Events across Austria and Europe are being held to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day – the end of World War Two on the continent.In Vienna the Austrian government will hold a remembrance ceremony in the chancellery, with a speech by Marko Feingold, a 103-year-old concentration camp survivor. He settled in Salzburg after the war and is now president of the Salzburg Jewish Community.
He told the Kurier newspaper that he is worried about the declining numbers of Jewish people in Austria and said that “politicians must do more for Jews and not be afraid of losing votes”. He said the promotion of Jewish communities in Germany was “exemplary”.
In Lower Austria, all church bells will be rung to mark the anniversary. The Austrian army will hold a vigil in Vienna’s Heldenplatz.
On Friday evening at 7.40pm the Fest der Freude (Festival of Joy) will begin in Heldenplatz – where Adolf Hitler announced the Anschluss on March 15th 1938 from the balcony of the Hofburg palace to a crowd of thousands of jubilant Austrians.
The balcony, which is above the entrance to the National Library, will be used to interview historians and eyewitnesses during the live ORF broadcast of the event. A free concert by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra will begin at 8.15pm.
VE Day marked the final defeat of Hitler and the Nazis and the end of the war in Europe, but it was not the end of World War Two. It would take another three months to achieve Japanese surrender.
For Austria, newly independent from Germany, a ten-year occupation by the Allied forces began. The country had been heavily damaged by the war and hunger and fear dominated in a climate where the future seemed uncertain.
Vienna had suffered the most, with 175,000 apartments either damaged or completely destroyed. In the period after the war, the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) helped clear and reconstruct the bombed cities. “Economic reconstruction would not have worked without women,” historian Oliver Rathkolb said in an interview with the ORF website.
“By September 1945, the average consumer had to make do with 800 calories a day. Food rationing, the black market and foraging trips into the countryside became an everyday reality of post-war life,” he added.
At this time Austria was home to six million Austrians as well as three million refugees and “displaced persons” (concentration camp survivors, former forced labourers, prisoners of war, foreign troops, and German nationals).
“Coexistence between the natives and “displaced persons” was fraught and it became clear that racism and anti-Semitism had not disappeared with the end of the Nazi regime. Again and again there were clashes that escalated into open anti-Semitism,” Rathkolb said.
In addition, from May 1945 there were 350,000 allied soldiers occupying the country. It was only because of food donations and economic assistance from the Soviet Union, the USA, the UN, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Canada that Austrians were able to survive the harsh winter of 1945-46.
In July 1945, the occupation zones were agreed among the four Allies. Vorarlberg and Tyrol went to the French, Carinthia and Styria to the British, Lower Austria, Burgenland and the Mühlviertel to the Soviets and Upper Austria and Salzburg to the Americans. In Vienna, all four Allies had their own zones.
The Allies soon came to be seen by many Austrians not as liberators but as occupiers. This was especially true with respect to the Soviets, who were criticized for numerous attacks on civilians, and lootings and rapes that went unpunished.
“An estimated 270,000 women were raped,” according to Rathkolb. In Vienna it is estimated that up to 80,000 women sought medical treatment after being raped, and a quarter of them became pregnant.
Austria held its first free elections on November 25th 1945 but it was not until May 15th 1955 that a treaty was signed giving it full sovereignty.
Russia, which lost more citizens to the war than any other nation, will mark VE day with a military parade in Moscow’s Red Square.
Germany’s Angela Merkel will attend the Moscow parade but Austrian President Heinz Fischer will be represented by the Austrian ambassador in Moscow, with his non-attendance seen as a protest at Russia’s actions in Ukraine.