The Kreisky Era – A Golden Age?

With a rare decade of one party vote, the ‘Sun Chancellor’ offered Austria security made possible by growing prosperity

“We will master the future.” The slogan from Kreisky‘s election campaign ca. 1970

Full employment, a solid social state, an influential foreign policy and a ‘Sun-King’ chancellor who appeared to be an unbeatable. These are the images which are called up when you speak to Austrians about the time when Bruno Kreisky was Chancellor of Austria (1970-1983).

Even the FPÖ, a party not well-known for their love of socialists, claimed once in a manifesto to want to continue  Kreisky’s policy of full employment. Clearly, people from across the whole political spectrum look back on the Kreisky Era as a ‘golden age’.

It was indeed an exceptional time in Austrian politics and culture. From 1970-1971 the SPÖ ruled with a (liberally orientated) FPÖ and from 1971 to 1983 it ruled alone, as a majority government. Never again has Austria had a strong government with one party in power for so long and with this much room to manoeuvre and push through reforms.

Born in 1911into a liberal-Jewish family, Bruno Kreisky had lived through, and participated in the Austrian Civil War of 1934 – when Socialist Vienna was overthrown in a coup d’etat by the Austro Fascists – and then gone into exile in Sweden in 1938, where he spent the war years. These two events had a major effect on Kreisky: he had seen the poverty and unemployment of 1930s Austria and in Sweden had met and befriended Willy Brandt and Olof Palme, the future Chancellors of Germany and Sweden, respectively.

Kreisky was and remained a confirmed Social-Democrat and these events only hardened his belief in full employment and that the state should provide for the people. He was also a complex character – despite his Jewish roots, he was an agnostic and this influenced his relations to the Austrian voters, as well as his foreign policy stance. You could say he was lucky to become Chancellor when he did, as his ideals fit perfectly into the needs and ideas of post-war Europe. In Palme and Brandt he had two powerful allies and they were able to shape and influence Europe to a degree which the SPÖ of today can only dream of.

Kreisky’s personality was a great motor behind his success. In a Playboy profile he was once described as having an “almost erotic” relation to the spoken word. Some might find this surprising, as he had a very slow and considered way of speaking; but he had an ability to explain complex problems clearly and succinctly, so that people could understand him.

And he was accessible. Kreisky’s telephone number was listed in the normal phone book, so that citizens could ring him up at any time with their problems, and there are many anecdotes about Kreisky stopping meetings to help citizens in distress and, apocryphal or not, they show his reputation as a “Chancellor for the people.”

Kreisky’s personality was a motor for change and initiative in Austria, says historian Elizabeth Röhrlich, author of Kreiskys Außenpolitik: Zwischen österreichischer Identität und internationalem Programm (Kriesky’s Foreign Policy: Between Austrian Identity and Internationalism) especially in the area of foreign policy.

Kreisky believed firmly in the use of dialogue to solve problems and this, coupled with a natural curiosity, motivated him to try and solve problems, not only across the East/West divide, but also North/South, as he was the first politician to show an interest in the problems of the Third World where he saw a growing role in the future. His belief in international socialism gave him the ideological motivation to try to solve problems.

Demonstration against the abortion law, 1975 | Photo: Kreiskyarchiv

“He always sought the great stage,” says Röhrlich.  He became deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was one of the first Western politicians to attempt a dialogue with the PLO, something that led to criticism from America. With a policy of “active neutrality,” using Austria’s position between the West and East Bloc, he presented Austria as “trusted middleman” in international diplomacy.

Whether or not Kreisky’s ego had anything to do with his desire to solve international problems, it is clear that Austria has not played any significant part in world politics since, and it is possible to say that in his hands, neutrality allowed Austria to “punch above its weight.” The policy was also significant for the Austrian population, as Kreisky promoted the idea that neutrality gave Austria a special position in the world that helped ensured their security.

“Kreisky was playing two pianos at one time,” says contemporary historian Oliver Rathkolb, “neutrality as a tool for the construction of a small state identity, and one of a successful foreign policy; and he managed to keep them both in harmony.”

But perhaps the most important reason why people remember Kreisky’s era as a “Golden Age” was the security made possible by growing prosperity. Ask any Austrian about the best part of Kreisky’s government and they’ll say “job stability.” While this was certainly partly the luck of timing with larger world trends, his economic policies played their part.

For Kreisky, economic policy was subservient to economic needs and he always pushed to ensure full employment:

“Hundreds of thousands unemployed matter more than a few billion Schillings of debt.” Public spending and investment in a range of industrial projects was thus very high during this time (by 1977 a total of 150 million Schillings had been spent on public contracts). And since 50% of Austrian industry remained in state hands, nearly everyone in Austria had the chance to leave their education and fall into a well-paid, stable job with a good pension at the end.

To us, living in an era where jobs for life are rare and no one is really sure when (or if!) they retire, this does indeed sound like a golden age. Go and take a look around companies like Wien Energie, one of the last of the state industries, for an impression of what it was like – a porter has to be called to open every door, the yellow walls, well-appointed canteens full of cigarette butts and the impression that no one is in too much of a hurry to get anything done.

But, we also have Kreisky’s government to thank for the freedoms we enjoy today. The ‘68 movement was very strong in Austria when Kreisky became Chancellor and, as a natural reformer and innovator, Kreisky saw the desirability of pushing through reforms for the ‘68 generation. “To be kept alive,” Kreisky said, “democracy must be kept moving.” Indeed, he invited the young radicals of that generation to “go part of the way with him.”

The first great reform was the legalisation of abortion. Before Kreisky, abortion had been totally illegal in this catholic country. This law came from the time of the Danube monarchy and was one of the harshest in Europe. But the new law (passed in 1975) made abortion legal in the first five months. True to form, Kreisky had been in favor of the reform, but had not wanted to jeopardize the SPÖ’s understanding with the church.

In the end, it took pressure from within the party and Kreisky’s social conscience to bring  the law into force. In a letter to Cardinal Franz König, Kreisky explained that “while abortions pose no problem to well-off women…, the socially underprivileged woman is forced into life-threatening, botched operations.”

Kreisky stood for change and reform, emphasized Prof. Rathkolb. Because of these credentials, he won the position of party leader, and it was these that he held as his goal throughout his Chancellorship.

But he was also a conciliator and had to make many compromises along the way; with the church, and with the other parties to preserve the ‘social-partnership’ model in Austria. This is perhaps why, along with all of Kreisky successes in the area of equal rights and a social net that includes among the best maternity care in Europe, Austria still has, among other things, one of the highest disparities between men’s and women’s wages in Europe.

Although Kreisky’s era was a ‘Golden Age’ for Austria, it left problems for Austria which have not been solved, even today.

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