Alexander Schallenberg never imagined himself becoming chancellor of Austria. A lawyer by training, he was born in Switzerland to an aristocratic family and raised in India, Spain and France, where his father served as a senior figure in the Austrian Foreign Ministry. He replaced Sebastian Kurz as chancellor after Kurz stepped down due to a corruption probe. Schallenberg, who served as foreign minister under Kurz, is viewed as being extremely close to his predecessor. His promotion in October prevented the break-up of the fragile coalition between the conservatives and the greens in Vienna.

Schallenberg will thus replace Kurz this week at the dedication of one of the projects the previous chancellor personally advanced: On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, which will be marked on Tuesday, Schallenberg will inaugurate the “Wall of Names”—a Holocaust memorial that commemorates the names of the roughly 65,000 Austrian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the World War II.

To mark the inauguration of the “Wall of Names,” Schallenberg granted Israel Hayom an exclusive interview in his office in Vienna.

Q: It’s been 76 years since the end of World War II, and this week, on the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom, you will inaugurate the “Wall of Names” memorial. What is the significance of this memorial for you, as one of the first generations in your family who was born after the Holocaust?

A: For me, this memorial has great significance. It’s an important step in which Austria shows its citizens and descendants of Holocaust victims that we don’t only look at them as the darkest chapter in our history, but relate to them on the human level. We are talking about people, not only numbers, about citizens who constituted a very significant part of the life in Vienna and in Austria, of our society, who were destroyed. Of course, the fact that this has only happened after decades can be criticized, but, in my eyes, it is important that Austria is doing this, also in relation to the decision that was recently made to grant Austrian citizenship to descendants of Holocaust victims and deportees. This is the human thing to do; through it, we are in fact thanking those who request it [Austrian citizenship] as they are showing their faith in the new Austria.

Q: What led Austria to choose this kind of Holocaust memorial?

A: For decades, there was an argument about what kind of memorial to build. In 2018, my predecessor, Sebastian Kurz, made the decision to establish a memorial, one that would be inspired by Yad Vashem. In our memorialization culture, we need to try to address the human and emotional levels. The victims were not just numbers, but human destinies. In my eyes, one of the most impressive halls at Yad Vashem, which moves me every visit and brings tears to my eyes, is the final hall that is covered with pictures of the victims, including children. If we want to deliver the message of “Never Again” we have to show that the murdered were people, not a group, not a number, not something anonymous. I think that this message comes across well at the “Wall of Names.”

Q: For decades, Austria denied any responsibility for the Holocaust and claimed that it was the first victim of Nazi Germany. Factually, many Austrians played important roles in the extermination of the Jews of Europe. Today, does Austria accept history as it was?

A: I think so. The most significant development was over the past few years: the speeches in the Knesset by former Chancellor Franz Vranitzky and former President Thomas Klastil, the distancing from the claim that we were only victims and recognition of the fact that Austrians were among the most notorious criminals, and that we take social and political responsibility for this. Former Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel made a major contribution to this with the “Washington Declaration,” the compensation agreement paid by Austria, even if this agreement seems to some of those concerned insufficient. It’s clear that we will never be able to heal the wounds with money.

I think that the discourse in Austria today is extremely different to how it was in the 1980s. But it’s forbidden to think that everything is behind us and we need to stop. Regretfully, we see that anti-Semitism is showing its terrible face in new ways. The struggle against anti-Semitism needs to be consistent. One generation can’t solve this problem, so it’s also a mission for the coming generations. It needs to be an ongoing effort. If we want to prevent there ever being this kind of barbarism again, every generation is obligated to work for itself on this history.

Q: You pointed out the “Washington Declaration.” There are survivors and descendants of survivors who claim that, in returning only a small part of the Jewish property that was expropriated, it missed an opportunity to reconcile with its Jews. What’s your opinion?

A: I understand the sensitivity of this issue. It was only a gesture, and it could only have been a gesture. With this, it wasn’t possible to bring the murdered back to life or to return years that were lost. But if you ask the Jewish community in Austria and the Jews who live here, they will tell you that it was an important step. It wasn’t the only and final step. Just recently we decided to provide an additional budget for the security of the Jewish community and to finance its activities. It’s important for us to see the dark chapters in our history, but also to ensure that there will be a flourishing community here that is full of life. For us, it is really enriching and I am proud and happy that more and more Jews feel comfortable in Austria, and also that many people sought Austrian citizenship as an expression of faith in the new Austria.

Q: Can you explain why Jews in Austria feel more secure than Jews in Germany or France?

A: I’m not able to judge the situation in France or Germany. In any case, Austria is doing a lot in order to ensure this [security]. We explained that this is a community with special security needs. Last week we marked the anniversary of the [Nov. 2, 2020] terrorist attack that took place close to the main synagogue in Vienna [in which four people were killed and 23 injured]. He [the Islamic State terrorist] did not target the synagogue. However, at first, we feared that it was an attempt to harm the synagogue. There is great sensitivity.

Beyond that, it must not be forgotten that Jewish life in Vienna had a great influence on Austrian life. For example, when we think about the start of the 20th century—about the Jewish contribution to science, culture, literature, the arts, academic life—without the Jews the blossoming of that same period would never have happened. And recognition of this causes Jews to feel better and more secure here.

