Austria’s Jewish population numbered about 192,000 when Nazi Germany annexed the country in March 1938. Between 1938 and 1940, approximately 117,000 Jews fled Austria to countries across the world, including some that would later be occupied by Nazi Germany or were members of the Axis. By November 1942, only about 7,000 Jews remained in the country. Approximately 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Austria’s Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance has identified records pertaining to more than 63,800 Jewish victims.
In 1938, 99.7 percent of Austrians voted in a plebiscite to join the German Reich, but for decades following the war, the national consensus was that Austria, through an “unwanted Anschluss” (annexation), had been Hitler’s first victim. The country later struggled to come to terms with an ambiguous and dark past. The so-called “victim theory” was a fundamental myth of Austria’s post-war society, bolstered by language in the Allied Powers’ Joint Four-Nation Declaration from the Moscow Conference of October 1943, which included an explicit declaration on Austria and its annexation by Nazi Germany. The wartime activities of Kurt Waldheim, who served as the president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, sparked a national debate on the country’s role in the Holocaust that started during the election campaign in 1985.
While Austria instituted several restitution programs in the immediate post-war era, they were widely acknowledged as insufficient to address the country’s wartime responsibility. In 1991, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky gave a speech to the Austrian parliament in which he acknowledged the co-responsibility of Austrians for the suffering inflicted on the country’s Jewish community. In July 1993, Vranitzky reiterated this admission in a speech before the Israeli Knesset.
Austria’s acknowledgement of its role in the Holocaust triggered a reassessment of the country’s post-war restitution programs. An independent commission of historians found in February 2003 that “although the majority of the seized properties were restituted or the subject of settlements, the restitution proceedings of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were considered unsatisfactory by many restitution claimants. The range and complexity of the various restitution acts and deadlines, and the lack of state assistance for the victims of the seizures in their attempts to achieve restitution, were deciding factors in this regard.”
Beginning in 1995, the Austrian government set up several programs to address gaps and deficiencies in post-war restitution and compensation programs and made legislative changes that provided social welfare benefits to Austrian victims of the Nazis. These included in 1995 a compensation fund called the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism and in 1998 an art restitution law. Moreover, the October 2000 U.S.-Austrian Agreement on Compensation for Forced and Slave Laborers and the January 2001 U.S.-Austrian Washington Agreement on the Settlement of Questions Concerning Compensation and Restitution for Victims of National Socialism, negotiated by Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and an interagency U.S. government team, obligated the Austrian government to set up restitution and/or compensation funds. These agreements also obliged Austria to address the restoration and maintenance of Jewish cemeteries, provide easy access to archival documents, support and implement projects for Holocaust remembrance, and extend Austrian social benefits to Holocaust survivors living abroad.
When it was discovered that some six tons of Nazi-looted gold were still in the possession of the Tripartite Gold Commission established shortly after World War II, the U.S. government took the lead in encouraging countries to give their share of the looted gold to their Holocaust survivors. Austria was the first state to adopt the recommendation; it also encouraged other countries to do so.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
Post-war laws provided for the restitution of certain immovable property, but the laws were only partly satisfactory. To address inadequacies, and in accordance with provisions in the January 2001 U.S.-Austrian Washington Agreement referred to above, the Austrian government set up a General Settlement Fund in May 2001. The Fund included an arbitration panel on in rem restitution to restitute publicly owned property formerly owned by individuals or the Austrian Jewish community. The deadline for filing applications was 2011, and the panel finished processing applications in December 2018. In total, the Fund restituted property in some 140 cases, worth about €48 million (approximately $52.6 million).
The 2001 General Settlement Fund’s Claims Committee also addressed open questions of compensation (as opposed to restitution) for losses of assets that had not been sufficiently resolved by previous measures. In particular, it focused on real property, business assets, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, movable assets, insurance policies, occupational and educational losses, and other losses and damages. The deadline for filing applications was 2003. The Fund was endowed with approximately $210 million total and was required to make payments on a pro‑rata basis. The Fund’s Claims Committee received more than 20,000 applications, of which some 18,155 resulted in positive decisions. Overall, the independent Claims Committee recognized claims totaling approximately $1.5 billion. Since the total claimed amounts determined for all successful applications exceeded the $210 million provided for by the Washington Agreement, each applicant could receive only a defined fractional share of his or her claim. For insurance policies, successful applicants received about 20 percent of the value and for other claims, between 10 and 17 percent of the value. The panel finished processing applications in December 2018.
