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Berichte aus Israel - Besprechung von Angelika Timm,Bar Ilan University, Israel

Austrian-Israeli relations have the image of being complicated and overloaded by the heritage of the past. Political antisemitism, the cornerstone of National Socialism, intensively developed in Austria in the nineteenth century and found its prophets in the Viennese politicians Georg Schoenerer and Karl Lueger; Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann grew up in Austria. On the other hand, the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, lived and worked in Vienna, and the Zionist movement attracted many jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the First Republic. The relationship between the State of Israel and Austria after World War II is obviously influenced by these historical developments, especially the Holocaust.

While German-Israeli relations became an interesting subject for historians and political scientists by the early 1980s, the first serious studies an the specific relationship between Austria and Israel were published only during the last decade (Embacher and Reiter [1998]; Reiter [2001]). Rolf Steininger (Universität Innsbruck) has now presented the most broad-ranging publication. The Institute for Contemporary History, which he chairs, for years has examined diverse aspects of Jewish history, the Holocaust, the Third Reich, postwar German and Austrian history. Roughly a decade ago, Steininger initiated a research project that addresses Austrian-Israeli relations. It was carried out in close cooperation with the University of Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was funded by the Austrian Government. The main task of the project was to examine an edition of diplomatic correspondence dealing with the specific relations between the two countries. As a result, 13 volumes were published that included altogether 1,599 documents, 547 photos, and 127 facsimiles. Four detailed studies were presented in addition to the documentation (Österreich-Israel-Studien 1-4).

Eleven of the 13 volumes introduce the correspondence of Austrian representatives in Israel with the Foreign Ministry in Vienna in the years 1946-72. The collection, titled "Reports from Israel," is complemented by analytic papers by officials at the Foreign Ministry and letters of Austrian diplomats in Cairo, Beirut, Teheran, Ankara, New York, Washington, Bonn, and Rome. The editor focuses on political subjects, but also documents interesting aspects of economic and trade relations. Supplement I provides the reader with an introduction, short biographies of the Austrian diplomats, an overview of the documents, and an index of names and subjects. Supplement II contains reports of two Austrian consuls general, Walter Haas and Ivo Jorda, who served in Palestine during the period of the British Mandate from 1927 to 1938. The latter volume presents amazing historical pictures and documents that illustrate the situation in the Holy Land between the two world wars. Almost all the documents are published for the first time. The edition is of enormous value for every scholar concerned with the specific relationship between the two countries; however, it contributes also to studies on Jewish life in postwar Europe. In addition, the diplomatic and private letters written by Austrian representatives illustrate political developments in the Jewish state and the Middle East region. Some conclusions can be drawn from them regarding the political orientation of their authors as well as the spirit of the age. Among the highlights of the first volume are, for instance, some photos showing a demonstration in Vienna of solidarity with the newly established State of Israel (probably 15 May 1948) and the transfer of Theodor Herzl's body from Vienna to Jerusalem in August 1949.

First contacts between representatives of Austria and the Jewish yishuv were held immediately after World War II. One reason for the meetings was the short-term stay of approximately 170, 000 Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe in Austria who were on their way to Palestine or the United States. On 15 March 1949 the Austrian government – still dependent on the four Allies – de facto recognized the State of Israel. In 1950, both countries established consular relations. Although de jure recognition followed two years later, the status of the diplomatic missions in Vienna and Tel Aviv was upgraded to "embassy" only on 30 June 1959.

The first volumes document the ambivalent Austrian-Israeli relationship based an Israeli political and economic interests on one hand, and the Austrian self-image, as "Hitler's first victim", on the other. Interestingly, Israel accepted the founding myth of Austria from the very beginning and already agreed in 1949 to establish trade relations. During the following decades three main subjects strongly influenced the bilateral relations: Israeli and Jewish claims for reparations, compensation, and restitution of Jewish property; Austrian attitudes toward the Holocaust; and the Middle East conflict.

