We Did Not Want to Forget Anyone
With the establishment of the Fund for Reconciliation, Peace and Co-operation that was unanimously agreed by all parliamentary parties in 2000, the Republic of Austria has critically confronted an unresolved chapter from the dark period of the Nazi regime. Victims' organizations and government bodies from those Central and Eastern European countries from which most of the slave and forced laborers came, as well as historians, contemporary witnesses and victims all played a constructive part in this process.
When Chancellor Schüssel called me in early February 2000 to ask me to become the government special representative for voluntary payments to slave and forced laborers who had been coerced into work on the territory of the present-day Republic of Austria, he awakened childhood memories again. Suddenly, vivid memories came flooding back of people who had been forced to work under duress and under guard, whom we pitied but were unable to help.
Naturally, I agreed to take up this position in a voluntary capacity. Of course, I knew that the people on whose behalf I wanted to work, with a rapidly formed but extremely ambitious taskforce, were elderly and we could not afford to lose any time. We also sensed that after the defeat of the Nazi regime, victims had only rarely been able to find a life of their own that would have allowed them to forget the difficult period they spent as slave and forced laborers.
In our work for the Reconciliation Fund Law, we followed the mandate given to us by the Federal Government and the desire of victims' organizations to include as many victims as possible and to provide justice in a worthy form that took account of the different kinds of suffering. This awareness and our efforts led to differences between the Austrian and the German solutions, which proved advantageous to the victims. I am grateful to Chancellor Schüssel for accepting my suggestion to take a different approach than the Federal Republic of Germany and conduct separate—albeit linked—negotiations with regard to human fates and unresolved restitution issues. This approach enabled us, in cooperation with Stuart Eizenstat, the US special representative for slave and forced-labor related issues, to quickly achieve legal peace in the USA. The Austrian Reconciliation Fund constituted in December 2000 under the chairmanship of the chancellor was thus able to start with the full and controlled payment of compensation to the elderly former slave and forced laborers in mid 2001, following the dismissal of the last class-action suit.
I am proud that with the help of the Austrian Reconciliation Fund, Austria identified and included one group of victims who had not been covered by previous arrangements, namely those Hungarian Jews who had in the last months of the war been deported under indescribable conditions to the area around Vienna, to Strasshof and Laxenburg, to build the South Eastern Defensive Wall.
Austria has faced up to its moral obligations that arose from the tragic events of the Nazi period. The compensation payments made by the Reconciliation Fund should show the victims of Nazi slave and forced labor that Austria has understood their suffering, that it has compassion, and will continue efforts to achieve permanent reconciliation. May this moral and humanitarian gesture bring peace and liberation to both sides.
Dr. Maria Schaumayer,
Special Government Representative
for Forced Labor Related Issues