Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust
by Robert S. Wistrich
The Kreisky Years
The continued strength of anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1960s and 1970s despite growing economic prosperity, political stability, and self-confidence in an independent Austria was the price paid for failing to tackle the Holocaust legacy at its roots. When Austrians elected Bruno Kreisky chancellor in 1970-a position he would hold for the next thirteen years-some commentators mistakenly believed that this heralded a decisive break with the past. That for the first time in its history Austria was ruled by a Jew (and a Socialist at that) was taken by some to mean that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. Instead, the Kreisky era, despite many impressive achievements for Austria, demonstrated than an ideological tabula rasa was not possible, least of all on the “Jewish Question.”
Bruno Kreisky had been appointed chairman of the SPÖ in 1967 thanks to support from the Austrian provinces and his solid reputation as a pragmatic reformer who could unite moderates and radicals in the party. He had already served as state secretary for foreign affairs from 1959 to 1966 and had acquired considerable skill in international affairs. Having escaped from the clutches of the Gestapo in 1938 (at the time he was already a prominent 27-year-old Socialist militant), Kreisky actually lived through only the first few months of Nazi rule in Austria. He managed to flee to neutral Sweden where he spent the war years, some distance removed from the nightmare experiences of the deportations and the “Final Solution.” As a result of his earlier imprisonment by the “Austro-fascist” regime in 1936, Kreisky, like many other Socialists, nursed a special hatred toward it, one that was seemingly greater than what he felt toward the Austrian Nazis, some of whom he had known in prison after 1934. Like Karl Renner and Adolf Schärf, he felt a certain empathy for the hundreds of thousands of kleinen Leuten who had become Nazis for social and economic reasons. He also supported, as both realistic and politically wise, the postwar Socialist policy of seeking to win over ex-Nazi “fellow-travelers” (Mitläufer) to the SPÖ and integrate them rapidly in the democratic order.
Kreisky played down his Jewish background and tended to minimize Austrian anti-Semitism-though he had, at times, suffered from it. In his memoirs he argued that nothing could be gained by presenting anti-Semitism as “a particular speciality” (eine besondere Spezialität) or by depicting Jews as a “nationality,” which, in his eyes, was a form of “inverted racism.” To him, Jews were simply a religious group like Protestants or Catholics. Kreisky’s attitude to Israel and Zionism reflected these assimilationist assumptions. He emphatically rejected the Zionist assertion that Jews constituted a worldwide people or a distinctive nationality in the Diaspora. For Kreisky such ideas raised the specter of dual loyalty and echoed the Nazi fiction of a “Jewish race.” However, he did not challenge the right of Israelis to an independent state or question the legitimacy of Israeli patriotism. Periodically, he would express friendship for the Israeli Labor Party and in later years for the Israeli Peace Now movement. On the other hand, Kreisky was not averse to equating the Likud and the Israeli right with fascism or the doctrine of apartheid. As early as 1979 he gave the red-carpet treatment to Yasser Arafat in Vienna at a time when the PLO leader was still far from renouncing terrorism and the destruction of Israel. Kreisky extended a similarly warm welcome to Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi. Kreisky praised both men as Arab patriots and freedom fighters. In contrast, he execrated Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin as a mere terrorist, “a little Polish lawyer or whatever he is” who embodied the warped mentality of the Ostjuden. The Austrian chancellor abhorred Israel’s settlement policy, the “refined hooliganism” of the Israeli army, and what he considered the “primitiveness” of Israeli diplomats. Such attitudes and declarations made Kreisky something of a bête noire for Israelis and Diaspora Jews, and alarmed the small Jewish community in Austria. The chancellor’s attitude seemed to give legitimacy to anti-Zionism as a new and more respectable framework for expressing anti-Jewish sentiment in Austria.
One should not, however, overlook Kreisky’s efforts to encourage some Palestinian accommodation with Israel, nor his positive record-and that of Austria in general-in providing transit for hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jewish refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. Between 1973 and 1989 over 250,000 Jewish emigrants came through Austria, 65,000 of whom continued to Israel. The majority preferred the United States or other Diaspora destinations, and a small number remained in Austria itself.
