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July 25, 2014

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Swastika on Austrian tombstone defies official ban

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AP Photo/Hans Punz

This picture taken Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, shows a marble tombstone which is adorned by a swastika and the inscription “He died in the struggle for a Great Germany” at the central cemetery in Graz, Austria.

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 controversy 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 moved since to acknowledge 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.

At the same time, some Austrians cling to the view that they bear less Holocaust responsibility than the Germans, if any at all. Asked if Austrians were Hitler's victims, rather than his henchmen, 78-year old Graz cemetery visitor Annamarie Deticek replied: "Yes, of course!"

Some comments by Graz city and church representatives responsible for managing the dispute suggest they see nothing wrong with graveyard Nazi displays.

While acknowledging 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' 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, even "if I totally oppose this era."

Asked if the church was ready to put up a sign next to the grave explaining how the swastika is associated with Nazi horrors, he demurred, saying symbols displayed on other tombstones might be just as offensive to some people.

Pressed for specifics, he spoke of "anti-religious" symbols on some graves, adding without elaboration that the church was "not necessarily happy" with some of the emblems displayed on the cemetery's Jewish graves.

Scarcely a month goes by without some incident in Austria that reflects insensitivity to the Nazi era.

The slogan "Arbeit macht frei" — "Work sets you free" — universally evokes the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, where it arched over the main gate. On Thursday, the weekly magazine "News" reported sighting a sign in Gothic letters with the slogan on a house belonging to local centrist politician Sven Skjellet.

Skjellet, of the People's Party, was quoted as saying he meant no harm, explaining that he had bought the house from his father a few years ago and left up the sign in his memory.

Meanwhile, Austria's anti-foreigner Freedom Party, which regularly polls in the double digits, draws neo-Nazi support. Some of the party's local politicians have been forced to resign for statements on Facebook or elsewhere expressing xenophobic or anti-Semitic comments.

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."

But Rajakovics, the Graz spokesman, and Leibnitz, the church provost, 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' 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.

Under that interpretation, Graz officials say it's up to the grave's owner — a German man they refuse to identify — to voluntarily remove the emblem. But that's something they say he refuses to do.

Rajakovics says the city council criticized the headstone years ago, and the church, as the graveyard's owner, "is the only institution that can do something." Leibnitz, in turn, says the Roman Catholic church has "tried going to the politicians and to the state prosecutors" for a solution that has yet to materialize.

Law professor Martin Pollaschek says the answer might be a civil law separate from the 1947 criminal law. He says the civil law — which bans displays of Nazi symbols except in rare cases such as in research material — could force the owner to cover up the swastika or have it removed without criminal prosecution.

Leibnitz said he recently heard of the civil law but does not think it applies, although he would not say why.

Rajakovics says he is unaware of that law — a claim Pollaschek calls unlikely. The law professor says he first mentioned the alternate to the 1947 law in Austian news media 10 years ago, "and I continue to repeat it now." He said that he now plans to press charges under the civil law.

Meanwhile, the swastika remains — to the aggravation of its critics, including Austria's Jewish community.

Raimund Fastenbauer, who speaks for Vienna's Jews, said the problem is not with Austria's anti-Nazi laws but a reluctance to enforce them.

"This is disappointing and frustrating," he said.

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