When doing my usual check of “What’s New” on snopes.com, I came across a recent entry for an email from one Kitty Werthmann, purporting to tell her story of living through the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, also known as the Anschluss. The long email is a transcribed speech that describes how Hitler brought the promise of repairing Austria’s faltering economy, boosting employment and ensuring the happiness of the people, and how these promises curdled into a slow stripping of freedom, encroaching of malicious bureaucracy, the cleansing of those deemed inferior and eventually, a rain of Allied bombs brought on by total war.
Like most of us do with these kinds of forwards, I was ready to assume it was fake or misattributed and move on. Snopes itself was still researching the matter, listing it as “undetermined” as of January 6, 2013. But to my surprise, both the email and Kitty Werthmann are perfectly real. She really did live through the Nazi occupation of Austria, and since emigrating to the US in the 50’s, she’s given hundreds of speeches, written a book, produced a DVD and made television appearances, all in the service of spreading a laudable message that must be repeated, lest it ever be forgotten.
With the email confirmed, there was no reason to think anything untoward about Ms. Werthmann. Taking a historical anecdote as fact is usually pretty bad science, but it’s not like the misery of life under the Nazi boot isn’t something we’re still debating about. And while it’s entirely possible that 70 years later, she’s gotten some of the details wrong, that certainly wouldn’t invalidate her story. One of my favorite books on World War II, Guy Sajer’s autobiography about fighting for Germany on the Eastern Front, The Forgotten Soldier, has numerous historical, geographical and military-related errors, yet doesn’t suffer in the slightest for it.
So why would I accuse Kitty Werthmann of grossly distorting history in a way that actually marginalizes the victims of Nazi oppression? How could anyone find fault with an elderly woman telling a vitally important story of how her country was overtaken by tyranny?
Because the real message of Kitty Werthmann’s speech is that that same tyranny is taking hold in another time and place: America, right now. Like others in a small but vocal fringe movement, Ms. Werthmann believes that the US is being consumed by a slowly building socialist takeover, and she’s using the story of the Anschluss and its aftermath to prove that what happened there is happening here.
I’m not interested in going through the email line by line to debunk every claim. I’m not a historian, I wasn’t there and I can’t tell her that she didn’t remember what she remembers. But I can and do take great umbrage with the comparison of Austria in 1938 to the current United States, because it’s incorrect and illogical. It’s also nakedly partisan. While the original email never mentions current political figures, Ms. Werthmann exhorts her reader at both the start and end of the speech “don’t let freedom slip away,” implying that it is. She goes on to describe numerous ways freedom slipped away for her and her family:
Hitler Targets Education – Eliminates Religious Instruction for Children
Equal Rights Hits Home
Hitler Restructured the Family Through Daycare
Health Care and Small Business Suffer Under Government Controls
“Mercy Killing” Redefined
The Final Steps – Gun Laws
Other speeches are more explicit, railing against Barack Obama and leftist values, and telling listeners that the way to defend freedom in America is to “keep your guns, and buy more guns, and buy ammunition.”
And lest anyone think I’m simply ranting on a political soapbox, my rejection of her message is not based on my own political beliefs or opinions, but by her own use of a terrible past to rail against a present that doesn’t exist. When faced with this kind of bald-faced distortion, my opinions become irrelevant. Furthermore, the truth has no political affiliation. It’s not liberal or conservative, didn’t vote for this one or that one, and has no agenda other than to be conveyed accurately. And on that score, Ms. Werthmann fails completely.
It’s virtually impossible to find anything more than the most superficial similarities between the two countries in those two time periods. Yes, these are tough times economically. But at the time of the Anschluss, Austria was crippled by the same Great Depression that had sent not only Europe and America, but the entire world, into economic spiral. The entire world was collapsing into hyperinflation, desperation and poverty, with fascist militarism rising up in places like Japan and Germany to fill the void. Ms. Werthmann herself describes the decrepit state of Austria as:
In 1938, Austria was in deep Depression. Nearly one-third of our workforce was unemployed. We had 25% inflation and 25% bank loan interest rates.
Farmers and business people were declaring bankruptcy daily. Young people were going from house to house begging for food.. Not that they didn’t want to work; there simply weren’t any jobs. […] The Communist Party and the National Socialist Party were fighting each other. Blocks and blocks of cities like Vienna , Linz , and Graz were destroyed. The people became desperate and petitioned the government to let them decide what kind of government they wanted.
