Losing the plot

Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider

Hella Pick<em> I B Tauris, 256pp, £24.50</em>

That the theme and subtitle of Hella Pick's study exclude any significant reference to the period before the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and that she makes such errors as misnaming, on the first page, the French foreign minister (Antoine Pinay) at the signature of the Austrian State Treaty in 1955, rather sets the tone for a peculiar and lazily written book.

Harold Macmillan, in 1980, observed that the "treaty had turned out to be the only foreign policy success of the whole period". By that time, the (Jewish) chancellor of Austria, Bruno Kreisky, had secured low inflation, full employment, economic growth, sustained rises in incomes, a welfare state and a constructive international role. Concurrently, the emigre Austrian publisher George Weidenfeld - in a verdict that Pick, a former diplomatic editor of the Guardian, then shared - praised Austria's neutrality and its help in bringing Arabs and Israelis to Camp David, as opposed to the earlier display case for racism and genocide. Mac- millan added: "Today the whole world values Austria's culture and civilisation."

Pick's family escaped from fascism in 1939. It would have been understandable had events and ideology impelled her ab initio to stress the country's anti-Semitism and Nazi record, rather than its postwar achievements. But it is only now that she has decided that consensus politics, peaceful economic progress and a neutral foreign policy should be minimised. Her emphasis, instead, is on the "Big Lie", the doctrine in the Moscow Declaration of 1943, confirmed in the 1955 treaty, that classed Austria as Hitler's first victim, thus later clearing it of the persecution of Austrian Jews. That particular argument is peculiar in the sense that few, at least in the British Zone of Occupation from 1945 to 1955, would have regarded Austrians as other than complicit, if not actually guilty of that persecution. The British consequently behaved in censorious mode which, given that most Austrians are agreeable people, occasionally made for uneasy relations.

Pick's discoveries, therefore, of the welcome accorded by many Austrians to Hitler's invasion of their country, and, in particular, of the atrocities committed by Austrians against their own Jews, have been known and deplored for decades, as much in the Heimat as abroad. It is true that postwar consensus politics "stultified democratic institutions", that restitution to Jewish survivors and their families was sluggish until 1990 and that Kurt Waldheim's war record made him an unsatisfactory secretary-general of the United Nations and an unsuitable president of Austria. But Pick is writing in 2000, by which time Chancellor Franz Vranitzky had long acknowledged "the Austrian state's moral responsibility for the participation of Austrians in the Nazi persecution of Jews".

The point and timing of Guilty Victim are thus unclear, as is the reason for Pick's attack on the wretched Jorg Haider. I agree that some of his connections seem unsavoury, but he is also seen by many left-wing Austrians as instrumental - as even Pick concedes - in "breaking the mainstream parties' hold on Austrian politics, and as an instrument for enlivening democracy". Haider's challenge may yet enable Austria to modernise and energise its political life, while at the same time weakening his own Freedom Party, which is currently losing votes. As the months go by, this outcome appears to be more likely than Pick might have supposed, thanks to the democratic sense of the Austrian people.

The purpose of Guilty Victim at this time, I repeat, remains obscure.

John Colvin was a British diplomat in Klagenfurt, Vienna and Graz from 1952 to 1955. He is the author of Lions of Judah, an account of Jewish courage