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Austria marks 70th anniversary of Nazi takeover

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Candles burn during a service in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday. The ceremony was held in the same place where thousands gave Hitler an adoring welcome in 1938.

Candles burn during a service in Vienna, Austria, on Wednesday. The ceremony was held in the same place where thousands gave Hitler an adoring welcome in 1938.

Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria — On the same square where thousands gave Adolf Hitler an adoring welcome in 1938, Austrians marked the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany's annexation Wednesday by lighting 80,000 candles: one for every person who perished under the regime.

The somber "Night of Silence" remembrance — in stark contrast to the jubilation that greeted Hitler — lit up Vienna's Heldenplatz, or Heroes' Square.

"So many bad things happened. We must never forget," said Marcus Mor, a 28-year-old computer science student. "We have to live with this and do something to make sure history never repeats itself."

Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and President Heinz Fischer presided over a special joint session of parliament, where they and other leaders delivered soul-searching speeches about the alpine country's darkest chapter.

Austria's "Anschluss," or "link-up" as part of a Greater Germany, happened early on March 12, 1938, when German Wehrmacht troops crossed into the country to ensure a smooth takeover.

It happened a few hours after Austria's chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, was pressured to give up his efforts to maintain Austria's independence. Three days later, Hitler basked in the adoration of hundreds of thousands of revelers who packed the downtown Vienna square.

Grainy black-and-white photographs of the scenes of jubilation that played out on that fateful day have haunted the nation ever since.

Jerome Segal, a French scholar whose Austrian-born grandfather was forced to flee Vienna's once-vibrant Jewish community, lit candles along with his wife and three young sons.

"I wonder how he experienced this day exactly seven decades ago, being a Jew but not religious," said Segal, standing among a sea of candles on the wind-whipped plaza.

"I have basically no problem living here. It's just Europe," he said. "But on some occasions, like today, I feel there's something still not completely cleared in Austrian history."

In recent years, the Austrian government has spent millions of dollars returning to rightful owners the real estate, artworks and other property the Nazis seized.

But Gusenbauer told lawmakers that no amount of restitution would ever make amends.

"No compensation can ever diminish the wrong that the Nazis did to our Jewish fellow citizens," he said. "No payoff can undo the inexcusable.

"I can only humbly beg survivors and their relatives to accept this gesture for what it is: a trifling acknowledgment of the injustice that was done to you," Gusenbauer told the assembly.

Barbara Prammer, the president of Austria's lower house of parliament, reminded lawmakers that the country shared responsibility for Nazi atrocities because of its complicity.

Prammer said the notion that Austrians were somehow forced to commit crimes was a "fiction of history" that emerged after World War II ended in 1945.

"The Nazis didn't just come in from the outside," added Helmut Kritzinger, who heads the Bundesrat, or upper house of parliament.

Gusenbauer announced that his government would build a Simon Wiesenthal Center in honor of the late Nazi hunter who died in 2005. He said the institute would serve as a world center for Holocaust research as well as "a memorial for all that shall never be forgotten."

The government also said Wednesday it was taking over the chairmanship of an international task force dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, research and education. The Czech Republic previously oversaw the task force, which was set up in 1998.

But Fischer reminded his countrymen that even as the Nazi leader moved in, there were Austrians who fully realized that "Hitler is war" and others who already had been arrested or had fled in despair.

Even the right-wing Alliance for the Future of Austria distanced itself from the country's Nazi past. Party leader Peter Westenthaler denounced what happened as "a dark epoch of Austrian history."

Westenthaler's bloc was founded by Joerg Haider, former leader of the extreme-right Freedom Party. That party's rise to power in 2000 after an election campaign tinged with anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric led to seven months of punitive EU sanctions and diplomatic isolation.