Q: Germany still holds legal proceedings against individuals who participated in the extermination of the Jews in Europe. Why are there no such cases in Austria?

A: Where crimes were committed the legal system will operate with full power. I don’t know potential cases for trials like that. But, regardless of the perpetrators’ age, justice has to be done. I guarantee that the legal system will respond where it needs to respond if there will be enough factual evidence that will allow a prosecution to take place. The Austrian legal system is not afraid of acting on this issue.

Q: Nuclear negotiations with Iran are scheduled to resume in Vienna. Many in Israel compare the Iranian regime to the Nazi regime and the 2015 nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement. Do you see such similarities?

A: In all honesty, no. We have massive problems with the Iranian leadership, for example in relation to their Holocaust denial. We explained this to them in the clearest possible way. But the negotiations are an attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. It is proven that the absence of an agreement is worse than the existence of an imperfect agreement. Of course, the nuclear agreement isn’t perfect. There are issues, like the development of a missile program, that are not included in it at all. But like the proverb says: better a sparrow in the hand than a pigeon on the roof. According to experts, the last few years have shown that the time-out in implementing the agreement has shortened the time that Iran needs in order to obtain a nuclear weapon. The last thing the international community is interested in is a nuclear arms race in the Gulf. It will cause great instability for us all.

I understand the skeptical voices in Israel with regard to the agreement. But history shows that the absence of dialogue does not lead to results, and our goal needs to be to bring Iran into the framework of an agreement of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency so that we will see what they are doing. Without this, we have no possibility of inspecting them.

Q: As a former foreign minister, you know the Iranian issue well. Can you trust the Iranians at all?

A: Trust is probably the least available resource in the Gulf region. And this is also a big issue in the negotiations over the nuclear agreement. And therefore, trust is very much needed. Trust can’t be created with silence. Iran itself expressed a desire to return to the negotiating table. There, on our side, there are prior rules and conditions that are extremely clear. Trust can only be achieved through a contract, inspection systems and extreme transparency on the Iranian side that will give us the security that they aren’t continuing to develop a nuclear program. In the framework of the negotiations, we will need together to build the best possible transparency and without it, there won’t be a nuclear agreement.

Q: What will you do if you discover that, at a certain point, Israel says, “Enough, it’s enough, if we don’t do something, Iran will get a nuclear bomb,” and therefore responds militarily?

A: If we go according to this logic you have to be very supportive of the negotiations and the renewal of the agreement. We don’t have an interest in Iran getting the capability to build a nuclear weapon, which will lead other states in the region working to acquire this capability for themselves. On the basis of our history, we Austrians believe that there is a need for international law and international guidelines. These are the only things that maintain themselves over time. Anything else are immediate steps that will maybe bring something for a while, but over time won’t create sustainable security.

Q: Can the European Union contribute to expanding the normalization between Arab states and Israel so that additional countries will join the Abraham Accords?

A: I think so. The Abraham Accords changed the rules of the game. It’s one of the most interesting things that happened in the last few years. Sometimes they say in the Middle East no further progress can be made, and the doomsday prophets foresee the worst possible scenarios. The Middle East is always surprising, for good and for bad. The Abraham Accords are truly ground-breaking and I think that on the basis of our line of two states we need maximum normalization. A few days ago, I hosted the King of Jordan, I was myself in the Gulf and it was very interesting to see how much potential there is in the connection between Israel and the Arab states. It’s an encouraging development and, with our position in support of the two-state solution, we in the European Union need to contribute our part to advance this normalization.

Q: Over the years, Austrian-Israeli relations have been through ups and downs—there were the cases of Waldheim and Haider. But over the last few years, the relations improved significantly. In which areas would you want to see the two countries collaborate more?

A: There is great potential to advance relations and we’re really working intensively on our strategic partnership. Scientific exchanges, civil society, the economy. We can still learn a lot more from Israel in the areas of start-ups and high-tech. We made the decision to increasingly tighten the relations with Israel really consciously. We said that the security of Israel is an important part of our foreign policy and our official policy. I also see this in a geopolitical context. Democracy, freedom of religion, rejection of violence. Around 25 percent of all the countries in the United Nations represent this model of life, including Israel and Austria. These states belong to a family of values and therefore we have to stand together and work together.

Q: Do you see a similarity between Austria and Israel?

A: Israel is hotter and has more beaches than we do. It’s an interesting question, I’ve never thought about it. We have many shared lines of history. For better—like [Theodor] Herzl, for example, and for worse. There are many human bridges between the two countries, to be more precise between the people in Austria and the people in Israel, which were never destroyed. I think that this is the strongest connection between us. Of course, Israel has very demanding neighbors, while we live inside the European family. But our societies are faced with many similar situations. Especially during the corona crisis, we were in very close contact—and now with regard to the [coronavirus vaccine] booster shot. Israel is a very special case for us, and we follow what happens there closely. Israel is always a few months ahead of us.

Q: Will you visit Israel soon?

A: I very much hope so. I had a very friendly conversation with Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett, and I met him in Glasgow where we spoke about dealing with corona. I think I will be able to come to Israel before this Christmas.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.


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