The 'politics of sensibility'
The international climate was also changing through the 1980s and 90s, as a new 'politics of sensibility' developed. A number of disputes over paintings (such as those by Gustav Klimt) revealed their dubious provenance, and thus brought the issue of the expropriation of the property of Jews to a wider public, and the war record of neighbouring Switzerland also came under scrutiny. In response - after some inept initial reactions - the Swiss set up the independent Bergier Commission to investigate their own country's approach to the Third Reich.
And last but not least, 'class actions' on behalf of holocaust victims and forced labourers were started in the US, with the aim of getting compensation and wage payments. So far these have been brought mainly against German companies and banks, achieving, if not massive damages for the claimants, at least legal costs, embarrassment and image problems for those claimed against.
This complex of domestic and foreign factors seems to have persuaded the Austrian government (then a coalition of Social Democrat and People's Party) to set up its Historikerkommission in November 1998. From the start there were criticisms that it was a delaying tactic, or state-sponsored whitewash, like the 1946 report referred to above had been.
On the other hand, unlike the latter, its independence was laid down in black and white. Its chairman, Clemens Jabloner, was President of Austria's Verwaltungsgerichtshof (Administrative Court), and a leading legal and academic authority. And its other members (including the present writer) were not nominated by the government, but by outside bodies, in a transparent process.
A year after the Historikerkommission was set up, Austria hit the international headlines again, when, in 2000, a new coalition government under Wolfgang Schüssel (of the People's Party) brought Jörg Haider's FPO into the corridors of power. The headlines were in reaction to the acceptance or even approval of aspects of national socialism by Haider, and by some of the party's members. An international outcry against the FPO followed, and reactions included French-led 'sanctions', which included the suspending of bilateral cooperation.
As far as Austria's Nazi legacy was concerned, the new government was more than anxious to show itself willing to confront it, and talks over the two main problems - compensation for forced labourers, and outstanding compensation issues for Jewish victims - proceeded at breakneck speed. It was agreed that redress for the loss of rental property (59,000 Vienna flats) should be paid out of the Austrian National Fund.
The interests of the victims
From the late 1950s funds were set up by the Austrian government, and payments from these offset a proportion of the losses suffered by some victims of the Nazi expropriations. The Historikerkommission, however, gave up the idea of providing a balance sheet showing how these figures tallied against what had been taken.
Valuing Jewish assets before the Anschluss, subtracting what was destroyed or removed, calculating what had been returned, and presenting the sum of the outstanding debt was a nice idea, but simply impossible - due to the complexity of the issues, the many price shifts, and the limited reliable source materials (many relevant documents had been shredded).
Even estimating the total pre-Anschluss wealth of Austrian Jews was very difficult - the researchers sponsored by the commission attempted to do this, but their answers ranged between 1,800 and 2,900 million Reichsmark.
Finally, what of the idea that Austria was a victim of Germany? The report does not throw the idea overboard completely. In international law, the Anschluss was an illegal occupation, and many Austrians - not only Jews - suffered under the regime. But the post-war Austrian state extended this legal argument to arrive at a morally dubious and historically untenable denial of liability for what went on in Austria during Nazi rule, for all of Austrian society. Whether this denial was 'functionally necessary' is debatable. At any rate it was not until the 1980s that the state began to put its weight behind the interests of the victims of Nazi rule.
The Historikerkommission has now completed its work, but has hardly ended the many controversies about these and related issues. Exactly what political consequences may follow from its publication is unclear - the commission made no explicit recommendations. But the data unearthed by this - for Austria - unprecedented collective historical investigation seems sure to reverberate for some time to come.
The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the writer. The publications of the Historikerkommission can be found on their website and are being published in book form by Oldenbourg Verlag (Munich).