Last Updated: August 22, 2014

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Swastika on Austrian tombstone defies ban

A marble tombstone in Austria adorned by a swastika

Nazi symbols continue to be seen on Austrian tombstones despite laws against displaying them. Source: AAP

THE marble tombstone looks like others dotting the main cemetery of Graz, Austria's second city - but only at first glance. Carved into it are a swastika and the inscription: "He died in the struggle for a Great Germany."

Footsteps away, another gravestone is marked with the SS lightning bolts proudly worn by the elite Nazi troops who executed most of the crimes of the Holocaust.

Austrian law bans such symbols, and those displaying them face criminal charges and potential prison terms.

Yet the emblems reflecting this country's darkest chapter in history endure here, and officials appear either unable or unwilling to do away with them - despite complaints from locals.

The controversy reflects Austria's complex relationship with the Hitler era.

Annexation by Germany in 1938 enabled Austrians to claim after the war that they were Hitler's first victims.

Austria has moved since to acknowledge that it was instead a perpetrator. It has paid out millions of dollars in reparations, restored property to Jewish heirs and misses no public opportunity to ask for forgiveness for its wartime role.

Some comments by Graz city and church representatives responsible for managing the dispute suggest they see nothing wrong with graveyard Nazi displays.

While acknowledging the mayor's office was uncomfortable with the swastika, the city's spokesman, Thomas Rajakovics, called it an old "symbol in the English world that stands for the sun."

Christian Leibnitz, provost of Graz' Roman Catholic church, said "a lot" of tombstones in the city still displayed the swastika and suggested it had a right to remain in cemeteries as a "political and societal symbol" of the era, even "if I totally oppose this era."

Asked if the church was ready to put up a sign next to the grave explaining how the swastika is associated with Nazi horrors, he demurred, saying symbols displayed on other tombstones might be just as offensive to some people.

Pressed for specifics, he spoke of "anti-religious" symbols on some graves, adding without elaboration that the church was "not necessarily happy" with some of the emblems displayed on the cemetery's Jewish graves.

Austria enacted a law in 1947 banning Nazi symbols that led to the purging of such emblems from Austrian graveyards. Vienna cemeteries spokesman Florian Keusch says he believes none of the 500,000 gravestones in the Austrian capital now has such symbols, "and if we found any they would be removed."

But Rajakovics, the Graz spokesman, and Leibnitz, the church provost, say their hands are tied.

Both claim they are not aware of the grave with the SS symbol. But in the case of the swastika, they cite Graz' top prosecutor, Hans-Joerg Bacher, who ruled that the law prohibiting Nazi displays did not apply to that headstone because it was put up before the law was passed in 1947.

Under that interpretation, Graz officials say it's up to the grave's owner - a German man they refuse to identify - to voluntarily remove the emblem. But that's something they say he refuses to do.

Rajakovics says the city council criticised the headstone years ago, and the church, as the graveyard's owner, "is the only institution that can do something." Leibnitz, in turn, says the Roman Catholic church has "tried going to the politicians and to the state prosecutors" for a solution that has yet to materialise.

Meanwhile, the swastika remains - to the aggravation of its critics, including Austria's Jewish community.

Raimund Fastenbauer, who speaks for Vienna's Jews, said the problem is not with Austria's anti-Nazi laws but a reluctance to enforce them.

"This is disappointing and frustrating," he said.

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