But there is little doubt that Austrian relations with Israel took a turn for the worse during the Kreisky era. This was particularly noticeable after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with the impact of the oil crisis, the perception of increasing Arab financial and diplomatic muscle, and the growing media focus on Israel as an oppressive occupier of Arab lands. Solidarity with Israel (which had always been much weaker in Austria than in neighboring Germany) was further eroded by the 1982 Lebanon war. As in other European countries, denunciations of Israeli policy-especially on the left-branded it as a racist, theocratic state that not only repressed the Palestinians but was also aggressively expansionist toward its neighbors. Critics on the right and left suggested that Israel was manipulating the Shoah to silence legitimate dissent and to extract financial and political support for highly questionable policies. Such assertions were especially popular among those interested in relativizing Austria’s own wartime complicity with Nazism.
Bruno Kreisky did not invent this syndrome, but he made it salonfähig (respectable) in ways that he might not have intended. For example, his desire to distance himself from his Jewishness and from Zionism did not pass unnoticed in the German nationalist camp, which had also detected a deutschnational emphasis in some of his public comments. In February 1967 the neo-Nazi leader in Austria, Dr. Norbert Burger, declared that he had no objections to Kreisky, who was a “German” belonging neither to the “Mosaic religious community” nor to the Zionist movement. Following his election in 1970, Kreisky determined to demonstrate that he was indeed “chancellor of all the Austrians” and included no less than four ex-Nazis among the eleven ministers in his first cabinet. Never before had something like this occurred in Austria, and these appointments galvanized Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal into action. As a result of his revelations it turned out that Kreisky’s minister of agriculture, Dr. Hans Öllinger, had once been an SS lieutenant. Though Öllinger resigned, Kreisky’s reaction was that everyone had the right to make political mistakes in their youth. What mattered was whether a former member of the NSDAP had committed a criminal act or not. The minister of the interior, Otto Rösch (who had been acquitted in 1947 on insufficient evidence for past Nazi activity), was defended on similar lines along with Josef Moser and Erwin Frühbauer, the other former Nazis in his cabinet. It was clear that Kreisky’s Socialists were angling for the support of the small Freedom Party (FPÖ), which was the heir of the League of Independents and (since its foundation in 1956) held the narrow balance between the leading political parties. Neither the Socialists nor the conservatives were willing to alienate former supporters of Hitler whose political home was in the FPÖ, despite its ostensibly “liberal” political orientation. But no previous Austrian chancellor had ever gone as far as Kreisky in signaling to the FPÖ and the ex-Nazis that they were koalitionsfähig (fit for coalition), indeed that they would be persona grata in a new government.
Simon Wiesenthal’s disclosures had interfered with the government’s electoral strategy for the future and this led to ominous warnings that his Documentation Center might be investigated and even closed down. Kreisky and his colleagues in the government evidently regarded Wiesenthal’s war crimes investigations as a festering sore from a bygone age. They were even ready to use fabricated material from the Communist bloc branding Wiesenthal as an agent of Mossad, the CIA, and British intelligence, or to disseminate allegations that he had been a Nazi “collaborator” during the war, in order to bring him into disrepute. Chancellor Kreisky himself took a particularly active part in the anti-Wiesenthal campaign. He told the Dutch Socialist newspaper, Vrij Nederland, that Wiesenthal was a “Jewish fascist,” adding that happily “one finds reactionaries also among us Jews, as well as thieves, murderers and prostitutes.” Wiesenthal responded by calling Kreisky a “renegade” and pointing out that Austria was the only country in Europe that still had former Nazis in its government, twenty-five years after the war. Wiesenthal felt that Kreisky was reinforcing Austrian reluctance to deal with the Nazi past, helping to trivialize the Holocaust, and energetically encouraging national fantasies of innocence. In the new atmosphere of the Kreisky era, it seemed as if former Nazi Party members were guiltless, but those who investigated them could be slandered with impunity. Once the Kronen-Zeitung and other mass circulation tabloids lined up on Kreisky’s side, Wiesenthal’s persistence appeared increasingly quixotic in the face of widespread indifference, not to say open public hostility. A neo-Nazi paper happily concluded that Kreisky’s principle obviously was “Wer ein Nazi ist, bestimmt die SPÖ!” (The Socialist Party of Austria decides who is a Nazi!).
