VIENNA, Austria — Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen warned against “the politics of scapegoating” Thursday as his country marked the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic Kristallnacht pogrom.
“We must see history as an example of where the politics of scapegoating, incitement, and exclusion can lead,” Van der Bellen said 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 9 and 10, 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.
The party has 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.
The comments came ahead of a planned visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first trip to Vienna by an Israeli premier since 1997.
Netanyahu’s two-day visit, November 20-21, comes amid increasingly close ties between Jerusalem and Austria’s right-wing government.
— Sebastian Kurz (@sebastiankurz) November 7, 2018
In Vienna, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.
But the highlight of the trip will be his participation in the conference on the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which the Austrian government is organizing in the framework of its current presidency of the European Union.
“2018 is a special year of commemoration,” Kurz said in a filmed message posted to his Twitter account, referring to the anti-Jewish pogroms that took place throughout Germany and Austria 80 years ago this month.
“We must always remember our historic responsibility and do everything in our power to fight all forms of anti-Semitism,” he said. “If Jewish people do not feel safe in many place in Europe in 2018, then this should not only make us think, but requires all of us to take joint action.”
2018 is a special year of commemoration. We must always remember our historic responsibility and do everything in our power to fight all forms of anti-Semitism. On 20 – 21 November I will host in Vienna a "Conference on the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism". pic.twitter.com/GwfTLPyY8b
— Sebastian Kurz (@sebastiankurz) November 7, 2018
Netanyahu is also expected to visit Vienna’s main synagogue, known as Stadttempel, and meet with representatives of Austria’s Jewish community.
Sources in Vienna told The Times of Israel that he is not expected to meet officials from the far-right Freedom Party, which Israel boycotts due to its Nazi past.
‘I can remember how synagogues were burned’
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 traveled 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.
Parliament president Wolfgang Sobotka of the OeVP also spoke at the event but was booed by some in the crowd protesting against the presence of the FPOe in government.
Austrian Jews are staunchly opposed to the party arguing that it has not done enough to distance itself from its anti-Semitic past and that it still promotes problematic positions.
Since FPOe’s rise to parliament in Austria’s 2017 election, Israel has maintained a policy of keeping official contact with the party at the civil service level only, avoiding any contact with ministers, including Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl.
Netanyahu had previously instructed the Foreign Ministry to examine how Israel should interact with Vienna in light of FPOe’s rise.
Founded in 1956, the party emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights. Its first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS and its last one was Joerg Haider, the controversial son of a former Nazi party official.
Haider attracted negative publicity by praising the Third Reich’s “orderly” employment policy, calling SS veterans “decent people” and describing concentration camps as “punishment camps.” He was killed in a car crash in 2008.
Under FPOe’s current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, now Austria’s vice chancellor, the party has made strides to distance itself from pro-Nazi views and has adopted strong pro-Israel positions.
In December, Strache said Vienna was “striving for an honest, sustainable and friendly contact with Israel,” and vowed his far-right party would be “an essential partner in Europe’s fight against anti-Semitism.”
Across the whole of Nazi Germany — to which Austria had been annexed earlier in 1938 — the official death toll from the Kristallnacht pogrom was put at 91, although historians think the toll was much higher.
Some 30,000 people were imprisoned and thousands of shops, synagogues and Jewish-own businesses were destroyed.
Events to mark the anniversary are also planned for Friday in parliament and several other locations in Vienna, Germany and across the Jewish world.