“All Very Complicated”

In Memory of Former Austrian Chancellor Fred Sinowatz

Fred Sinowatz

Sinowatz, here in his post-Chancellor years at his home in Neufeld, died on Aug. 1 | Photo: Die Presse

Fred Sinowatz did not have an easy life. “Not only did he experience poverty, travail and menace as a child; he grew up in hardship, through dictatorship and war.” You could hear the compassion in President Heinz Fischer’s voice.  Touching to those who were listening as he bid farewell to Fred Sinowatz (1929 – 2008), former Social Democratic chancellor and personal friend, who had died on August 11, 2008, in his hometown Neufeld an der Leitha (Burgenland), aged 79.

Born into the Croatian minority in Burgenland in 1929, Sinowatz studied History, German Literature and Journalism at the Universität Wien, before joining the public service in 1956 and entering politics one year later.

Fifteen years later, he joined the cabinet of chancellor Bruno Kreisky and became enormously influential as Austria’s longest-serving Education Minister (1971 – 1983). Believing with Kreisky that every child should have equal educational opportunities and the option of Higher Education, Sinowatz carried through the extention of financial support for low-income families, introduced free schoolbooks and public transport for all children of Compulsory School Age. He also spurred construction of new schools, so that more children, particularly in the countryside, have better opportunities to complete secondary education.

But it was the structural changes to the education system itself that were the most groundbreaking at the time, most still in place today. The abolition of entrance examinations to the Middle Schools, for example, and the Austria-wide enforcement of co-education were some of the major achievements of educational policies of the 1970s.

In 1983, Sinowatz succeeded Kreisky as chancellor, presiding over first coalition with the FPÖ – then a party unsuccessfully shifting towards the center – collapsed when Jörg Haider became its party leader in 1986. Sinowatz ended the coalition and called for snap elections; Franz Vranitzky, previously Finance Minister, followed as the new chancellor.

Despite Sinowatz’s rather short-lived government, his three years were crucial for internal Austrian politics. The conflict surrounding the proposed construction of the waterpower plant at the Hainburger Au to the east of Vienna and the subsequent occupation of the area in December 1984, forced a stop to the project, but also aided the Green Party’s entry into parliament in 1986 for the first time.

While he himself had favored the project, Sinowatz felt the public sentiment must be taken seriously, taking on a powerful lobby within his government, he called for the legendary Weihnachtsfrieden (Christmas Peace), and consequently put an end to the plans. Since 1996, the area has been a National Park.

A number of political scandals, however, overshadowed Sinowatz’s chancellorship. Most important was the so-called Waldheim Affaire, preceding the memorable presidential election of 1986, where the former UN Secretary General’s Nazi past was the flash point of a fierce political debate. In spite of the revelations Kurt Waldheim (1918 – 2007) was elected as Federal Austrian President for one term.

Sinowatz, retired as chancellor but still SPÖ party leader, revealed the connection at an internal meeting of the SPÖ Burgenland of the “Waldheims braune Vergangenheit” (Waldheim’s brown Nazi past). Previously only rumors, Sinowatz’s comments gave them traction, which the Social Democrats then planned to exploit in the upcoming election. This effort at defamation of a sitting chancellor was revealed by investigative journalist Alfred Worm in October 1985 in the news magazine Profil – after acquiring the hand written notes of Otille Matysek, SPÖ party chairman in Burgenland – and created a scandal. Sinowatz sued Worm for slander.

When Worm was acquitted in 1988, the courts went after Sinowatz. Despite a public denial by the former chancellor and other SPÖ party leaders, Sinowatz was convicted of false witness in 1991 and fined of 360,000 Austrian Schillings (about 26,200 EUR).

There was more to Sinowatz than the Waldheim Affair; however, some of his remarks have become the stuff of a legend.

“It’s all very complicated,” he said in May, 1983, in his first major speech in Parliament as chancellor. Colloquially interpreted by commentators as a confession that politics seemed too complicated to handle, the statement, was in fact a serious misquotate: What Sinowatz actually said was, “I know, it all sounds very complicated.”

Even as a retiree, Sinowatz kept fighting to restore his reputation. In the last interview with Der Standard in June 2008, he concluded that “in a long political life, one gets used to be misquotation.”

It all sounds very complicated indeed.

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