GRAZ, Austria – The marble tombstone looks like others dotting the main cemetery of Graz, Austria’s second city – but only at first glance. Carved into it are a swastika and the inscription: He died in the struggle for a Great Germany.
Footsteps away, another gravestone is marked with the SS lightning bolts proudly worn by the elite Nazi troops who executed most of the crimes of the Holocaust.
Austrian law bans such symbols, and those displaying them face criminal charges and potential prison terms. Yet the emblems reflecting this country’s darkest chapter in history endure here, and officials appear either unable or unwilling to do away with them – despite complaints from locals.
The issue reflects Austria’s complex relationship with the Hitler era. Annexation by Germany in 1938 enabled Austrians to claim after the war that they were Hitler’s first victims. Austria has since acknowledged that it was instead a perpetrator. It has paid out millions of dollars in reparations, restored property to Jewish heirs and misses no public opportunity to ask for forgiveness for its wartime role.
While acknowledging that the mayor’s office was uncomfortable with the swastika, the city’s spokesman, Thomas Rajakovics, called it an old symbol in the English world that stands for the sun.
Christian Leibnitz, provost of Graz’s Roman Catholic church, said a lot of tombstones in the city still displayed the swastika and suggested it had a right to remain in cemeteries as a political and societal symbol of the era.
Austria enacted a law in 1947 banning Nazi symbols that led to the purging of such emblems from Austrian graveyards. Vienna cemeteries spokesman Florian Keusch says he believes none of the 500,000 gravestones in the Austrian capital now has such symbols, and if we found any, they would be removed.
Yet in Graz, Rajakovics and Leibnitz say their hands are tied. Both claim they are not aware of the grave with the SS symbol. But in the case of the swastika, they cite Graz’s top prosecutor, Hans-Joerg Bacher, who ruled that the law prohibiting Nazi displays did not apply to that headstone because it was put up before the law was passed in 1947.
Law professor Martin Pollaschek said he plans to press charges under a separate civil law that bans displays of Nazi symbols except in rare cases such as in research material. That could force the owner to cover up the swastika or have it removed without criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, the swastika remains – to the aggravation of its critics, including Austria’s Jewish community.