Kreisky’s Shadow

The legendary Austrian chancellor was a seducer, in the truest sense of the word

Even before he resigned as Chancellor, Bruno Kreisky responded to a question from the great journalist Kurt Vorhofer, who had died all too soon,  as to whether he would one day want a monument in his honor on the Ringstrasse: “My vanity doesn’t wear itself out on such things(…) What I would love most would be if once in a while people would think back and say to themselves:  Yes, back then, that was a good time, when we found our way out of the swamp of the every day and gave the country a little sharper profile.”

If he could read that today 59% of Austrians consider him – the upper middle class son of a Jewish family, the socialist who was already 40 when he returned from exile in Sweden as a beginning diplomat – the country’s most important Chancellor ever, far ahead of Figl or Raab, he would be very satisfied.

He was the first (and also the last) chancellor who governed Austria in a kind of “quiet coalition” with us Austrian and foreign correspondents. As Furche publisher Heinz Nußbaumer stresses in a fine recent article, Kreisky was able, through his erudition and experience of the world, his fantasy and dialectic, to fascinate each of us in his unique world of feeling and memory.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal once wrote, “Politics is magic. Anyone who knows how to call forth the powers, they will obey.” Kreisky was a seducer, in the truest sense of the word. His power was based on the spoken and written word – his inimitable way of putting everyone, from world-renowned writers to young journalists, from great industrialists as well as student to radicals, under his spell. Between 1960 and 1990, primarily as a correspondent for the Financial Times, I had the good fortune to experience him as a pace setter in policy toward Central Europe (long before German Chancellor Willy Brandt), as the chancellor of reform, as the (ostensibly) powerful party leader, and as a grumbling, half-blind retiree, to observe him, to describe him and to admire him.

What other Austrian or even German politician could afford to appoint a top establishment politician, in other words from the “other side”, like the ÖVP party leader Stephan Koren as president of the Austrian National Bank, or the Catholic Rudolf Kirchschläger as Foreign Minister, and then against great internal party opposition to a successful cadidature for Federal President? And this wasn’t the only respect where Kreisky had the courage to take on an open-ended challenge.

The tireless and ever inventive magician engendered not only admiration, but in the upper echelons of the SPÖ – even in Kreisky’s most intimate circle of the cabinet – also resentment, if not hate.  Thus that people – who in the most interesting period either didn’t even know him or fought him from the left – would mount a Kreisky Festival, has as much to do with a wave of nostalgia and the retrieval of time in image and word, as with the fact that the fairest and most intelligent assessment of Kreisky comes from his repudiated Crown Prince who has become today so successful, Hannes Androsch.


This article was originally published in German in the Jan. 13, 2011 print edition of Der Standard, and appears here with permission of the author.
Translation by Dardis McNamee

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