Putting aside the issue of whether her statistics are correct, none of this is happening in the United States right now. Far from it. Our unemployment rate during the recent recession has never been anywhere near 33%, inflation is under control and interest rates are lower now than any time in our history. And while our rival political parties seem stridently uninterested in compromise, nobody is destroying any city blocks to get their point across. The economic conditions that allowed Hitler to take power in Germany and annex an Austria whose government was on the verge of collapse due to pro-Nazi Austrians simply don’t exist here.
Time and time again, Ms. Werthmann describes how a freedom was taken away or a change forced on her, including:
Hitler decided we should have equal rights for women. Before this, it was a custom that married Austrian women did not work outside the home.
I walked into my schoolroom to find the crucifix replaced by Hitler’s picture hanging next to a Nazi flag. Our teacher, a very devout woman, stood up and told the class we wouldn’t pray or have religion anymore.
All food was rationed and could only be purchased using food stamps.
Soon after this, the draft was implemented. It was compulsory for young people, male and female, to give one year to the labor corps.
The state raised a whole generation of children.
If you needed elective surgery, you had to wait a year or two for your turn. There was no money for research as it was poured into socialized medicine.
As for healthcare, our tax rates went up to 80% of our income.
We were told how to shop and what to buy. Free enterprise was essentially abolished.
Those people [the mentally ill] left in excellent physical health and all died within 6 months. We called this euthanasia.
Most citizens were law abiding and dutifully marched to the police station to register their firearms. Not long after-wards, the police said that it was best for everyone to turn in their guns. The authorities already knew who had them, so it was futile not to comply voluntarily.
No more freedom of speech. Anyone who said something against the government was taken away.
While these things are terrible deprivations that nobody should ever have to suffer through, and fortunately, we aren’t. Nobody is being taken away for speaking out against the government. Otherwise, one would think Ms. Werthmann would have been hauled away long ago. Nobody is forced to work. Nobody is paying 80% of their income in tax. Nobody is being gassed.
To compare Austria under the Nazis and the US now is to embrace a staggering array of logical fallacies, all of them piling on top of each other, crushing her argument. The entire thesis of her message is one giant slippery slope with nothing to back it up but potentially flawed anecdotal evidence and her own opinion. It is a vast excluded middle. It’s an argument based on emotion, hyperbole and disdain.
There are other reasons to be skeptical of Ms. Werthmann’s motivations. The speech transcribed in the email on Snopes is just one sound-bite in a five year history of using the fascist subjugation of Austria as a jumping-off point to rail against a variety of liberal terribles, none of which have the slightest to do with Adolf Hitler or the Nazi Party, except in her own mind. A darling of the Tea Party movement, Ms. Werthmann also serves as president of South Dakota Eagle Forum, an offshoot of the ultra-conservative think tank Eagle Forum, founded by the notoriously science-hating and conspiracy-loving activist Phyllis Schlafly, also the mother of Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly.
From what I’ve learned about Ms. Werthmann, the affiliation makes perfect sense. Her excoriating of equal rights for women, removal of religious instruction from public classrooms and the existence of even basic government intervention in social matters dovetails nicely with the Schlafly family’s mission to demolish science and secularism in the name of Christian conservatism. If Ms. Werthmann were truly interested in simply expressing a clear, powerful message about the horrors of the Nazi regime, she’s aligned with possibly the worst group of people to help her do that. But if she wanted to spread the message that Obama, “the government,” godlessness and women leaving the house to work are leading us down the road to tyranny, she’s in fine company.
Obviously, Kitty Werthmann is entitled to her opinion. She can be right wing, conservative and religious. She can think America is barreling toward Hell on a high speed train. She can think Barack Obama is the worst president we’ve ever had and is wrecking our country just for the giggles. I’m sure some Skeptoid Blog readers think so as well. But contrary opinions can be held without them being based on the distorted view of history that Ms. Werthmann is selling. As I said earlier, the truth has no political party, doesn’t choose sides and doesn’t vote. It needs only to be expressed honestly without embellishment. Which is exactly what Kitty Werthmann isn’t doing.