Austrian President warns against extremism on pogrom anniversary

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen warns against scapegoating, incitement and exclusion on 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Elad Benari,

Alexander Van der Bellen
Alexander Van der Bellen
Reuters

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Thursday warned against "the politics of scapegoating" as his country marked the 80th anniversary of the Nazis' anti-Semitic Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) pogrom.

"We must see history as an example of where the politics of scapegoating, incitement, and exclusion can lead," Van der Bellen said, according to AFP.

He was speaking at a commemorative event at the former site of the Leopoldstadt synagogue, which was Vienna's biggest until it was destroyed in two days of anti-Jewish violence on November 8 and 9, 1938.

In Austria, the pogrom lead to the deaths of least 30 Jews, the imprisonment of 7,800 more and the deportation of 4,000 to the Dachau concentration camp.

While history never repeats itself exactly, Van der Bellen said, there were situations and political rhetoric that "pointed to similarities".

"Let us be vigilant that degradation, persecution, and the stripping away of rights may never again be repeated in our country or in Europe," he insisted.

The president, a former leader of the Green Party, has on occasion criticized the hardline stance on immigration taken by the government formed last year between the center-right People's Party (OeVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

The FPOe counted former Nazis among its founders when it was set up after the war. In recent times it has vigorously condemned racism, including anti-Semitism, but at the same time has been embroiled in a number of embarrassing controversies over the activities of some of its members.

Israel decided to limit its contact with Austrian ministers who are members of the FPOe. However, even as Israel’s Foreign Ministry limited its contact with the ministries headed by the Freedom Party to the professional staff, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has maintained direct contact with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The two have met several times.

Kurz has pledged to make "combating anti-Semitism in all its forms" a top priority and has also publicly acknowledged Austria’s "historic responsibility" in the genocide of Jews during World War II.

Thursday’s event at the site of the former Leopoldstadt synagogue also saw the inauguration of a light installation, one of 25 across the city as part of a project to mark locations of synagogues destroyed during the pogrom.

Also on Thursday evening, Vienna's Jewish community led a march entitled "Light of Hope" to mark the anniversary.

Two survivors who had travelled from Israel were invited to share their testimony.

"I was 10 years old in 1938, in November, and I can remember how businesses were vandalized, their windows smashed, how synagogues were burned, and people were not only beaten but also killed," said 90-year-old Amnon Klein.

Across the whole of Nazi Germany -- to which Austria had been annexed earlier in 1938 -- the official death toll from the pogrom was put at 91, although historians think the toll was much higher.

More than 20,000 people were imprisoned and thousands of shops and Jewish-own businesses were destroyed.

Events to mark the 80th anniversary are also planned for Friday in parliament and several other locations in Vienna.


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