The Long Shadow of a Sinister Past



On 14 June, Martin Pollack, one of Austria’s most renowned writers and public intellectuals, delivered the 2024 Krzysztof Michalski Memorial Lecture. Since 2019, the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) has been inviting renowned scholars and intellectuals to honor the legacy of its founding rector as part of the lecture series.

I don’t remember when I met Krzysztof Michalski for the first time. It must have been in the late eighties at the Institute which was then located in the fourth district. At one of our early meetings, he enquired in a subtle way about my background. He knew that I had studied in Warsaw and was a translator of Polish literature, but he was quite taken aback when I told him that I came from a Nazi family, that literally everybody in the family had been a hard-core Nazi, and that they had never changed their convictions or voiced any regrets for the Nazi crimes. On the contrary, they denied or justified them, including the Holocaust and mass murder which were committed with their knowledge and sometimes their active participation. My grandfather and my father, my grandmother, my uncle, and the rest of the family … We were no exception—in Austria and Germany, there were many like us.

Large parts of Austrian society were, after the war, still strongly tied to National Socialism, an aggressive Greater German ideology coupled with a rejection of Austria as a separate country with its own history and mentality, and not least, a deeply rooted Anti-Semitism and Anti-Slavic sentiment. The official version, of course, stated that Austria had been the first victim of Hitler’s expansionist politics. But not all Austrians accepted this version. In my family, like in many others, the belief in Hitler and the Third Reich was sustained until the most faithful followers had died. We are not Austrians but Germans and will be forever proud of it, was the oft-articulated credo in my family that was fed to me as a child.

At the time of my grandmother’s death—I was by then studying in Vienna and had broken off all ties to the family—my uncle, the younger brother of my father, asked me to come to Amstetten where the family lived. I rushed to see her one last time—she had been the best grandmother I can imagine, and as a boy, she had loved and pampered me without limits. But at the same time, she had been a stubborn, tough woman—a Nazi to her very core. I arrived too late. She had already died. My uncle greeted me at the door with the words: “Sie ist gestorben wie eine deutsche Frau.” She died like a German woman. I realized then that they hadn’t changed their beliefs and never would.


Retrospectively, I ask myself what made me take another path than my family. Why did I reject their distorted Weltanschauung as a young man? I remember when my mother told me for the first time who my real father had been, an officer of the SS and a leading member of the Gestapo. I must have been then 14 years old, old enough to understand what that meant. She didn’t tell me what he had done during the war, maybe she didn’t know herself, at least not in details. Many of them I found out many years later, one after another, when I started to research his life. A slow and painful process. When my mother first told me about my father, I experienced a shock. I was totally confused and didn’t know how to react. And there was nobody I could talk to about my feelings. So, I had to come to terms with the horrible news by myself. It took me a long time, but I managed somehow to carry on with what might be called a normal life.

How to explain my family’s strong affiliation to Nazism? Doubtless, their background and socialization played an important role. Until the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy following the First World War, they had lived in the so-called Untersteiermark, Lower Styria (Štajerska in Slovene). Maribor and Celje were the two main cities. My great-grandfather had moved around 1870 from the Rhineland to the small town of Tüffer, Laško in Slovene, where he established a successful business as a tanner. The population was ethnically mixed, with a German-speaking upper class in the minority and a Slovenian majority, which had started in the second half of the nineteenth century to demand equal rights. This promoted the rise of two competing nationalisms: a Greater German ideology which curiously posited the German „iron chancellor“ Bismarck as its hero—curiously because Bismarck, in fact, rejected the großdeutsche strategy and was in favor of a kleindeutsche. The Habsburg Emperor was considered a friend of the Slavs and, therefore, a traitor to the German cause and the promoter of an awakening Slovene nationalism.

My great-grandfather was a convinced Greater German nationalist. To emphasize this, he planted an oak tree in front of his house, the oak being a symbol of German might and rule. There were many oak trees planted in those years in Štajerska, proudly called  Bismarck-Eichen, Bismarck-Oaks – to show the Slovenians who the real masters were. The Slovenes also had a tree as their national symbol, the lipa, linden, or lime tree. When I visited Laško for the first time, I was surprised to find my great-grandfather’s Bismarck oak still standing, now an impressive tree. The Slovene neighbors apparently didn’t care much about it’s original meaning.