The Austrian government, arguing that Austria had been an occupied country and that it was, therefore, the Germans who must be held accountable for the suffering of Austrian Jews, rejected any responsibility for the Holocaust. After Austria had granted Israel a loan of 2.5 Million U.S. dollars for the exports of goods in 1951, the Israeli government waived further claims by declaring: "Israel will not demand reparations from Austria. [...] Israel accepts the supposition that Germany is responsible for acts committed against Austrian Jews since they took place only after the Anschluss" (243 [vol. 3, doc. 88]). On the other hand, in 1953, Jewish organizations started negotiations with the Austrian government on Jewish property losses, which amounted to 1.2 billion U.S. dollars. After nine years of negotiations, the government agreed to settle on a sum of 6 Million U.S. dollars (plus 10 percent to cover administrative costs). Jews who lost land in 1938 received two-thirds of its actual value; those who had lost property were awarded only one-fourth of its real value. In 1955, a foundation was established in order to financially assist people who were persecuted by the Nazi regime and did not live in Austria. The respective documents constantly repeat the Austrian argument: responsibility for Nazi crimes cannot be accepted. The question of why the participation of Austrians in the Holocaust was at that time not addressed in public, and why the Western world accepted the Austrian position is posed by a reading of the documents.

In 1938, 185,000 Jews lived in Austria, 100,000 had escaped or been expelled, and 65,000 had been killed in concentration camps. Hence, one must ask the question of why the Holocaust became a subject for public debate only in 1960-61. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem obviously helped to break the taboo. When many Austrian Jewish survivors spoke about their suffering and questioned the "innocence" of their former compatriots, the question of Austrian responsibility could no longer be ignored. Most Israeli newspapers addressed the subject and asked for Austrian compensations. Foreign Minister Golda Meir even named Austria in the Knesset and stated that the friendly relations between the two countries were influenced by the fact that claims for compensation for Nazi victims were still unsettled. It was therefore not by change that Austrian ambassador Ernst Luegmayer, analyzing the development of relations, referred in April 1961 to the Holocaust and its results as "the biggest problem almost impossible to resolve"(240 [vol. 7, doc.118]). The Israeli Foreign Minister seemed to confirm this statement in a letter to the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Kreisky, on 5 March 1962, explaining why her government decided not to permit the performance of the Vienna Boys Choir: "There is still in this country widespread opposition to public artistic performances in the German language. There may be something purely emotional in this attitude but we have to face the fact of its existence" (268 [vol. 7, doc. 130]). The question of whether there exists "another" Germany or Austria was answered in the negative, when Gideon Hausner, Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor in the Eichmann trial, declared in an interview in June 1964 that neither West Germany, nor Austria, nor East Germany had learned the lessons of the Nazi past (228-32 [vol. 8, doc. 73]).

When the four-power occupation ended and Austria became independent in October 1955, its Federal Assembly passed a constitutional law that declared Austrian neutrality in international affairs. However, and although Austria tried to prove its neutrality in Middle East affairs, it became known as pro-Palestinian in the 1970s and 1980s. Bruno Kreisky, who was elected as Chancellor in 1970 and launched numerous initiatives aimed at stimulating an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was responsible for this image. The documents published by Rolf Steininger mainly cover the period when Kreisky acted as Foreign Minister (1959-66). They show Israeli efforts to convince the Austrian government not to change its neutral policy to Israel's disadvantage. For instance, when Foreign Minister Golda Meir met the Austrian ambassador in May 1964, she was concerned that Kreiskys visit to Egypt could change Austrian Middle East policy and harm Israel (206-08 [vol. 8, doc. 64], 215-18 [vol. 8, doc. 68]).

