Oscar Bronner: A Life in Defiance of Austria and Its Situation
JM Stim, Eva Weissenberger: Trotzdem. Oscar Bronner. Eine Biografie, [In spite of. Oscar Bronner. A Biography] rde — redelsteiner dahimene edition, Wien, 2013, 326 pages
In October 2013 the Austrian daily Der Standard marked a quarter of a century of its existence in grand style. These days the newspaper, printed on distinctive pink paper, is taken for granted as an integral part of the Austrian media world. So much so that it is hard to believe how difficult the process of its establishment in 1988 had been and, in particular, how hard it was for it to maintain its position on the market. This is just one of the stories covered by the biography of Oscar Bronner, the paper’s founder and its publisher to this day. However, Bronner has left a much deeper mark on Austria’s media space/world, as the driving force behind two other media titles that had significantly affected the media scene in Austria—the economic monthly Trend and the political weekly Profil.
The title of Bronner’s biography, co-authored by Austrian journalists Eva Weissenberger a JM Stim (aka Klaus Stimeder) is “Trotzdem“ which translates as “In spite of.“ In fact, much of what Bronner has achieved over the past forty years came about in spite of the existing, mostly unwritten, rules; in spite of the advice of his close friends or busi ness partners. For he aspired for nothing less than to make at least a small contribution to overcoming the parochialism that allowed Austria and its inhabitants following 1945 to enjoy quite a good—and especially comfortable—lifestyle.
This was because after the war, unlike Poland or Czechoslovakia, Austria had found itself on the “right side” of the Iron Curtain. From the mid fifties Austria slowly ceased to be the West’s poor relative, joining countries which the so-called economic miracle put on the path to prosperity. However, the gradual material rise of broad swaths of society and their growing confidence went hand in hand with silence regarding the role Austria played from 1938 to 1945. The country had been declared “the first victim” of Hitler’s politics by World War II victorious powers as early as 1943. This premise served not only to underpin the argument for the country’s restoration in 1945 but also helped to pass the buck of the emerging Austrian identity. Asking your parents and closest people about their past was not the “done thing,” that was the general consensus. Those who offended against it had to expect being pushed to the margins of society or, to be on the safe side, chose to leave Austria of their own accord.
That is why many Jews who had managed to flee Austria after the 1938 Anschluss or who had survived the Holocaust, did not come back. They realized that not only was anyone likely to welcome them with open arms but they might face fresh affronts and bullying as those “responsible for starting the war.”
In this respect, Oscar Bronner’s Jewish family was an exception. Although quite a few of their number fell victim to the Nazi rampage, after 1948 they returned to Vienna, the hometown of Bronner’s father Gerhard. As a fifteen-year old he fled to Palestine and made a living as a cabaret actor an pianist with the local British military band. Eventually he made it to the head of music programming of the BBC Palestinian studio and after the war was offered a job at the London head office.
Growing up between Germany and Austria Oscar Bronner soon became aware of the differences between the two countries in terms of the relations between politics and the media. What struck him in particular was the fact that the Austrian public often treated politicians as demigods, of whom no critical questions may be asked. Instead of presenting a critical point of view, mass media limited themselves to polite court reporting. It was the Bronner father and son who helped to launch the first great postwar scandal in Austria. It involved personal continuity between the reconstituted democratic republic and the Nazi regime, whereby there were quite a few individuals in key positions who had not only been committed and active Nazis before the war but often continued to espouse the same views. This particular case concerned Taras Borodajkewycz, professor at the Economics University in Vienna, whose lectures abounded in anti-semitic statements and who was well connected with top ranking Austrian politicians. A student of his, the future finance minister Ferdinand Lacina, had secretly recorded his lectures and the recordings reached the Bronners. Gerhard Bronner used the recording on his satirical show on Austrian TV, adapted into a fictitious interview. A huge scandal erupted, leading to violent clashes in Vienna between Borodajkewycz’s supporters and sympathizers and eventually, nevertheless, forcing the anti-Semitic professor into early retirement.
In his journalistic career, Oscar Bronner covered similar issues for several Austrian dailies. His texts and reports frequently provoked heated debates and the targets of his criticism often went to courts demanding the entire printrun be seized. That was when Bronner came to realize that Austria sorely lacked a critical media outlet, similar to the German weekly Der Spiegel, willing to publish similar texts on a regular basis, advocating for a change of the situation in the country. He was convinced that Austrian readers were ready for a publication of this kind. As a first step towards an investigative magazine he envisaged an economic journal that would attract potential advertisers.
However, the question of funding was of key importance. Asking Austrian banks for credit would have amounted to becoming part of their economic empire and it would result in a complete loss of independence. That is why Bronner approached his good friend, the Czech aristocrat Karl Schwarzenberg, at the time living in Austrian exile. Schwarzenberg had made available half of the start-up capital for the publication of an economic monthly, even though his advisers insisted that he withdrew support for the project later, at the last minute, although this was not made public.