Matters came to a head in October 1975 with the spectacular Socialist victory at the polls, a personal triumph for Bruno Kreisky, who now stood at the pinnacle of his political career. Before the elections, Kreisky had let it be known that he would have no objections to an alliance with the Freedom Party (which had been in opposition for nearly twenty years) and its leader, Friedrich Peter, should the Socialists fail to win an absolute majority. However, just before election day, Wiesenthal produced evidence that Peter had been involved as a tank commander on the Russian front in the First SS Infantry Brigade, responsible for the murder of 10,513 innocent men, women, and children, mainly Jews. Peter acknowledged membership of this Waffen-SS unit but denied involvement in any shootings, “illegal acts,” or war crimes. After the election results were in, Kreisky no longer required Peter as a coalition partner but he did accuse Wiesenthal of “political mafia” methods and even requested the lifting of his parliamentary immunity to force him to substantiate his charges in court. In the next few months Kreisky attacked not only Wiesenthal’s campaign “to bring me down” but also what he called “Zionist” interference in Austria’s internal affairs. He denounced the philosophy of Zionism for asking Jews outside Israel “to be bound by a special commitment . . . to work for it as though they were Israeli citizens.” To an Arab audience, he explicitly stated that “there is nothing that binds me to Israel or to what is called the Jewish ‘people’ or to Zionism.” To his Jewish critics he stressed that for him “the fact of being a Jew is without meaning,” at the same time angrily denying that he was a “Jewish anti-Semite like Marx.” To an Israeli journalist he again denounced Wiesenthal’s “Mafia methods,” his “different milieu” (a reference to Wiesenthal’s Galician origins), and declared that “the man must disappear.” Kreisky’s parting salvo, apparently intended as a witticism, was headlined in the German magazine Der Spiegel: “Wenn die Juden ein Volk sind, so ist es ein mieses Volk” (If the Jews are a people, then they are a repulsive people).
These assaults on Wiesenthal and on Jews as a group did not damage Kreisky’s popularity at home though they received adverse comment in the German and, to a lesser extent, the Austrian press. Even the SPÖ sought to tone down the chancellor’s remarks and avoid a damaging court case. The Austrian antifascist resistance (Widerstandsbewegung) protested vigorously, as did the Communist Volks-stimme. The Jewish community was sufficiently stung by Kreisky’s hostile remarks to convey its disquiet privately, even though it was still dominated by the Socialist-affiliated Alliance of Working Jews. But it did not go public with its concerns.
Kreisky’s most vocal support came from neo-Nazis in Germany and Austria, who were scarcely able to contain their glee that a Jewish-born chancellor had taken on Wiesenthal, their most feared adversary. By the end of 1975 Kreisky had become a kind of honorary Aryan, and his outbursts against “boundless Zionist intolerance” were grist for the mill of the far right, which published his professions of loyalty to German Austria and provided the information that his ancestors had been German-speaking teachers, doctors, officials, and even Reichstag deputies. A typical neo-Nazi headline trumpeted the good tidings: “Kreisky will die Aussöhnung mit den früheren Nationalsozialisten” (Kreisky wants a reconciliation with the ex-Nazis). A decade before the election of Kurt Waldheim as president, right-wing Austrians could feel vindicated in their belief that it was better to have been a Nazi or even an SS man before 1945 than an antifascist. Kreisky had made it crystal clear that the time had come to bury once and for all the file on the Nazi past.