In accordance with the 2001 Washington Agreement, the City of Vienna also restituted the formerly Jewish-owned and operated Hakoah sports club facilities, expanding those facilities to create a Jewish center that included a school and a home for the elderly. The Austrian government also set up a Fund for Jewish Cemeteries in 2010, in accordance with the same agreement.
Regarding heirless property, the Austrian government provided compensation to Jewish organizations after the re-establishment of Austria’s sovereignty through the 1955 Austrian State Treaty.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
In 1998, pursuant to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art concluded that year, the Austrian government initiated an art restitution program that covered art in museums and institutions owned by the federal government, with provincial and municipal governments enacting their own laws. Austria was one of the few countries that incorporated the Washington Principles into its national legislation. The country has restituted more than 32,000 objects, among them renowned artworks such as the Rothschild family’s art collection in the Vienna Museum for Fine Art and several works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. The art restitution law stipulated that an advisory panel recommend restoration to the rightful owner based on research conducted in federal museums and institutions by the Commission on Provenance Research.
Under the 2001 U.S.-Austrian Washington Agreement, the Austrian government agreed to undertake its best efforts to expand the jurisdiction of the country’s 1998 art restitution law, which initially covered only federal institutions, to the provincial and municipal levels. The program is ongoing. Problems remain regarding privately owned collections, which are subject to the principle of good faith acquisition.
Heirless art objects, in accordance with the federal art restitution law, are to be transferred to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism. In 2006, the National Fund posted an online database of some of these heirless objects to allow additional claimants to come forward; the database now holds more than 9,000 entries. In Vienna, the 1996 Mauerbach auction of unclaimed Jewish-owned art resulted in a fund of $13.5 million, used primarily to benefit needy Austrian Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
Apart from the post-war restitution laws, which were also used for post-war communal property restitution, a 1960 law provided for a one-time payment of approximately $11.4 million as compensation for damaged synagogues, prayer houses, and other properties owned by the Jewish community, plus an annual allocation of approximately $846,200 to be paid for an indefinite time period. The 2001 General Settlement Fund’s Claims Committee and in rem arbitration panel were also used to seek restitution of communal properties.
In 2002, the Austrian federal provinces, along with the Jewish communities of Vienna, Graz, Linz, and Salzburg, concluded an agreement intended to resolve all remaining questions of compensation for destroyed/looted assets that belonged to Jewish communities, associations, and foundations. A payment amount of approximately $20 million was finalized in 2005, after the Vienna Jewish community withdrew more than 700 pending claims with the General Settlement Fund and withdrew amicus curiae support for a pending class action suit in the United States against Austria.
Austria’s libraries and museums conduct provenance research on Judaica and carry out restitution thereof.
Access to Archival Documents
The 2001 Washington Agreement stipulated that the Government of Austria would work on providing better access to the files of the Austrian State Archives and make efforts to ensure that requests for information are handled in an expedited and non-bureaucratic manner. That stipulation was implemented in most cases, according to researchers working on Holocaust issues. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has enjoyed longstanding cooperation with several Austrian archives.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
Holocaust education forms an important part of school curricula, and there are Holocaust remembrance projects throughout Austria. The most prominent memorial site is the former concentration camp Mauthausen in Upper Austria. The government funds Holocaust research projects on a regular basis, including via the “Future Fund.” That mechanism disburses surplus funds from the compensation fund of Nazi-era forced and enslaved laborers to projects commemorating the victims of National Socialism and other totalitarian regimes. Austria is also an active member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
The National Fund of Austria for the Victims of National Socialism continues to do educational programming. For example, it recently funded a new Austrian exhibition in Block 17 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland with the title “Far removed. Austria in Auschwitz.”
