By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA, March 12 (Reuters) - Austrian leaders urged their people on Wednesday not to dismiss the Nazi past as no longer relevant 70 years after Hitler took over the country with popular support.
They spoke at a special session of parliament marking the 70th anniversary of the "Anschluss" annexation, to be followed after nightfall by a silent candle-lit vigil in a Vienna square where huge crowds once cheered Hitler’s return to his homeland.
It has been an occasion for discussion about the extent to which Austrians were victims of Nazism or willing accomplices. Most Austrians now agree they were deeply complicit in the Nazi machinery of war and genocide after decades of denial.
However, a poll released on Tuesday showed 60 percent of Austrians were weary of talk about the past after six decades of democracy now anchored in the European Union.
Political leaders warned them against temptations to close the book on the Anschluss, when local Nazis, told Hitler’s columns were about to cross the border, seized power overnight and immediately began purging foes and persecuting Jews.
"We cannot draw a line under the past because the events of 1938-45 retain resonance today," parliament president Barbara Prammer said, referring to polls in which a quarter of those aged 14-24 still yearned for a "strong leader".
The post-war position that Austrians were victims of Hitler had proven to be "a fiction of history", she said. But Austria only "belatedly acknowledged injustices" done in its name by agreeing a reparations fund for Jews within the past decade.
HOME-GROWN NAZI COUP
"From the standpoint of international law, we were a victim of aggression," Austrian President Heinz Fischer said of the Anschluss. "But it was only made possible by a significant number of fanatical Nazis and Nazi sympathisers here."
Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, who heads the coalition government, said constant feuding between his Social Democrats and their conservative partners was not good for democracy’s image today and called for unity.
"It would be a mistake to think the people are amused by this political duelling. We can see from the dark period of our history what the brutalisation of political discourse can lead to," he told the gathering.
About 15 percent of Austrians back two far-right parties which critics say include admirers of Nazism and Holocaust deniers, a charge they deny.
Separately, Gusenbauer and conservative leader Wilhelm Molterer announced the establishment of a Vienna branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which hunts Nazi war crime suspects.
The Center has accused Austria and some other countries in the past of lacking political will to ferret out alleged war criminals on their soil.
On Wednesday night, some 80,000 candles will be lit in Vienna’s regal Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square), representing each Austrian killed under Nazi tyranny including 65,000 Jews.
Sombre silence will replace the jubilation of hundreds of thousands of Austrians who crammed Heldenplatz on March 12, 1938 to welcome home Hitler at the head of Nazi legions.