the SPÖ" and highlights what has come to be referred to as the "brown stains" of the SPÖ.
The first example of these "stains" is usually taken to be the decision of the Social Democratic leader Karl Renner (who subsequently became the first President of post-WWII Austria) to vote "yes" to the Anschluss in 1938.
But in an even more problematic acknowledgement and in what represents a path-breaking development, Gusenbauer stresses the flaws of the great "hero" and role model of post-war Austrian Social Democracy, Bruno Kreisky. Kreisky was Austria's Chancellor from 1970 to 1983 and included in his cabinet four former members of the Nazi party: Hans Öllinger, Josef Moser, Erwin Frühbauer and Otto Rösch. Interestingly, these men all came from Austria's southern Länder, Styria and Carinthia  (the latter region being, perhaps not coincidentally, nowadays governed by a certain Jörg Haider). Kreisky was a victim of the Nazi regime, forced into exile during the war, but he ambiguously believed that "a member of the Nazi party or of the SS can occupy every political office in Austria as long as he has committed no crime" and engaged in bitter controversy with the "Nazi-hunter" Simon Wiesenthal.
To be sure, the problem is not specific to the SPÖ and also affects the conservative People's Party (ÖVP). Maria Rauch-Kallat, the general secretary of the ÖVP, described Gusenbauer's move as "an important step" for the SPÖ and added that, unlike the Social Democrats, her party had already dealt with and overcome its Nazi past and in 1980 created the Karl Vogelsang Institute for this purpose .
As Herbert Lackner explains in an article for the magazine Profil, the ÖVP has long described Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (murdered by the Nazis in 1934) as "the first victim of National Socialism"  and emphasised its distinct ideological roots and the fight of "Austrofascism" with National Socialism in the 1930s.
Yet, the ÖVP also has problematic relations with the past, as evidenced, for instance, by its approval of former Wehrmacht officer Kurt Waldheim's candidacy (and victory) in the 1986 presidential elections or its appointment of former Nazi Hans Kamitz as finance minister in the 1950s.
The reflection on history in which the SPÖ and the ÖVP are currently engaged is, of course, to be welcomed and encouraged, but it also raises several important questions.
Firstly, historians such as Oliver Rathkolb have contended that a distinction should be made between the repentant (and low-ranked) members of the Nazi party, who became genuine democrats after 1945, joined the SPÖ or the ÖVP and made a positive contribution to the establishment of the Second Republic, and the unrepentant Nazis who never retracted their beliefs or apologised for their deeds. 
To an extent, the reintegration of former Nazi party members (estimated by historians at between 500,000 and 600,000) into Austrian society after 1945 was an economic necessity and a way of healing the political divisions of the country. Under Kreisky, former SS officers and former concentration camp inmates sat side by side in the government. It has been often argued that Austrian democracy has been stable since 1945 precisely on account of the end of the ideological divides which plagued the country in the interwar period.
The Austrians (former members of the Nazi party) who had lost their voting rights after the war thus benefited from an amnesty in 1948. The creation in 1949 of the League of the Independents (which became the Freedom Party, FPÖ, in 1956) was specifically intended to provide the former Nazis (the so-called Ehemalige) with a voice in the new Republic, and it duly gained 12 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary elections held that same year.
The SPÖ and the ÖVP inevitably started to compete to try to attract former members of the Nazi party, and some Social Democrats even looked upon the establishment of the League of Independents as a factor which could split the conservative vote to their advantage. After all, it is also the SPÖ which first formed a coalition government with the Freedom Party in 1983 and only ended the partnership in 1986, when Jörg Haider took over the FPÖ leadership.
The reflection on the past of Austrian Social Democracy is important, but it will only be useful if conceived as a step towards a much broader reflection which takes place at the level of Austrian society as a whole. Gusenbauer's choice of timing was strategic and came at a time when the SPÖ needs to establish its credentials as the voice of the "other Austria," opposed to Haider's political rhetoric and style.
The journalist Christoph Kotanko writes that the declaration could have important political consequences, since it seems to definitely exclude the possibility (evoked by some right-leaning members of the party, such as former Interior Minister Karl Schlögl) of a future coalition between the SPÖ and the Freedom Party and frees up the way for a potential political collaboration (at a government or opposition level) between the Social Democrats and the Greens.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) argued some time ago that his coalition partners from the FPÖ were on a "crash course" on becoming a government party; but the SPÖ also seems to be enrolled in a different crash course on becoming a credible opposition party, after having dominated Austrian politics since 1970. It was therefore essential for the Social Democratic Party to acknowledge that it also shares responsibility for the rise of the Freedom Party.
After all, it was the Social Democratic Chancellor Franz Vranitzky who, for the first time, in 1991 offically denounced the myth of Austria as merely the "first victim" of Nazi Germany: Austria had been, he stated, both "victim and perpetrator." Neverthless, as the recent discussion has made clear, it was his party that also, for a long time, contributed to and benefited from the general amnesia of Austrian society about the Nazi era.
Magali Perrault, 15 April 2000
- See a copy of the statement on the website of the SPÖ (http://spoe.at)
- "Braune Flächen auf rotem Grund," Die Presse, 30 March 2000
- quoted in Martin Staudinger and Klaus Zellhofer, "Braune Sozis - Rote Nazis," Format, 3 April 2000
- ORF, 7 April 2000
- Herbert Lackner, "Schwarz-braun wie die Haselnuss," Profil, 10 April 2000
- Rainer Nowak, "Die Parteien im Visier: Historiker erforschen die NS-Vergangenheit," Die Presse, 30 March 2000
- "KZ-Häftlinge trafen auf NSDAP-Mitglieder," Die Presse, 7 April 2000
- Martin Staudinger and Klaus Zellhofer, "Braune Sozis - Rote Nazis," Format, 3 April 2000
- Christoph Kotanko, "Erinnerungen an die Zukunft," Kurier, 7 April 2000