The study released Thursday by the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which negotiates compensation for victims, showed that 56% of Austrian respondents did not know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Some 36% believed 2 million or fewer were killed — a belief that rose to 42% among younger people aged 18-34.
Claims Conference CEO Greg Schneider said the numbers were in line with the first two surveys done on knowledge in the United States and Canada, but were more surprising coming from Austria. "The trends are the same, which indicate a really disturbing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, but one of the things different about this survey is that it's done in a place where the Holocaust occurred," he said in a phone interview from New York.
The results come amid ongoing concerns over Austria's far-right Freedom Party, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's junior governing coalition partner, which was led by former Nazis in the postwar period. Though it's officially distanced itself from that past, rhetoric from party members continues to evoke the Nazi era. Just last week, the deputy mayor of Braunau am Inn — Adolf Hitler's hometown — left the party after writing a poem comparing migrants to rats, similar to the way the Nazis characterized Jews.
And on the weekend, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, also the country's vice chancellor, created an uproar saying his party was fighting against a "replacement of the native population" or Bevoelkerungsaustausch — a term used by European far-right groups that is also reminiscent of the Nazi terminology.
"The greatest fear is that something like the Holocaust could happen again, so I think it's too narrow to limit the concerns to Austria," Schneider said. "Yes, there are troubling signs like the mayor (of Braunau am Inn), but since just last month there's been a shooting in a mosque in New Zealand, bombings in churches in Sri Lanka, and now shootings again at a synagogue in the United States — one of the key takeaways from the Holocaust is that it started with words, which quickly lead to deeds."
Austrians were asked about the Freedom Party in the survey and were equally split, with 43% seeing it favorably and 43% unfavorably. Thirty-six percent said they considered parties like the Freedom Party patriotic, while 42% said such parties were nationalist and xenophobic.
Last year, a prominent Freedom Party member stepped down after it was revealed he was in an Austrian student fraternity that promoted neo-Nazi ideals, including singing songs with anti-Semitic lyrics. Asked about such fraternities, 16% said they should be able to keep singing their traditional songs even if they were anti-Semitic, while 70% said they should not be able to practice anti-Semitic traditions.
Efraim Zuroff, head of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center's Jerusalem office, said a striking result in the survey was that only 13% said Austria was a Holocaust perpetrator, while 68% said it was both perpetrator and victim, and 12% said it was a victim.
"Given the fact that approximately a third of the most culpable Holocaust criminals were Austrians, that says a lot about the Holocaust distortion in Austria and the reluctance to take any responsibility," said Zuroff, who was not involved in the study, in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
Indeed, while 79% of respondents knew Hitler was an Austrian, only 14% knew Adolf Eichmann, who played a major role in the Holocaust, was German-Austrian. Schneider noted that 42% also said they weren't familiar with Mauthausen, even though the concentration camp was located in Austria.
"It's as if you had a person in Texas who had never heard of the Alamo, it's just shocking... it's in their backyard," he said. In a positive sign, however, Schneider said 82% of respondents said the Holocaust should be taught in schools.
"The lack of knowledge among many Austrians revealed through this study sets a mission for not only teachers and politicians but all society," said Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish Communities in Vienna and Austria, in a statement. "A sincere handling of anti-Semitic incidents today and misrepresentations of Shoah is crucial."
The survey of 1,000 adults, which was released to coincide with Israel's observation of Holocaust Remembrance Day, was conducted between Feb. 22 and March 1 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.