In the late nineteenth century, hostilities and clashes between the two nations were on the agenda. My great-grandfather had four sons—three of them, my grandfather among them, were sent to Graz to study. They had already absorbed a militant German nationalism at home and in school in Celje: in Graz, they joined a German fraternity (Deutsche Burschenschaft) by the name of Germania, characterized by strong racial antisemitism and antislavism. Graz was considered a bulwark against the imagined onslaught of Slavs – Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs. This paved the way for the approaching National Socialism, which arrived relatively early in the city—that’s why it was proudly called Hauptstadt der Bewegung later on—the capital of the (Nazi) movement. There were, however, many other cities like Graz.

Clashes with their Slovene neighbors, growing xenophobia, and the belief in the superiority of the German race … Those were the elements that formed the atmosphere in which the male members of my family were brought up. Plus, the conviction that Germans were constantly in danger of being overrun by a hostile majority planning to rob the hard-working Germans of their rights and positions. These complaints, brought forward ever more aggressively, sound familiar to us. Today right-wing politicians are accusing migrants of exactly the same.

As a child, I often heard those tales of self-victimisation. We were the true victims of history having been betrayed by our eternal enemies, Jews and Slavs. They wanted to destroy us—the Dolchstoßlegende, the stab-in-the-back myth concocted after the disaster of the First World War, was kept alive even after the Second World War.


We know this classical offender–victim reversal only too well; it is also to be found in today’s politics. Putin and his followers constantly claim that they never planned an aggression but are always on the defensive from the enemies that surround them: the West in general, and Western politics still seeking to destroy a peaceful Russia to fulfill Hitler’s heritage. That’s why he is constantly railing against fictitious Nazis ruling Ukraine. At the same time, he blames the West for using wicked tools like the LGBT community and NGOs to weaken Russia and its allies. And he seems quite successful in this. In democratic countries as well—Austria and the rise of the far-right party FPÖ are an example.

How can this be explained? Almost eighty years after the end of the war, how is it possible that such strong echoes of National Socialism remain deeply rooted and apparently attractive to ever wider layers of society after so many years?

Why are people living in peaceful times, in a democracy with all its benefits, planning to undermine and destroy that very system while aiming to revive the ideology and methods of the past? Because that’s what they are doing. Hate speech, xenophobia, racism, thoughts of the superiority of a master race, and the admiration of a strong man, a Führer, who is ruling with an iron fist, are gaining ground as if Nazism had never happened, not only in Germany and Austria but in other countries with deeply embedded democratic traditions as well.

Is this a sign of some kind of collective amnesia? Are we, the children of Nazis, responsible?  Brought up in its evil spirit, have we neglected something, have we thought that democracy would be strong enough to resist the onslaught of reactionary and fascist ideas and movements without us actively fighting them? Sometimes I ask myself if my family members would have become admirers of Putin? I can’t rule it out. They were convinced that democracy was poison and only a strong man can save us.

After the First World War, most members of my family left Štajerska, where they had become second-class citizens overnight. Now the long-downtrodden Slovenes were the rulers. A traumatic situation for the Germans. The result was strong feelings of frustration and a conviction that they had been treated unfairly by history. It was their duty, they felt, to win back their lands and leading positions not only in Štajerska but in the whole of Europe.

My father studied in Graz like his father and uncles and, like them, joined the German fraternity Germania, which after the war became even more radical. In 1931 he became a member of the Nazi party, the NSDAP, and at the same time, the SS, then a rather small organization of thugs always ready to fight their political adversaries, Socialists, Communists, Christian Socialists, or the police on the street, in taverns. Hard drinking and fighting duels were part of fraternity life. One of my father’s colleagues at university and in the mountaineering club was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, later Chief of the Reich Security Main Office, Reichssicherheitshauptamt, a leading perpetrator of the Holocaust.

We always have to be careful with historical comparisons. But in some ways, the times then remind us of developments today. The growing aggression in politics, in speech, and in deeds. The readiness to attack a political adversary not only with words but physically, beating him up or even killing him. In this respect, Putin and his followers look like fearsome harbingers. To them it seems quite normal to eliminate opponents with the most brutal methods. A dangerous lead for others to follow.

After the so-called Anschluss in 1938, my father got a job in the Gestapo in Graz. He seemed to be an ideal candidate, a convinced Nazi, tested by his membership in the SS, which had been declared illegal in 1933. He had been imprisoned for his anti-Austrian activities, the same as my grandfather. That was another recommendation for a career in the Gestapo, the SS, and the SD, the intelligence agency of the SS. After Graz, he was assigned to different German cities. In January 1941 he was sent to Linz, where he became acting chief of the Gestapo.

