During the Third Reich, the National Socialist Party carried out the systematic mass murder of all groups of people who were classified by the party as “inferior”. Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, handicapped persons, and political opponents were among these minority groups that the Nazi Regime attempted to exterminate. With the Second World War, Adolf Hitler sought to restructure Europeand to ultimately create a new European order. Under this new order, Hitler envisioned more land area or “living room” in Eastern Europe for the next generation of the German people to benefit from. Hitler went about manufacturing this new European order by asserting his claims to dictatorial rule in Eastern Europe (1). Austria, as a state, was admittedly a victim of the German Nazi Regime. A wide portion of Austria’s population, however, contributed to the Nazi system or remained complacent with the arrangement under the regime. Only a small minority of the population including critics, political opponents, and freedom fighters resisted the Third Reich.
Hitler’s Germany was defeated by the Allied forces after seven years of war and was replaced by a regime of Allied Occupation from 1945 to 1955. In the early postwar years, the occupiers focused their efforts on achieving four primary objectives: the prosecution of war-crime offenders, the purging of the state apparatus of Nazi sympathizers or party members, the compensation of Nazi victims, and the difficult process of helping the population deal with the experiences of the past decade.
Just a few weeks after the war, the Provisional Government announced the fundamental legal principles for the denazification process. One such principle guiding the denazification process was the prohibition of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) and all sub-organizations with connections to the party under the Prohibition Act (Constitutional Act of May 8, 1945). Based on this law, all individuals who were active in the Nazi party or any of its sub-organizations like the SS between 1933 and 1945 were required to register themselves as such. The law further stated that former Nazi party members would not be allowed to participate in the 1945 national parliamentary elections either actively, in that they would not be granted the right to vote, or passively, in that they were not allowed to nominate themselves as a candidate for election.
The War Crimes Act (Constitutional Law of June 26, 1945) “introduced a number of offenses that were either formerly nonexistent in the Austrian judicial code (such as the violation of human dignity or denunciation) or had to be negotiated in their qualification of actions as ‚Nazi Crimes’” (2).
From 1945 to 1955, the Judicial People’s Courts were formed. In August 1945, “the Vienna Court of Appeal was established for the Soviet zone of occupation and from the beginning of 1946, the Regional Courts of Graz (for the British occupation zone), Linz (for the U.S. occupation zone) and Innsbruck (for the French occupation zone) were established, each with their own Senate seat on each of the Courts of Appeal” (3). The legal principles of the denazification process were previously established by the aforementioned Prohibition Act and the War Crimes Act. “Between 1945 and 1955, a total of 139,829 cases were brought to the judicial parliamentary investigations regarding suspected Nazi crimes or ‚illegal‘ activities. Such illegal activities included membership in the Nazi party at the time of it s prohibition in Austria from 1933 to 1938. In all, 23,477 sentences were passed, of which there were 13,607 convictions” (4).
In 1946, a total of 536,660 people were registered in Austria as Nazis. 18.3 percent of these individuals were “illegal party-goers”, or people who had belonged to the NSDAP even before the “Anschluss” in 1938, a time when the party was prohibited in Austria (5). Because of the inconstant application of the denazification procedure and the numerous legal exemptions that occurred during the judicial dealings, the practical implementation of the denazification process in Austria was not smooth.
For this reason, the Prohibition Act and the War Crimes Act were amended and became part of the newly enacted National Socialist Law (Constitutional Law of February 17, 1947). This law was issued with the goal of bringing about a smoother procedure to the denazification process.
In this act, the former National Socialists were divided into two groups, namely:
- those who were involved in war crimes (and other related illegal activities)
- and those who were required to atone for their actions and make reparations (i.e. incriminated and lesser offenders)
Overall, the denazification process that was carried out immediately after the postwar period is considered the most intense. The intensity of the denazification process during this time was the result of the concentrated efforts of the Allied forces as well as the efforts of the Austrian Justice system, which attempted to prove their competence to the Allies in the prosecution of Nazi criminals. The intensity of the denazification process, however, fell sharply with the end of the prosecution by the Allies and the granting of amnesty to the majority of former Nazis in 1948. The conclusion of the Treaty in 1955 meant, in effect, the virtual end of the judicial dealings with Nazi crimes (6). From today’s perspective, the concept of denazification is most often associated with the laws that were adopted immediately after the war ended.
(1) Vgl. Neugebauer, Wolfgang (2000). Referat anlässlich der Enquete “Rassismus und Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Südafrika und Österreich – ein Vergleich?” im österreichischen Parlament, Wien, 31. Mai 2000.
(2) Nationalsozialismus.at: Gerichtliche Aufarbeitung, abrufbar unter www.nationalsozialismus.at/Themen/Umgang/gericht.htm.
(3) Nachkriegsjustiz.at: Prozesse und Volksgerichte, abrufbar unter www.nachkriegsjustiz.at/prozesse/volksg/index.php.
(4) Nachkriegsjustiz.at: Prozesse und Volksgerichte, abrufbar unter www.nachkriegsjustiz.at/prozesse/volksg/index.php.
(5) Vgl. Stiefel, Dieter (1981). Entnazifizierung in Österreich, Wien, Europa Verlag, S. 98, 116, 119.
(6) Nationalsozialismus.at: Entnazifizierung, abrufbar unter www.nationalsozialismus.at/Themen/Umgang/entnazif.htm.