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
In accordance with the U.S.-Austria agreements concluded in 2000 and 2001, the Austrian government provided more than €180 million ($201.2 million) in nursing care payments to Holocaust survivors living abroad, most prominently in Israel and the United States. The agreements also entitled Holocaust survivors living abroad to receive benefits under the Austrian pension system. The National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, set up in 1995, provided lump-sum payments for Holocaust survivors and extra benefits for survivors in need of assistance. The Reconciliation Fund for Compensation of Nazi-Era Forced and Slave Laborers, set up in 2000, issued payments to surviving forced and slave laborers. An organization in Vienna also provides psychological assistance to Holocaust survivors.
The main entity representing former Austrian Jews in negotiations with Austria was the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, a sub-committee of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). It was founded in 1953 after Germany refused to accept the obligations of Austria, arguing that Austria was also responsible for Nazi persecution of Jews. Following negotiations with the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, in 1956 Austria enacted the Assistance Fund Act (Hilfsfondsgesetz) that established a modest fund to provide one-time payments to victims of National Socialism who lived abroad and did not receive benefits under the Austrian Victims Welfare Act.
Starting in 1961, after negotiations with the Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria, the General Social Insurance Law was amended several times to allow more victims to participate in the pension system by retroactively purchasing pensions at a preferential rate. In 2001, as a result of the U.S.-Austria Washington Agreement of that year, the law was amended yet again so that all persons born prior to the Anschluss in March 1938 would be able to “purchase” a social security pension. In 2008, after pressure from the Claims Conference, this was changed again to include those born until the end of WWII.
Former Austrian Jews are entitled to monthly “nursing assistance” based on their level of disability. Prior to the 2001 Washington Agreement, those former Austrian Jews living abroad were only entitled to “Level 2,” irrespective of their level of disability. As a result of the 2001 Washington Agreement, this discriminatory measure was removed, and former Austrian Jews were entitled to receive up to Level 7 of this program. Most of the former Austrian Jews benefiting from these agreements reside in Israel or the United States.
The National Fund for Victims of National Socialism provided lump-sum payments for Holocaust survivors and extra benefits for survivors in need of assistance. Since its establishment, the National Fund has made around 30,000 “gesture payments” of €5,087 ($5,690) to surviving Austrian victims of National Socialist injustice. The total amount of all payments comes to around €157.3 million ($175.8 million).
Furthermore, since 2001, the National Fund also disbursed more than €175 million ($195.6 million) as symbolic compensation for seized tenancy rights, household effects, and personal valuables. These took the form of lump-sum payments of €7,630 or $7,000 and additional payments of 1,000 euros. The claims deadline ended in June 2004. Additionally, the National Fund has so far approved funding for around 2,100 projects and programs worth approximately €30.8 million ($34.4 million).
The country’s Reconciliation Fund for Compensation of Nazi-Era Forced and Slave Laborers, set up in 2000, issued payments to surviving forced and slave laborers who had not already received a payment from the German Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future.” The overwhelming majority of victims of the Nazis who received a payment from the Reconciliation Fund were non-Jewish forced laborers.
For more than a decade, the Claims Conference has received an annual allocation of €1.5 million (approximately $1.7 million) from the Austrian government for an emergency assistance program to benefit former Austrian Jews, a program administered by Jewish social welfare agencies in countries in which former Austrian Jews reside. Finally, an organization in Vienna called ESRA, the Hebrew term for “help,” provides psychological assistance to Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
U.S. Citizen Claims
The General Settlement Fund and the Reconciliation Fund for Nazi-Era Forced and Slave Laborers have now closed. However, U.S. citizens can still apply for certain benefits from the National Fund for Victims of National Socialism, the art restitution program, and the Austrian government’s social welfare benefits (annual pensions and “Pflegegeld”- nursing allowances). In addition, needy former Austrian Jews can still apply to Jewish social welfare agencies to access the Austrian Holocaust Survivor Emergency Assistance Program funded by the Austrian Government via the Claims Conference.