An important position. Hitler had lived some years in Linz, the city he was sentimentally attached to. He went to school there, but not very successfully. One of his schoolmates at secondary school in Linz was my later stepfather Hans Pollack, who remembered Hitler very well. My stepfather was also a Nazi.


My father’s duties as a chief of the Gestapo were manifold. He was responsible for the execution of Nazi laws against forced laborers, any so-called enemies of the Reich, and, of course, Jews. No case seemed too small to escape his attention. A friend of mine, a historian, came in his research across the tragic story of an old man living near Steyr. This man was the only Jew in the village. Max Gorge had been born 1868 in Bohemia and moved to Austria where he found employment as a linen weaver. When he retired, he stayed in Gaflenz. A poor old man hardly able to make ends meet. But he was not overlooked by the Nazis. In his files my friend found a letter signed by my father asking the authorities to register and report all Jews, without exception. Gorge was sent to Vienna in early 1942 and, from there, presumably to a death camp, but not before he was punished by two weeks in prison because he had neglected to add the first name Israel to his name in his papers.

Would Gorge have survived without the intervention of my father? I doubt it, but this is not the point. My father had, in effect, signed his death sentence. One might ask if it’s really worth delving into such a seemingly unimportant case. Weren’t there countless cases of mass murder, of millions killed in concentration camps or the killing fields in Eastern Europe? To tell the truth, my father was also involved in mass murder by his own hand. But I still think that we should also take into consideration individual cases like Mr. Gorges’s because they prepared the ground and the spirit for what was to come later.

Nobody had forced my father to join the Gestapo and SS; he did it of his own free will, knowing what would be expected of him. He could have chosen another way, for instance, to become a lawyer like his father and his uncle—they were also involved in crimes, but not on the same level. So why? I have often asked myself this question but never found a satisfactory answer.

Of course, his deep involvement in the murderous Nazi regime had been predetermined by his upbringing, but this doesn‘t minimize his guilt. He knew what he was doing, he had studied law and learned to distinguish between right and wrong.

In Linz, my father met my mother, who was then married to Hans Pollack, whose name I carry. A complicated story: when I was born in May 1944, my mother was still married to Pollack, whom she divorced in early 1945, to marry my real father, Dr. Gerhard Bast. Not a wise decision considering the fact that the war was lost, and my father would find himself soon on a list of war criminals. But before this, his Gestapo career came to an abrupt end in November 1943. As chief of the Gestapo, he was invited to go hunting near the concentration camp of Mauthausen. During the hunt, he accidentally shot a driver boy. One would have thought that as a high-ranking Gestapo man and SS officer, he would have got away with a reprimand, but in those things, the Nazis were strict. He was taken to court and sentenced to four months in prison which he didn’t have to serve – he was sent to the front instead where he was to lead a Sonderkommando of an Einsatzgruppe, a special command of a task force meant to clean up behind the front and eliminate Jews, partisans and other so-called enemies of the regime. In short – a death squad.

The hunting accident near Linz marked a dramatic rift in his life. Until this point, my father had been a so-called desk offender. Now, he has become an active perpetrator. Is there a difference? I am not sure. To our knowledge, Adolf Eichmann never killed with his own hands, and yet he was responsible for millions of deaths.

My father met the men of his special command in July 1944 near Białystok in Poland. An unpleasant surprise for me. I hadn’t known that he had done duty in Poland, the country to which I have been tied so closely. I studied Polish literature in Warsaw and still consider Poland my second homeland. I first went to Poland just twenty years after my father had been sent there in an entirely different capacity.

In Białystok, the Sonderkommando 7a, also named after my father Sonderkommando Bast, took a group of old Poles as hostages and moved with them on to Warsaw. They set up camp outside the city, where, at this time, the Warsaw Uprising was raging. During my research I got hold of documents throwing light on my father’s role. He was sent with his men into the city, heavily armed and in civilian clothes, to liquidate, as he put it himself, whoever they came across, unarmed civilians, insurgents or otherwise, men and women. No mercy was given. Was he following blindly orders? That’s only part of the truth. As commander of a task force, he was pretty much his own boss. So why did he do it? Again, I never found a satisfactory answer. Is there one to be found?