The contrast between Kreisky’s behavior and that of his close friend and contemporary, German federal chancellor and SPD leader Willy Brandt, is particularly striking. Both had been left-wing socialists in their youth, forced to flee Nazism and find refuge in Scandinavia, where they were much influenced by its democratic, reformist socialist tradition. Brandt was not a Jew but he was a consistent antifascist, and his “desertion” of Germany in World War II was never forgiven by the German far-right. Nor could they accept that the West German chancellor had, in 1970, knelt before the monument to the Warsaw ghetto as an act of homage to the martyrdom of the Jewish fighters. No one could ever imagine Kreisky doing such a thing.
During the Wiesenthal-Peter Affair, Kreisky, unlike Brandt, had acted as if the Holocaust was a mere side issue, and that his duty as chancellor was to exculpate Austrians from the burden of their past. The fact that a Jew who himself had fled from the Germans was now providing absolution and alibi for the great mass of Austrians to ignore the Nazi legacy no doubt contributed to Kreisky’s growing popularity.
It is worth dwelling for a moment on some similarities and differences between the Kreisky-Wiesenthal-Peter case and the Waldheim Affair a decade later. While seeking high office, Freedom Party leader Fredrich Peter, whom Kreisky passionately defended, had “forgotten,” like Waldheim after him, some important parts of his wartime biography. In both cases Jews drew attention to their wartime roles-Simon Wiesenthal in the first instance and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in the second. Peter, unlike Waldheim, was suspected of direct involvement in major crimes, though this was never proved and he vigorously denied committing “illegal acts.” However, Peter almost immediately admitted his role in the Waffen-SS and, in contrast to Waldheim, did not hide behind a smoke screen of patriotic bluster and a propaganda campaign against his detractors. Moreover in 1975 the main attacks on Peter came from inside Austria and he did not benefit from the support of a major political party such as the ÖVP, which would stand massively behind Waldheim as their presidential candidate. (Kreisky’s personal intervention for Peter was just that; it did not engage the SPÖ as an organization.) Waldheim, on the other hand, chose to speak in the name of Austria against a campaign directed from abroad, supposedly orchestrated to discredit the nation as a whole. If the Wiesenthal-Kreisky-Peter Affair was essentially a domestic Austrian scandal, the Waldheim phenomenon had international dimensions, involving a man running for the Austrian presidency who had previously been UN secretary general. Finally, one should remember that in 1975 the two main protagonists, Wiesenthal and Kreisky, were both Jews, whereas after 1986 the contest was presented to Austrian opinion as one be-tween their democratically elected president-a respected Austrian conservative-and international Jewry in the “sinister” shape of the WJC.
What linked these two political psychodramas was the intense need of so many postwar Austrians to deny the darkest corners of their own history, relieve their bad consciences, and project their repressed guilt onto foreign Jewish intervention, which was supposedly responsible for their troubles. Typically, Kreisky (who was politically far removed from Waldheim and temperamentally his antithesis) joined the chorus defending Waldheim and denounced the WJC for its unwarranted, “despicable” interference in Austrian life.
Indeed, during the first phase of the Waldheim Affair, Kreisky’s attacks on the World Jewish Congress or on Simon Wiesenthal and Yitzhak Shamir (the Israeli prime minister) provided ideal quotations for Austrian newspapers looking for Jewish scapegoats. In the Kronen-Zeitung at the end of May 1986, Kreisky characterized Shamir as a “terrorist leader” and accused him of seeking to mobilize the West against Waldheim and falsely trying to paint Austria as an anti-Semitic state. It should be remembered that by the late 1980s, Israel’s image in Austria had declined so much, in comparison with the years before 1967, that it was relatively easy to repudiate any criticisms emanating from the Jewish state. With the onset of the Intifada, more voices could be heard in Austria-as elsewhere in Europe-suggesting that the Jews, who had suffered so much, had learned nothing from the past, and were allegedly behaving “like Nazis” toward the Palestinians. And this same Israel had presumed to mix into Austria’s internal affairs by manifesting displeasure at Waldheim’s election in 1986, even recalling its ambassador! In Israel, meanwhile, Austria’s image deteriorated, especially after Waldheim’s election, bringing into the public sphere a new and belated awareness of Austria’s Nazi past and resentment against its insistence on presenting itself as a victim of Hitler.
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