Mauthausen concentration camp still a live issue in the U.S.

According to this AP news story, a guard from Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp was arrested today in Michigan.  It is rather ironic that the Europe’s war against its Jewish citizens is still a matter of public interest and debate here in the U.S. considering that for most Europeans it is history as ancient and irrelevant as the Roman Republic.  The story reminded me of a trip to Austria in May 2002.  Austrians would ask where I’d been thus far.  I’d reply “Salzburg, Mauthausen, biking down the Donau”.  Oftentimes their immediate response was “We had no idea that camp was there.”

Mauthausen has been turned into a very informative museum and one of the interpretive signs is a map showing the dozens of factories within a radius of about 60 miles to which thousands of Mauthausen inmates were dispatched to work alongside ordinary Austrians.  If the Austrians were indeed unaware of the existence of the camp they must have thought it was strange that some of their fellow workers were so shabbily dressed and getting thinner every day until finally they didn’t show up.

11 thoughts on “Mauthausen concentration camp still a live issue in the U.S.

  1. I don’t understand — is the part about Europeans considering it to be ancient history sarcastic? It seems contradicted by the story about Austrians who consider it relevant.

    When I lived in The Netherlands, I was amazed to find out that normal everyday people, even young people, had knowledge and opinions about WWII — an event that I had formerly considered to be interesting, but so far in the distant past as to be irrelevant to modern times.

  2. The Austrians I spoke to had visited Mauthausen on a junior high school field trip. It wasn’t a place that they had expected a tourist to visit and certainly it didn’t appear in the news.

  3. “for most Europeans [the Nazi era] is history as ancient and irrelevant as the Roman Republic.”

    Very freightening, if true.

  4. It is not true. War monuments, battlefields and cemeteries litter the European landscape. You cannot grow up here and not be affected by it in some way. Your grandparents remember it, tell stories about it. It just isn’t on the news every day.

    Silvio Berlusconi talking about which MEP make good nazi guards: now that’s on the news every day.

  5. We had no idea the camp was there…

    And even if they did know, if anyone said anything about it, guess where they went?

    The concentration camps were for people besides Jews. There were concientious objectors, sex criminals, and other “enemies of the state”.

    Go to the camps, look at them for what they are and remember that the path to their final purpose was one of many small steps. Also remember not to judge their existence by today’s standards.

    I think anyone that does not have a firm opinion about state control of peoples lives needs to spend an afternoon in a camp museum. Read the history of the camp system and why it started. Find out why what seemed like a good idea turned horribly wrong.


  6. The Austrians have a huge problem accepting complicity in their Nazi past; they still act as though Hitler’s annexation of their country was a struggle for the Nazis, vs. a piece of cake willingly dished up. I can understand why they would give you the impression that WWII history is ancient & irrelevant, but that’s absolutely not the case in Germany. A weekly paper paper like Die Zeit practically doesn’t let an issue pass without some kind of “problematization” of Nazism and what Germany did. Juergen Habermas, Danny Cohn-Bendit, the Historiker-Streit, Elisabeth Lenk, Lea Fleischmann, Inge Deutschkron, Susan Sontag in translation, many others in translation, … the list goes on, and it’s not a dead issue at all. That said, it does appear to be a class issue as well, with a “mandarin” class of intellectuals keeping the subject alive in the Feuilleton section of the paper, while pop culture long ago veered off elsewhere. But pop culture in N.America isn’t exactly looking deeply at history either, is it?

    Sigh. I sometimes wonder what the point of some of your generalizations are. It’s like you’re using a paint roller, when a fine-tipped brush is needed. But maybe that’s just style: you’re the Barnett Newman of blogdom, Philip. He was p-d good, and not shy, either.

  7. I spent five years living in Munich from 90-95, going to German public schools. The holocaust certainly was not ancient history to everyone, especially with the Bosnian war raging. Kids I knew talked about ambivalence towards their grandparents, about awkward feelings when going on vacation in other countries and being stared at or called names for being German. Being Jewish in Germany at that time was similar in some ways to being gay in America now – there were people you ‘came out’ to, people you didn’t, “secret” codes like wearing a chai, and so on. Every classroom discussion and many newspaper editorials of German foreign policy had to do with the fact that they are very aware of this history. How people read that importance varied, but the echo was huge and undeniable. One of the big shocks to me when I came back to America after this was seeing the real fervor in our patriotic displays and people using the word pride without any negative connotation to desribe their feelings about nationality, heritage, and other things that are given, rather than earned. When I left Germany there was still a fairly widespread distrust of such grandstanding. I firmly believe that one of the most important things about a country or a people are the stories they tell themselves about themselves. At that time, one of the most important currents of German thought was to see themselves as a nation moving forward through careful self-criticism, being mindful of past mistakes so as to always be better than that. America also has this to an extent, especially when you get into discussions of the civil rights era. But as much as the pious tongue-wagging of some German politicians can get a bit aggravating, to me it is sign that, to the contrary, the legacy of the Holocaust is very much alive in Germany and has powerful effects on the way people there conceive of nationalism, power, human rights, and so on. But I haven’t lived there in over 8 years and I don’t read the news from there frequently enough, so perhaps the holocaust is now seen as irrelevant and ancient. Somehow, I really doubt it.

  8. It’s certainly not true: the British parliament passed laws about a decade ago extending both jurisdiction and the statute of limitations on those with links to the Holocaust who’d escaped justice and were living in the UK. Several were arrested and prosecuted. Tony Blair instituted a national Holocaust remembrance day in the UK.

    Mathausen may be one of the less well-known camps; but Treblinka, Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen and other place-names are known to any kid who’s reached secondary school in Britain. In part because there are still kids with grandparents who liberated some of those camps.

    It’s a rather sad and unhelpful generalisation, then, to say that a few Austrians are representative of ‘most Europeans’. Particularly when, for instance, Prescott Bush’s aid and succour to Nazi Germany in the 1930s appears to have slipped off the American radar.

  9. Three quick notes, from a fairly recent visit to Mauthausen (spring ’03).

    1) Although Jews were imprisoned there, along with communists, gypsies, homosexuals, and others,Mauthausen’s primary purpose was as a POW camp. Doesn’t really change anything, but an interesting note.

    2) A positive note was that, on a weekday, in poor weather, the camp was full of visitors, and they were practically all Austrians (many, but not all, apparently members of school-groups). Indeed, we noticed no other American tourists, and most of the signs in the camp and in the museums are in german only. This would suggest that the Austrians are not exactly trying to sweep the issue under the rug (this is an especially positive sign considering that austrians are generally considered to be less repentant on the matter than germans).

    3) Currently under construction is a multi-million-euro improvement of the museum and grounds.

  10. Not that it is exactly equivalent, but I wonder how many people in the US are aware of the existence of a place called Guantanamo Bay?

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