The same question comes up in most armed conflicts. Why do people turn so easily from ordinary men, as the historian Christopher Browning describes them, into ruthless murderers, convinced that they are doing the right thing and that they are serving a just cause? They torture and kill with no pangs of conscience. And when the conflict is over, they get on with their normal life as fathers and husbands. Also, society doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with reintegrating them. In many cases, they slip back into their former professions as doctors and lawyers, engineers and craftsmen. Society needs them. After the total moral disaster of the Second World War, we were sure that humanity had learned its lesson, that such crimes would never happen again, and that the perpetrators would be outcasts for a long time. Nie wieder, never again, was the universal slogan—but it was short-lived as we know.


Again we are watching helplessly how evil is gaining ground right in front of us, in Europe and in most other parts of the world. And we tell ourselves that we can do nothing about it, that our hands are tied and we are forever condemned to the role of passive observers and bystanders. But isn’t this just an easy excuse? I cannot and will not judge other people, but I know that I, as the son of a perpetrator, am not allowed to take this seemingly comfortable position. Many people say that it is time to forget, to let the past rest – why dig up these gruesome things again and again? When will it ever end? Shouldn’t the young generation be allowed to get on with their life without this burden?

That might be so, but I still think that we also have the duty to remember. One doesn’t exclude the other. Look ahead without forgetting the past. If only to keep the memory of the victims alive – and also the memory of the perpetrators and their crimes. Many victims seem to have disappeared without a trace – nameless, faceless, they have been burned to ashes in the ovens of extermination camps or have been thrown into pits somewhere to be forgotten forever.

I have written a book by the title Kontaminierte Landschaften, Contaminated Landscapes, dealing with this subject. And I have come across them also during the research for the book about my father. In Poland and Slovakia, where he served with his men, I found numerous places, most of them anonymous, where his victims had been buried. Buried is not the right term: the murderers just threw some earth on them, and in some cases, they didn’t even bother to do that. Some had been exhumed shortly after having been killed, but others have never been found, or, rather, never really been looked for. Let them lie in some hidden place without even a trace of a grave. No stone, no Christian cross or Jewish matzevah, to tell anybody who passes by to stop and consider that human beings have been buried here.

From Poland, my father was sent with his men to Slovakia to fight the uprising against the fascist regime there, which had broken out in August 1944. Slovakia was then an ally of Hitler Germany. In Slovakia, I found many contaminated landscapes which my father‘s men had left behind. They were sent there to hunt, literally hunt, Jews and partisans. My father was a passionate hunter, and he was at home in the mountains. During my research, I came across an incident in the mountains near the town of Ružomberok in Central Slovakia. In a small village named Bully members of the Special Command 7a found a group of Jews hiding in the hut of a poor farmer’s wife. My father ordered them to be shot – along with the woman who had given them shelter. Sometime later, they were exhumed by local people, and their remains, bodies, and clothes were noted down precisely because not all of them were known to the villagers.

When the book was published in Czech, I received a letter from Prague from a woman who told me that a young couple with two children among the anonymous dead were her relatives, her uncle Jenö Kohn, a pharmacist in Banska Bystrica, with his wife and two children. And she sent a photograph of her uncle, a young, good-looking man. She wrote that she was glad that she had found out what had happened after such a long time.

That’s exactly what it is about. To try to give back to at least some nameless victims their faces and names, maybe even part of their history. Because the perpetrators had done everything to make them disappear forever, to be erased from memory as if they had never existed.

This we must not allow. Never. Two years ago, I was invited to the small town of Jennersdorf in the South Burgenland, near the border with Hungary and Slovenia, to speak at the unveiling of a monument for 29 Jewish slave laborers who had been killed there shortly before the end of the war. They had been thrown in a pit near the town, at a place which the local people called Aasplatz, carrion place, because that’s where they had buried their sick animals for generations.

Why this place and not another, one without such a gruesome history? There is a reason for it. The murderers meant to dehumanize the victims and rob them of their humanity even after their death. You can find places like this en masse in Poland, Ukraine, and other countries. They are often to be found in garbage dumps. To hide the bodies but also to show total contempt for them. In literature these places are called Un-Orte, non-places.