Bronner‘s economic monthly, Trend, was a breath of fresh air not only in terms of substance but also in terms of form. It was in full color, individual texts were illustrated with graphics and cartoons and the ads were also in full color. Full- color ads were very expensive at the time and Bronner assumed that potential advertisers would welcome the possibility of having the same ad appear in two media outlets at the same time. That is why the first issue of Trend, published in January 1970, was followed by the first issue of the political weekly Der Profil in September of the same year.
Although Schwarzenberg withdrew from the role of active co-publisher before the first issue had come out, he promised his help, should Der Profil find itself under political pressure. That is why for the next few years the aristocrat would start every telephone conversation with Bronner by asking: “Do you need any help?” A situation like this arrived quite soon, in 1971. The weekly Der Profil published a series of articles exposing the abuse of office on the part of Vienna’s then mayor, the socialist Felix Slavik. Slavik succeeded in the court issuing an injunction and having the entire printrun of the journal impounded twice. In spite of that, Bronner had the relevant issue published for the third time, in its original form. While the issue sold really well, the ancillary expenses required to print it three times were reflected in the publisher’s financial situation. He was short of money to pay staff writers‘ salaries and Schwarzenberg had to step in. Not by intervening with those who held power in Austria or by a financial injection but by giving an impassioned speech to the incensed staff who were owed their salaries. Although the financial situation of the publishing house later stabilized, Oscar Bronner had to sell his shares in both magazines in late 1973 and early 1974.
Bronner subsequently used the money from the sale to finance several years in New York, having originally decamped there for six months. While in New York, he socialized with the local intellectual elite and took to painting, even organizing several exhibitions of his paintings. It was here that Bronner became aware of his Jewish roots, and realized how much richer his native Vienna would have been if it had not lost its Jewish population during the war.
Oscar Bronner only followed the events at home from the distance. On his return 13 years later, he found Austria hotly discussing the controversial election of former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim the country’s president. The presidential campaign, which had aroused a great amount of attention abroad, at times included openly anti-Semitic rhetoric since Waldheim’s supporters believed the resistance to his candidature was directed by the “US East Coast and the World Jewish Congress.”
The situation in Austria at the time seemed conducive to the founding of a liberal daily along the lines of the New York Times. The original concept of the paper was to be similar to that used with the monthly Trend: it was meant to be a daily for CEOs offering exclusive economic information and strictly distinguishing between news, analysis and commentary. It was supposed to be a genuinely new kind of newspaper, at the same time making the readers feel they are holding something that has always been around since, to quote Bronner, a newspaper is “an intimate affair, almost a family member.”
Just like in 1969, the main issue was getting started and raising the funds for the project. Again, the publisher’s first point of call was Prince Schwarzenberg. However, unlike on the previous occasion he turned Bronner down claiming there was no room in Austria for a daily of this kind. Since by then Bronner had the reputation of a successful founder of two magazines, very soon a bank consortium emerged willing to fund the launch of the new daily. However, when it came to detail, the banks withdrew from the project from one day to another, possibly bowing to the pressure of the publishers of other dailies that felt threatened by the new project.
The reason was that while Bronner lived in New York, Austria had gone through a marked concentration of media, printers and especially newspaper distribution. Any new newspaper project would thus had to either develop the entire infrastructure from scratch or accept the conditions set by established publishers, something that was a priori unacceptable to Bronner as it would have jeopardized his main goal of creating a daily that would be completely independent of all the existing media and political structures in Austria. However, Bronner found unexpected support when he offered a share to Springer, the German publisher. This was quite ironic given the atrocious reputation German publishers, who were behind the tabloid Der Bild and the conservative daily Die Welt, enjoyed in left-leaning liberal circles, i.e. among the planned daily potential readership. To a large extent, this was because of the negative role the Springer group media had played during the 1968 student riots, their irreconcilable attitude to communism as well as their distinctly pro-Israeli stance. Bronner, however, took a rather pragmatist view. He also rightly anticipated that the foreign owner would be primarily interested in economic indicators of the project’s success rather than the context of the Austrian social and political discourse. In addition, it soon became clear that betting on a foreign partner paid off right from the start: when the new daily was in danger of not finding printers because the negotiations had failed at the last moment, the Springer group leadership did not hesitate a second and simply dispatched a printing press to Austria, saving the paper.
Quite predictably, rival media reacted to the new arrival on Austria’s media market by commentaries questioning the viability of the new daily. Nevertheless, exactly fifty years after the country’s invasion by the Nazis it was rather unexpected to see some journalists resorting to traditional anti-Semitic clichés familiar from the presidential campaign when they felt it was necessary to remind the readers that Bronner had spent several years living in New York where he had“managed to garner the support of moneyed ‘East Coast’ circles” and so on.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the project of Der Standard, a liberal daily, has firmly established itself in Austria, as witness by the growing readership figures. It even survived when its original foreign strategic partner withdrew when, after an initial euphoric expansion into Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990 the Springer group began to focus on consolidating its business activities in the reunited Germany. Bronner had to raise money quickly to pay off his partner. His rivals on the Austrian market saw this as another—possibly the last— opportunity to gain control over the daily through affiliated banks.
Of course, nothing has to last forever, including a media project success. However, in his life publisher Oscar Bronner has already proven three times that he can realize his visions in an environment that does not seem to be conducive at the first sight.