Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Kristallnacht: 'For too long, we looked away from the horrors'

Austria’s youthful leader tells the JC about his country’s responsibility for the events of 1938 and how he wants to combat the Jew hate that still taints his homeland


In his wood-panelled office in the imperial federal chancellery, the centre of power for Austria’s leading politicians since the time of the Habsburg monarchy, Sebastian Kurz thumbs through an old edition of the Jewish Chronicle from November 18, 1938.

He is doing so as his country prepares to commemorate 80 years since what Austrians call the “November pogrom” — known in Britain by its other Germanic name, Kristallnacht.

The JC’s contemporaneous reporting showed how hooligans bombed and blew up 25 synagogues in Vienna and wrecked its Jewish cemeteries.

The November 18 edition specifically details that 25 Jews committed suicide in the Austrian capital during the pogrom, and that trainloads of Jewish prisoners were seen leaving the city. Dr. Taglicht, Vienna’s rabbi, was among those arrested.

When asked for his response, Mr Kurz says: “Austria has looked away far too long and fulfilled its historical responsibility too late.

“Far too many Austrians actively supported these horrors and a lot of them were even perpetrators. But we now have the chance to learn from our history and do everything possible to ensure that history does not repeat itself.”

Mr Kurz, 32, has been Austria’s chancellor since December 2017 when he entered into a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party.

He was born in the same year as the Waldheim affair — when it was revealed an Austrian presidential candidate lied about his wartime service with the Wehrmacht — and not even five years old when then-Chancellor Franz Vranitzky first acknowledged Austrian responsibility for the Holocaust.

Mr Kurz represents a generation that grew up in an Austria far more aware than ever before of the Shoah, of antisemitism and its culpability for the Nazi past.

Meeting Holocaust survivors during his school years was paramount, he says, in terms of understanding Austrian history vis-à-vis the Holocaust.

“It was terrible, it was shocking,” he explains, “but it was extremely important for me at the same time because reading about the Holocaust and learning about it in school is different [to] talking to a Holocaust survivor.”

An understanding that his will be perhaps the last generation to benefit from the direct testimony of Holocaust survivors is one of the driving forces behind his government’s commitment to build a new Holocaust memorial in Vienna, the Chancellor says.

The new Wall of Names, first proposed by the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in February, will feature the names of 66,000 Jewish victims of National Socialism. A date for the start of construction has yet to be announced.

His government will also alter Austria’s nationality law, allowing the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who were forced to leave Austria before May 9, 1945 due to Nazi persecution to reacquire the citizenship that was stolen from them.

The process for amending the nationality law has begun, although there is no current implementation date.

Since he burst onto the national political scene in 2011 as Austria’s State Secretary for Integration, Mr Kurz — then aged just 25 — has cultivated and maintained good relations with the country’s Jewish community and its president, Oskar Deutsch.

But neither his policies on Holocaust commemoration, nor his declaration in June that the security of the State of Israel is Austria’s raison d’état (“national interest”) has altered the Jewish community’s decision to boycott his coalition’s junior partner, the far-right Freedom Party.

Founded in 1955 by former Nazi functionaries, the Freedom Party has since the 1980s represented the far-right nationalist camp in Austrian politics. The Mauthausen Committee, which monitors antisemitism in Austria, reported in July that incidents of “far-right extremism” inside the party have increased since it entered government.

Mr Deutsch says the Freedom Party is the “political arm” of the country’s greater German nationalist fraternities, the Burschenschaften, which he calls “the successors to the predecessors of the Nazis.”

He later added in the Jewish community’s magazine Wina that while Mr Kurz and most of his centre-right People’s Party understood Austrian history and stand against every form of antisemitism, the Freedom Party did not.

In a well-received speech to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Jerusalem in June, Mr Kurz said that to learn from the Holocaust meant to actively protect the rule of law and Austrian democracy, and to fight each and every kind of extremism and intolerance.

Asked by the JC, Mr Kurz says he does not see a contradiction between this pledge and his decision to form a coalition with the Freedom Party, which he said was the product of free and fair democratic elections.

“We have to be honest and state that Nazis were involved in all Austrian parties after the Second World War: in the Freedom Party, in the Socialist Party, and also in my party,” he says, pointing to the far-right party’s decision to establish a historical commission to investigate its past in that respect.

He adds that Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, since last December his Vice Chancellor, established a zero tolerance policy for antisemitism several years ago, something he considers “extremely important”.

Mr Kurz accepts the Jewish community’s decision not to cooperate with Freedom Party ministers and adds it is that party’s job to work to alleviate Mr Deutsch and the Jewish community’s concerns.

He disagrees, however, with Mr Deutsch’s remarks about the fraternities.

“I’m always careful in generalising things. There are people with very problematic backgrounds and antisemitic ideas among those Burschenschaften but on the other hand I think it would be a big mistake to say everybody in these Burschenschaften thinks that way.”

Regarding that trip to Israel in June, Mr Kurz toes the European line by saying any future decision about the location of Austria’s embassy —currently in Ramat Gan — would not be taken until a two-state political solution for Israel and the Palestinians was found.

As members of the Jewish community and its friends and allies gather in Vienna and elsewhere on November 9 to mark Kristallnacht’s anniversary, two assertions key to Holocaust commemoration in Austria will be invoked over and over: Nie wieder! Niemals vergessen!—never again, never forget.

For Austria’s chancellor, these words and Austria’s historical responsibility mean “not only to look back but also to be active in the present.”

“For me, this means, first, that we have to fight all kinds of antisemitism: the still existing one and also the newly-imported one. Second, it means that we have to actively support Jewish life and guarantee the security of Jewish communities.”

“And third,” the chancellor concludes, “we also have a responsibility towards Israel—the Jewish state of Israel.

“Support for the security needs of the country are a raison d’état for us in Austria.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive