Even before the surrender of the German Wehrmacht, representatives of the re-established or newly-founded parties SPÖ (Austrian Socialist Party), ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and KPÖ (Austrian Communist Party) declared the “Anschluss” null and void and proclaimed Austrian independence in Vienna on 27 April 1945; the Provisional State Government convened on the same day. Austria took its first steps towards denazification while under Allied occupation. However, it made only half-hearted attempts to prosecute former Nazis during the post-war era. Austria used its stance as the first victim of Hitlerite Germany to deflect guilt and strengthen its own position in the negotiations on the State Treaty. The so-called victim theory would go on to determine Austria’s policy of dealing with its own history for decades. Nazism was interpreted as an event that was exogenous to Austria’s actual history. This marginalised the Nazis’ victims and hindered restitution and compensation. Holocaust survivors continued to be confronted with antisemitism and antigypsyism.
Following its liberation, Austria was divided into four occupied zones, each with its own military administration. The new Austrian State Government had to submit all draft laws to the Allied Control Council and only gained further powers in June 1946; from that time on, only constitutional laws required Allied approval.
In the early months after the war, denazification – i.e. the implementation of measures to deal with Austrian involvement in Nazism and the crimes of the Nazi regime – initially took place in line with the notions of each respective military administration. As part of this process, the Provisional State Government enacted a series of denazification laws, the most important being the Prohibition Act and the War Criminals Act. Former Nazis were obliged to give notice of their Nazi Party membership to the registration authorities. Depending on when they signed up or their rank and membership of the Nazi Party and its groups such as the SS and SA, there were legal consequences, for example, tax surcharges, asset forfeiture and occupational bans as well as dismissal from public sector jobs. The measures also included being stripped of the right to vote in the National Council elections on 25 November 1945.
People’s Courts were set up in Vienna, Graz, Linz and Innsbruck to deal with war crimes and Nazi Party membership in the period from 1933 to 1938, which was charged as high treason. They dealt with a total of 136,829 cases and passed 23,477 sentences, 58 % of which were guilty verdicts. Of the 43 death sentences, 30 were carried out. 34 life sentences were handed down, six of which were reduced due to mitigating circumstances. The majority of the sentences (61 %) ranged from one to five years. From 1948 onwards, there were more acquittals than convictions, and the sentences pronounced from 1949 onwards rarely exceeded one year. The high penalties imposed in earlier sentences were often reduced at retrials or even completely overturned.
The disputes between East and West during the Cold War meant that the Allies’ interest in prosecuting Nazi war criminals soon receded into the background. The former perpetrators were reintegrated into Austrian society under the pretext of democratic and economic necessity.
Initially, most of the perpetrators managed to go into hiding to avoid being held to account. Adolf Eichmann, Franz Novak, Alois Brunner and many others managed to flee abroad, where they were able to live undisturbed, at least for a number of years. Franz Novak, for example, who had organised the transport of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz as an employee of Eichmann, was not arrested until 1961. The jury acquitted him of the charge of accessory to murder. Eichmann lived in Argentina until his arrest in 1961; Alois Brunner lived undisturbed in Damascus until his death.
By April 1948, the “amnesty for the less incriminated” had already put a stop to the criminal prosecution of 487,067 people (90 % of registered Nazis). In 1949, the “Electoral Party of Independents” (later VdU or FPÖ) stood at the National Council elections – a party that positioned itself primarily as representative of the interests of former Nazis.
The denazification that took place after the war did little to raise awareness of Austrians’ involvement in Nazi crimes. The antisemitism and antigypsyism that the survivors of the Shoah and Porajmos were confronted with continued unabated. Procedures for restitution and compensation contained factual and legal hurdles impeding claimants (e.g. conducting proceedings from abroad entailing costs and difficulties in submitting evidence, export bans on restituted art, etc.) and worked in the interest of the “aryanisers”.
The Austrian victim theory had its origins in a unilateral interpretation of the Moscow Declaration (1943), in which Austria was simultaneously described as a victim of Hitlerite German aggression and as jointly responsible for its participation in World War II. It also repudiated any shared responsibility for Nazi crimes in the context of the State Treaty negotiations and shifted the blame onto Germany and/or a close circle of leaders surrounding Hitler.
Austria largely glossed over its own involvement in war crimes, while acts of resistance were overemphasised in the culture of remembrance. The myth that Austria was the first victim of Nazi Germany began to unravel in the mid-1980s in the wake of the affair surrounding the federal presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim. In two highly acclaimed speeches before the Austrian National Council in 1991 and the Israeli Knesset in 1993, Federal Chancellor Franz Vranitzky finally acknowledged the shared responsibility borne by Austrians for Nazi crimes.