Tall Tales from the Vienna Courts on Jews

One of the notable achievements of Austria since its defeat in World War II has been success in its public-relations activities.  They have persuaded many in the world that Ludwig Beethoven, born in Bonn, Germany, was Austrian, and that Adolf Hitler, born in Braunau Am Inn, Austria, was German.

These fantasies have tended to obliterate the realities that 14 per cent of the Nazi SS were of Austrian origin, that 40 per cent of the staff in the Nazi extermination camps was Austrian, as was 70 per cent of the staff of Adolf Eichmann, who was educated in Austria, curiously at the same school in Linz that Hitler attended. Also omitted are the stark facts that in 1934 the city of Vienna had 176,000 Jews; today, it has less than 5,000. All Jews who had remained in the city were killed.

Recent public-opinion polls in Austria reveal that 46 per cent think that the country was a victim of Nazi oppression. Some may still dispute whether Austria was “the first victim” of the Nazis or a country of collaborators after the German army marched into the country on March 12, 1938 -- the Anschluss. The independence of the Austrian state ended when Hitler incorporated it into the German Reich. But was it a victim? The police force of Vienna wore swastika armbands. Austria became part of the German Reich not by a parliamentary vote, but by a plebiscite in which 99.7 per cent of eligible voters approved. 

Coincidentally, reminders of specific Nazi atrocities in the Holocaust, the millions of European cultural objects, mostly belonging to Jews, looted and taken to Germany, have appeared in the last year in two dramatic forms. One is the result of the bestselling book and subsequent film of The Monuments Men directed by George Clooney and telling of the tracking down of the artistic loot. The other was the amazing revelation of the vast number -- almost 1,500 -- of art treasures hidden in a Munich apartment and in Salzburg since the end of World War II by an art dealer linked to the Nazis. This stolen plunder is even greater than that fictionalized by Steven Spielberg in his 1981 film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Problems of research on the provenance of the art still remain, as do moral, political, and legal issues.At a conference in Washington in December 1998, forty-four countries agreed on eleven non-binding principles to assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art. Principle 8 held that countries could vary in trying to reach a just and fair solution for the pre-war owners of the art. Other resolutions, stemming from the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, have also dealt with the resolutions of claims. Nevertheless, the essential question is the extent to which countries have gone to restore the stolen property to their original Jewish owners or their inheritors.

Austria did set up restitution commissions to decide on the return of property stolen from Jews. They have dealt with more than 40,000 cases. By an agreement with the U.S. on January 23, 2001, Austria agreed to pay into a General Settlement Fund to be used for settling property claims, and agreed to return property held by the state. Though many of these claims have been resolved by out of court settlements, the consensus is that Austria has been slow to act and lacking in generosity in compensating the Jewish former owners of property.

The Austrian participation in the Holocaust and the ongoing property settlements has become the setting for a recent bizarre trial in Vienna. This concerns a man named Stephan Templ, a 53-year-old Jewish architectural historian and journalist, who was convicted in Vienna in a lower court in April and again by the High Court in June 2014 of “defrauding” the Austrian Republic. His sentence was reduced from three years to one in prison and two years on probation. The first thing to be said is that it is astonishing that the problem of restitution of Jewish property should have been taken to and decided in a criminal, not a civil, court.

Templ had helped his mother, a Holocaust survivor, gain her share of the proceedings coming from the sale of a sanatorium, now luxury apartments, that had been taken by the Nazis. Templ’s mother got 1.1 million euros for her claim to the property to which her family and 38 others was linked. But Templ’s “crime” was that he had not included his 85-year-old aunt when applying for claims for restitution. Templ in fact had omitted the aunt because of a family feud between the two elderly sisters that had lasted over thirty years. The courts held that Templ had defrauded Austria because his aunt might have given her share of the inheritance to the Austrian state.

The reasoning of the courts appears surreal since it contradicts article 8 of the 1998 Washington Principles and the agreement signed with the U.S. in 2001. The Austrian Republic has not been and is not likely to be hurt by any action of Templ, though he can be criticized by unfairness to his aunt in the family dispute. Austria has no right to the property stolen from Jews. The country was not the victim of Nazi aggression; the reverse was true. Austrians supported and fought for the Nazi Reich. The country liquidated Jewish properties and businesses, and destroyed Jewish religious and cultural institutions. At the end of World War II, Austria was a defeated, not a liberated country.

Only one explanation for the conviction of Templ seems logical. It is not coincidental that in 2001 Templ, coauthored with his partner, Tina Walzer, a “guide book” to Vienna called Unser Wien: “Arisierung” auf Österreisch  (Our Vienna: Aryanization, Austrian Style). In what the authors call “The Topography of Robbery,” are listed in great detail about 500 sites of the Jewish businesses and property seized by the Nazis after the Anschluss and never returned to their original owners. Included in the list are 70,000 apartments and houses, cinemas, pharmacies, and also famous places like the Hotel Imperial (where Hitler stayed two days after the Anschluss), the Bristol Hotel, Café Mozart, and Café Brünerhof.

Austrian citizens continue to occupy some of the stolen property. The list includes the former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky who lived in a Jewish-owned house. Ironically, Templ’s “Topography of Robbery” is a reminder of the “Topography of Terror,” an indoor and outdoor exhibition in Berlin of texts and photos of the Nazi era and the crimes committed by Nazi policies of eliminating Jews and others.

Austria authorities should reconsider the absurd verdict on Templ in what a major German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has called a “Kafkaesque farce.” One can agree Templ is no angel and should have been more generous towards his aunt in a claim for restitution. But a family dispute should not have become a public issue. The issue now is a reminder of the events in 2006 when Austria’s National Gallery was forced to return five paintings by Gustav Klimt to the Jewish family from which they were stolen. The kindest commentary is that the Viennese courts have reignited a debate about the restitution of stolen Jewish property.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.