A majority of Austrians are unaware of the magnitude of the Holocaust and the number of Jews murdered, while concurrently downplaying their country’s role in the genocide, found a study released on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The study, conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), surveyed 1,000 adult Austrians who answered a series of questions about Holocaust and World War II history, either by phone or online.
According to the poll, 56 percent of Austrians did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 36% believed that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed. Twenty-five percent believed fewer than 1 million Jews were killed, and 12% put the number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust at less than 100,000.
The numbers were higher among younger respondents: Fifty-eight percent of millennial or Gen Z respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were killed. Significantly, 30% believed that less than 1 million were killed and 17% believed 100,000 Jews were murdered.
Notably, 42% of respondents were unfamiliar with the Mauthausen concentration camp, located 146 kilometers (90 miles) from Vienna. According to Israel’s national Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, 119,000 people were killed or died from the harsh conditions at Mauthausen, among them 38,000 Jews.
The results of the study are not radically different from those of two similar studies conducted in the United States and Canada over the last 12 months, said Claims Conference vice president Greg Schneider. However, the lack of knowledge is all the more poignant because the Holocaust occurred on Austrian soil.
“A lot of the trends are the same – that is, an appalling lack of knowledge about the Holocaust,” Schneider told The Times of Israel. “People are aware of the Holocaust, but the challenge, coming from the survey’s results, is a distortion of the context, the facts, the magnitude, and the proximity.”
“Mauthausen was one of the most sadistic, cruel Nazi concentration camps, only 100 miles from Vienna in a very, very small country,” he said. “So to have 42% of Austrians who report that they’re not familiar with it is deeply disappointing.”
One quarter of those polled recognized the infamous Dachau concentration camp, and when it came to the Warsaw Ghetto, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka and Theresienstadt, the number fell below 5%.
In addition to a lack of knowledge, there was also a tendency to paint a rosier picture of the country and its role in the Holocaust. Half of respondents were unfamiliar with the name Adolf Eichmann, and only 14% knew he was Austrian, while 68% said that Austria was both a victim and a perpetrator in the Holocaust. Thirteen percent said the country was only a perpetrator.
Twenty-eight percent believe that “a great deal or many” Austrians acted to rescue the Jewish people during the war, despite the fact that 109 people out of a wartime population of roughly 6.7 million are recognized as having done such by Yad Vashem, a relatively low rate per capita.
In comparison, neighboring Hungary has 844 recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem out of a wartime population of roughly 9 million – about six times Austria’s per capita rate.
“They know the Holocaust happened, they know Jews were killed. But there’s a sliding narrative about how many were killed… Clearly there needs to be a realignment of education of the facts,” said Schneider.
Clearly there needs to be a realignment of education of the facts
The good news, he said, is that “Overwhelmingly, those surveys show that people believe the Holocaust should be taught in schools. Eighty-two percent of all Austrians and 87% of Millennials and Gen Z believe that it should be taught.”
“The fact that the Shoah happened right there presents an additional challenge, because it forces the teacher to confront a very personal, emotional narrative about participation of their parents or their great-grandparents – where were they, and what did they do, and what did they know?” said Schneider.
“But there’s also a big opportunity, because when you’re teaching the Holocaust, one of the hard things to do is to make the events of 70 or 80 years ago relatable to a 14-year-old,” he said.
Schneider also said that the findings are highly relevant today, as the world experiences “a tsunami of anti-Semitism” larger than what Jewish communities have experienced since the Holocaust.
Citing two synagogue shootings in the United States in the past six months, Schneider said that there is a direct link between understanding the history of the Holocaust, the context, how it happened, and preventing the violent attacks that are occurring today.
“The Holocaust didn’t just happen – it didn’t start with Auschwitz or Mauthausen – it started with words, with dehumanizing people, with saying, ‘That person is the other,’” he said. “And then, once you dehumanize them with words, it quickly escalates and you move from words to deeds, to murder and unspeakable horrors.”
While the experience of the Holocaust is certainly unique to the Jewish people, the lessons can be universal, Schneider said.
“In the last month we’ve had shootings, terrorism, in a mosque in New Zealand, churches in Sri Lanka, synagogues in the United States,” said Schneider. “At the end of the day, hate is hate. So dehumanizing someone, making them the other, and then allowing that to then move to deed, has to be rooted out. We have to understand this is what can happen, and it has to be stopped.”