When I spoke in Jennersdorf, I asked why the local authorities had waited so long to remember the victims, over seventy years. I didn’t get an answer. A friend who lives there told me that he and others had demanded for years that a monument be set up, a stone, a memorial plaque, or whatever. The authorities had refused. What for? Who needs this? Isn’t it better to forget? In the end they gave in, reluctantly, maybe somebody from above had put pressure on them.


Back to my father’s history which was the starting point for my thoughts. In March 1945, Special Command 7a was ordered back from Slovakia to be dissolved in the Czech city of Brno, Brünn. My father went to Linz, where my mother was living with my stepfather Hans Pollack. In March 1945 my mother divorced Hans Pollack to marry my father. It was not the ideal time to start a new life. The war was virtually over, the Third Reich which my father had served so faithfully had collapsed, the Russians were advancing rapidly. Like many of his comrades from the SS and Gestapo, my father found himself on a list of war criminals and went underground.

There is one thing that puzzles me: Why hadn‘t high-ranking members of the SS and Gestapo prepared for the defeat that even the most ardent believers must have seen coming? My father didn’t even have false papers when he went underground. And there were many like him. He had some money, gold dollars, but that was it. No civilian clothes, no papers. The wife of my father’s younger brother told me that she went to a reporting office for refugees from the Sudeten land in Linz, where she pinched a blank identity card. This she gave him. He filled in the fictitious name of a worker from Krško, a small place near Laško, where the family came from.

Then he went into hiding in the mountains which he knew so well. Even some of the highest-ranking Nazis apparently had not taken any serious preparations for their escape. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, my father’s buddy from Graz and later Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) hid in a hunting lodge near Altaussee where he was tracked down and arrested a few days later by American soldiers. Kaltenbrunner was very tall, with a longish face like a horse, littered with scars from duels he had fought as a student. He was easily recognized.

My father was not caught. He was constantly on the move. Austria, just having been freed from Nazi rule, was in chaos, most structures had broken down, the old authorities had been swept away, new ones had to be established. This was a slow process. In the beginning, the search for convinced Nazis to be put on trial seemed to have been taken seriously, but soon the eagerness faded. More so in Austria than in Germany.

The so-called denazification was not popular among most Austrians who had been followers of the regime or at least passively supportive bystanders. We all know the pictures from Heldenplatz in Vienna, packed with an enthusiastic crowd when Hitler declared on 15th March the Anschluss, annexation, of the Republic of Austria to Nazi Germany. There were also practical reasons for the reluctance to punish Nazis who had burdened themselves with guilt. The broken-down country needed the Nazis, the specialists, doctors, lawyers, officials, and so on. It seemed easier to leave them in their positions than to replace them with newcomers, even if they were convinced Antinazis. Many of them had perished in Concentration Camps, others had fled the country and now hesitated to come back. Antisemitism was still thriving.


As we can see it is rapidly gaining ground again. A disaster for our country.

My father was on the run for two years, first in Austria, then he went to South Tyrol, where he found shelter and work with a rich farmer. Everybody knew that he was not a lumberjack as he pretended to be. The scars on his face from duels betrayed him. But nobody cared. South Tyrol then was some kind of a no man’s land. Many years later I found out that he had paid the farmer to keep his secret with gold dollars. My mother told me that the farmer had contacted her in the sixties and asked if she wanted to buy back some of the gold coins – as memorabilia. She was not interested.

In March 1947, my father planned to return to Austria, to Innsbruck, to meet my mother and me, who were to accompany him on his further flight to Latin America, to Paraguay. He already had the necessary papers that he had been promised or already given by the Red Cross. He went as far as the Brenner Pass on the border between Italy and Austria. There he hired a young local man to guide him over the strictly guarded border at night. The young South Tyrolean thought that my father had in his rucksack part of the legendary Nazi gold and shot him, then he hid the body in a bunker near the border. In the rucksack, he found no gold or other treasure but just some clothes and other worthless things. The body was found weeks later.

Last year I received the Austrian police file about the murder on the Brenner Pass in March 1947. My father had been shot three times, two shots in the face and one in the chest. Details, I really didn’t want to know. But that’s how it is with a never-ending story.

His life, overshadowed by violence, had been ended by a crime. Today we are confronted with the rise of violence and naked force again, maybe in some other forms, but the similarities are obvious. The democratic Europe seems ill prepared for this, people seem to prefer to close their eyes and ears once more. This might be a fatal reaction.

  • Pubblicato sul sito dell’IWM (qui).
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  1. Edda Battigelli 25 giugno 2024

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