The Austrian Research Agency for Postwar Justice

The Austrian Research Agency for Postwar Justice/Forschungsstelle Nachkriegsjustiz (FStN) at the DÖW

With the investigation and punishment of Nazi crimes after the victory over Hitler’s Germany, justice and security authorities contributed not only to overcoming National Socialism, but also created tremendous volumes of files. This is especially true for Germany and Austria, where numerous trials were held in the subsequent decades, besides those held by the Allies immediately after the war. Those files from the trials documented on the one hand the relationship of the justice system with the Nazi system, and on the other hand, they served as a high quality historiographic source of the crimes themselves. The safeguarding of historical documents in the course of preparing for the trials as well as the testimony of the accused and of the thousands of surviving victims enriched knowledge regarding the Nazi tyranny. Nevertheless for a long time historians did not utilize these files as source material. The one exception was the so-called „Nuremberg documents“, which, together with the verbal protocol of the International Military Tribunal, served for decades as the main source for historical and political literature regarding the Nazi period. Not until the 1980s were these German and Austrian files discussed as a source for methodical historical research. The DOEW played the role of forerunner in Austria since it had begun to systematically copy postwar trial files in the late 1970s in order to broaden the database of resistance and persecution in the individual Austrian states. The first of two projects financed by the Austrian Science Fund explicitly used the files of the postwar trials as its basis. The successor project, which focused on the value of these documents for further research, intended furthermore to compare the activities of the Austrian postwar justice system with the various methods used by other European countries to deal with Nazi crimes, the comparison with Germany being foremost.

One research goal that received international recognition was the shared project, “Rethinking Postwar Europe”, at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and the Remarque Institute at New York University (1993-1998). Tony Judt coordinated this project of one Croatian and three American researchers (with British, Hungarian and Polish backgrounds, respectively). The main research subject of the project was the question as to the legitimacy of “The Politics of Retribution in Post-1945 Europe”, which was based on a study of court documents in both western and eastern Europe.


How postwar justice became the focus of research at the DÖW

 When the DÖW was founded in 1963 historical files were generally locked in federal and state archives, and the documentation of resistance and persecution via private files and copies from foreign sources was the main focus. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s there was an increase in collecting activity, the best evidence of which was the database of murdered Austrian Jewish men and women begun in the 1990s. Also in the early years, the fate of relatives of the political resistance was studied. And to this were added other victim groups, the largest being victims of the euthanasia program. Developments in domestic politics also added to the need for documenting rightwing extremism. Also in the 1990s the DÖW underwent a big broadening of its research and documentation activities in three new areas, which could be added to the categories

“Transitional justice”/reparation and restitution (led by Brigitte Bailer, who because of this was appointed to the Historical Commission of the Republic of Austria);

“Memory signs” as a specific form of the politics of the past (begun by Herbert Exenberger and Heinz Arnberger, and later expanded by Claudia Kuretsidis-Haider and Heimo Halbrainer as “Remind and Remember”);

Coping with the Nazi past by the Austrian judiciary (via the FStN led by Winfried Garscha and Claudia Kuretsidis-Haider).

The FStN is based in the DÖW and forms the organizational framework for dealing with all kinds of “postwar justice” at the DÖW: studying court documents, including preliminary examinations, denazification files, . The scientists at the research agency assist visitors to the DÖW: they give information regarding the location of trial files, which are not available elsewhere at the DOEW or in only incomplete copy; and they advise regarding questions of availability of trial files, their structure, as well as legal conditions in their use as sources of history.

In addition to researching and documenting issues of legal history, the FStN is also active in the area of memory history. Thus there was an (annual) memorial journey in March 2015 led by Claudia Kuretsidis-Haider to Engerau, Slovakia (today Bratislava-Petrzalka) in cooperation with the Vienna State Association of Concentration Camp Survivors, and the DOEW. Each year, the Jewish Hungarian men murdered at the end 1944 by Austrian political leaders and members of the SA are memorialized. They were brought to Engerau to do forced labor. Between 1945 and 1954 the largest complex of trials in history came before the Viennese People’s Court to adjudicate war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Vienna. Claudia Kuretsidis-Haider organized a reenactment of the Engerau trial on October 26, 2015 at its original site: The trial had taken place from August 14-17, 1945, and was not only the first against Nazi crimes in Austria, but also the first in the newly renovated Great Circuit Court hall at the Vienna State Criminal Court. Numerous staff at the DOEW, including the scientific director, participated in the production in the overflowing hall. A DVD is available at the FStN.

The search aids at the FStN not only make scientific research easier, but for the past several years have also served as the base for a working group at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Justice investigating surviving perpetrators. In nearly all such cases, in which prior prosecutorial evidence established a high likelihood of involvement in Nazi crimes, it appears that the suspects had not yet reached the age of 21 at the time of the presumed crime, rendering the case beyond the statute of limitations and thereby not prosecutable. In order to prevent Austria from becoming a safe haven for war crimes, the FStN has repeatedly called for change in the legal provisions regarding such issues. This was passed in 2014-15, but of course only applies to genocidal crimes going forward and not retroactively to Nazi criminals.


Austrian Trials