In his introduction to the documentation, Steininger calls the Six-Day War of 1967 a turning point in the relations between Austria and Israel. Taking into consideration that reports by Austrian diplomats addressed to their Foreign Ministry dealt first of all with matters that seemed of specific interest for decision-makers in Vienna, one has to assume that developments in the region in 1967 had gained higher importance. The Middle East conflict became the dominant issue in the records published. The documents written on the eve of the war, during the period of heavy fighting and immediately afterwards, are fascinating because of their detailed and well-balanced analysis. Without knowing parallel reports written in the Austrian embassies of Cairo, Damascus, and Amman, one cannot conclude to what extent they influenced Austrian Middle East policy; however, one would imagine that the substantial letters written by Ambassador Walther Peinsipp and his colleagues had some impact (vol. 9, doc. 53, 58, 60, 74). The Israeli public honored the support of Austrian diplomats and media. Cultural and scientific-technical relations substantially improved in the following years.

The Austrian support of Israeli interests in the United Nations after the June war of 1967 and the assistance for Jewish immigrants, who left the Soviet Union and other East European countries and stayed in Austria for several months on their way to Israel, improved bilateral relations. Nevertheless, in the face of the burden of the Holocaust, it remained a mistake to talk of "normalization." The documents published on the visits of Austrian Foreign Minister Rudolf Kirchschläger in Israel (1972) and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Austria (1973) Show some differences in their evaluation of relations between their countries. While the Austrian minister was eager to characterize the bilateral relationship as "normal" (36 [vol.1, facsimile 42]), Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban hesitated to speak of "normal relations"; rather, he called them "confident, positive, constructive and optimistic in the outlook" (409 [vol. 11, doc. 117]).

As the 11 volumes of documents prove, Steininger and his colleagues in Innsbruck, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem undertook enormous research that contributed not only to a better understanding of bilateral relations, but also to the domestic situation in the Jewish state. Among the most interesting documents are reports on the atmosphere in Israel before and during the Suez War in 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967, analysis of Israeli parliamentary elections, reports an "Austria in the eyes of the Israeli press," and instructions from the Austrian Foreign Ministry to its diplomats. Unfortunately, the documentation shows only one side of the bilateral relationship. It cannot he considered complete unless the available parallel papers of the Israeli Foreign Ministry are edited and published. This job must be done very quickly in order to avoid a one-sided evaluation of the Austrian-Israeli relationship.

Several themes cannot be analyzed without corresponding Israeli reports: European policy towards Israel and Israeli interests towards the EEC, the triangle of the Austrian-Israeli-Arab relationship, Austrian-Israeli contacts dealing with the situation of East European Jewish immigrants-all are important issues and all were analyzed by Israeli diplomats and probably well-documented in the Archives of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the World Zionist Organization. This also remains the case in regard to other questions that played a significant role, yet rarely appear in Steininger's documents. For instance, the fact that Austria represented the diplomatic interests of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia in Israel is almost missing in the documentation; however, one can hardly believe that this subject played only a minor role in the diplomatic papers. Another matter of interest is the question whether the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel in 1965 influenced Austrian-Israeli relations. In order to find a serious answer, one has to know the respective documents written by Israeli and German diplomats. A comparison of the Austrian and West-German Middle East policy has not been written; it would be of enormous importance. As far as attitudes towards the Holocaust and the reparations issue are concerned, the GDR should also be included in the research; East Germany-as Austria-defined itself as a "victim" of National Socialism.

The editor has performed a very good job of documenting a certain period of bilateral relations. He will probably not expect that a broader public will read thoroughly all 13 volumes. Nevertheless, he and his colleagues can be sure that many scholars interested in the subject are waiting for a substantial analysis. This analytic work, which is definitely not yet complete, would be of interest to both the academic community and a broader audience. After having read the amazing documents already edited, one is eager to be informed regarding the next chapter: the reports of the Austrian Embassy in the face of the Yom-Kippur-War and the oil embargo by the Arab League. The respective archival material already available requires professional examination and editing.

ANGELIKA TIMM, Bar Ilan University, Israel, in:

German Studies Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, February 2006, pp. 147–151.