Bruno Kreisky’s False Steps

The Sun Chancellor’s policies weren’t always without controversy especially when it came to Austria’s Nazi past

Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the master builder, inspecting a construction site | Photo: Kreisky Archiv

Bruno Kreisky is widely lauded as the greatest chancellor Austria has ever had. Serving for an unrivaled 13 years, he had for many of them an absolute socialist majority in Parliament and enjoyed widespread popularity that bordered on obsession. However, like anyone, he wasn’t perfect and some of his false steps reveal much about the evolution of Austria in the post-war years, and help to explain the country it has become.

One of these cases was the ‘Wiesenthal affair’.

The facts of the case are these: In 1975, famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal made accusation against then-FPÖ party chairman Simon Peter. These allegations were that Peter had belonged to an SS unit that had been involved in the mass murders of Jews. Despite the fact that the FPÖ was no longer in the government (they had briefly supported the SPÖ during their minority government of 1970-71), Kreisky stood firmly behind Peter and defended him.

This led to an ongoing conflict between Kreisky and Wiesenthal, with accusations and counter-accusations on both sides. Kreisky suggested that Wiesenthal had collaborated with the Gestapo, whilst Wiesenthal referred to Kreisky as the worst kind of Jew, that of a liberalized agnostic Jew. Kreisky even went as far as to say that “if the Jews are a people, then they are a mean people.”

Like Wiesenthal, Kreisky was a Jew; although non-practicing, he did consider himself to belong to ‘a common destiny’ of Jews, and thus his defense of Peter and his antagonism towards Wiesenthal seem baffling.  However, a substantial body of evidence suggests the answer may lie in cultural and class differences, and perhaps simply those of temperament; qualities that combined to shape the character of Austria’s longest-serving chancellor.

According to contemporary historian Elisabeth Röhrlich, author of Kreisky’s Foreign Policy (2009), Kreisky and Wiesenthal, while both Jews, came from very different backgrounds: Bruno Kreisky was from a liberal, affluent middle-class family from Vienna’s 5th District of Margareten, where assimilation was prized. Simon Wiesenthal, however, came from Buczacz, a village – a Shtetl – in the Jewish settlement of one of the eastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now Ukraine. Thus, as the historian Andreas P. Pittler explained, Wiesenthal came from a “strictly orthodox [form of] eastern Judaism.” He was orthodox and a committed Zionist, and considered Kreisky to be a “deserter from Judaism.” For Kreisky, Wiesenthal’s religious fundamentalism represented what Pittler described as “something dark and medieval.”

Kreisky also saw Wiesenthal as a potential political threat, close to the opposition Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Kreisky had observed, for example, that Wiesenthal seemed not react to a the implied anti-Semitism of a populist ÖVP election campaign in 1970, when the ÖVP promoted candidate Josef Klaus as a “real Austrian,” presumably unlike the Jewish Kreisky. Thus, by both background and political allegiance, there were major differences.

In addition, Kreisky had to consider the politics of being chancellor, raising considerations described by former Finance Minister Ferdinand Lacina and personal secretary Margit Schmidt. As a Jew, Kreisky’s rise to power in a country with an anti-Semitic history like Austria was nothing short of remarkable, and the chancellor was therefore walking a tightrope; his origins could and did often count against him.

Also, his experience of the bloody civil war in Austria in the 1930s had convinced him that consensus was the best tool in keeping Austria stable. This meant the inclusion of everyone in Austrian politics, even those who had served on the wrong side during the Second World War.

“Post-war society was made up of the people who lived there,” Schmidt recently told The Vienna Review, “people who had shown sympathy [to the Nazis] had to be given a chance, as long as they didn’t have blood on their hands.” Thus, Kreisky’s politics can be seen as reflecting the process of de-Nazification in Austria, far less overt than in Germany, but perhaps just as necessary given the complex origins of Austria’s national character.

“One cannot say that Kreisky preached wholesale forgetting of the past,” writes journalist and author Werner A. Perger. “Yet one can say that, although he had lost more than twenty close relatives in the Holocaust, he did just as little – in the interests of promoting historical consciousness – to deliberately confront his countrymen with this fact.”

Kreisky has also been criticized for his economic policy, criticism that gained steam after he left office in 1983. The 1980s were a turbulent time for Austria, when the economic stability of the 1970s began to vanish and a series of budget crises began to negatively affect the economy, particularly in the late 1980s. Kreisky’s ‘full employment’ policy was often blamed for this situation, that he left too high a budget deficit behind him.

The many industries under state control were also said to lead to ‘mismanagement’, as in the Austrian Proporz system, where managers were selected according to which party they were close to and not necessarily according to ability.

Not every one agrees, however. Ferdinand Lacina counters this claim, saying that, when Kreisky resigned in 1983, the state debt was 40% of GDP, which is relatively low, compared to the level of 66.5% state debt today. He also points out that Kreisky pushed through many industrial reforms in his last years in office, aimed at restructuring heavy industries towards more lightweight technology sectors. Because of this, Austria’s transition to a more high-tech economy was less traumatic than in other countries. He agrees, though, that the influence of the Proporz system had a negative effect on Austria’s economy. But, in the end, he believes that the biggest problem was in the wider economic trends, and not merely the effects of Kreisky’s policies.

Other criticism was directed at Kreisky’s deep-seated beliefs regarding the Zwentendorf nuclear power station. Originally planned by the government under the ÖVP in the 1960s, the project was enthusiastically taken over by Kreisky who, influenced as he was by the experience of mass unemployment in the 1930s, was wedded to a philosophy in which anything that translated into more jobs and industry must be good.

But the mood in the country was changing; the pollution of the 1970s gave rise to new attitudes across Europe, where environmental concerns became more important than heavy industry. But only France’s Charles de Gaulle embraced nuclear power as passionately as Bruno Kreisky. However, some in Austria reacted with alarm to the idea of a nuclear power plant on their doorstep. Kreisky responded to this by initiating a referendum about the use of nuclear power in Austria, and specifically its use in Zwentendorf. But as former Green Party chief Alexander van der Bellen comments, Kreisky made the mistake of indicating that he would resign his chancellorship if the vote went against him. This motivated the ÖVP to come out against the plant (although they had initiated the project), in the hope that they could get rid of a chancellor who seemed unbeatable.

Thanks to a heavy ÖVP campaign, the vote went against the power station, which has been mothballed ever since, remaining in exactly the state it was in 1978. Today, the interior looks like a time capsule from the 1970s, with dusty beige walls, James Bond villain-style computers the size of rooms, and masses of dials and gauges, all sitting there waiting to be switched on. In some ways, Zwentendorf represents a political miscalculation on Kreisky’s part, as, by staking his chancellorship on the plant, he gave his opponents a chance to move against him. But, says van der Bellen, it was not so much the environmental issues but the political issues that moved people to vote against it. The SPÖ won the 1979 election with the greatest majority in their history, hardly an indication of a party who is struggling. Kreisky served another four years.

In the end, Kreisky was a man of his time, who used the prevailing conditions of powerful economic recovery to push through necessary reforms and maintain full employment. It is doubtful if he could have achieved anything like this much either before or since.  He certainly would never be able to achieve what he did today.

Whether Kreisky could have contributed more to de-Nazification is debatable. Kreisky possibly felt that, as a Jew himself, he was not in a position to push a “coming to terms with history,” says Lacina. On the other hand, says Pittler, Kreisky had an absolute majority and was perhaps too easy with his people. With so much power, he might have been able to do more.

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