The Kreisky Myth Endures Thirty Years On

Kult-Kanzler Kreisky. Mensch und Mythos, ueberreuter, Christoph Kotanko, 2021, 196p., ISBN: 9783800077465

In recent years, every time people have looked back at the ‘good old days’, their recollections have been tinged with nostalgia for the 1970s. This was a period when Austria was, for the first time, generally seen to have taken first significant steps out of the shadow of its big northern neighbour, West Germany. The economy was thriving, unemployment was low and general prosperity was on the rise. Austrian politicians were notable for their confidence in conducting a foreign policy rooted in the country’s neutrality, which was guaranteed by the world powers that had emerged victorious from World War II. This was underpinned by the desire to turn Vienna into a place where the democratic West could meet the Communist East, and representatives of the rich North would encounter their opposite numbers from the impoverished South.

Much of this was due to the figure of Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s Chancellor at the time. Following his first election victory on 1 March 1970, he remained at the helm of government for the next thirteen years, presiding over four cabinets. No matter how Kreisky’s political legacy is viewed by his sympathizers or adversaries, they generally agree that throughout these thirteen years Austria underwent an enormous change and a shift towards becoming a modern European society.

As for Kreisky himself, June 2020 marked another important anniversary: thirty years since his death. This confluence of round anniversaries probably explains the publication of several new books about Kreisky in Austria. They include the volume by the journalist Christoph Kotanko, for many years the editor-in-chief of the daily Kurier and currently head of the Vienna desk of Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, a newspaper published in Linz. His book is an attempt to view the figure of the Chancellor through the optics of the present day, a time when much that seemed commonplace in Kreisky’s days seems almost unimaginable.

Most astonishing of all is the fact that he managed to keep the position of head of government for thirteen years. Throughout this period, his Socialist Party of Austria (SPÖ) ruled alone, without a coalition partner, having commanded over 50 per cent of the vote in several consecutive elections. For the sake of comparison, in the most recent general election in the fall of 2018, SPÖ garnered just over 21 per cent and counted itself lucky to have held on to the number two spot among the Austrian parties.

Its electoral successes in the 1970s ensured for SPÖ the position of one of the most important Social Democratic parties in Western Europe, hard on the heels of its counterparts in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. As a result, Bruno Kreisky joined Sweden’s Olof Palme and Germany’s Willy Brandt as a member of the closely observed “Social Democratic troika” which led the global movement of non-communist left-wing parties. Tensions between the rich North and the poor South, the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa, the conflict between Israel and the Arab World, and the efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament – these were the issues in international politics that the troika regularly commented on.

Bruno Kreisky joined Sweden’s Olof Palme and Germany’s Willy Brandt as a member of the closely observed “Social Democratic troika” which led the global movement of non-communist left-wing parties.

Kotanko’s book is not an attempt to offer a coherent biography of Kreisky, of which several have been written before (those looking for a book of this kind will find one among the copious references at the end). Nor does he try to provide a detailed analysis of every decision taken by Kreisky’s government. Instead, he summarizes the facts that have made the longest-serving chancellor in the country’s postwar history so unique that he is still used as a point of reference, even by politicians at the right-wing end of the political spectrum, who could not stand him back in the day.

Arguably, no one has questioned the key reforms his cabinets pushed through in the 1970s. They include the democratization of the school system which also opened up access to education to those in the lower ranks of society and involved measures such as the provision of free textbooks and covering the cost of school buses, things that are these days taken for granted. Among further reforms that he introduced are changes to the civil code and family law which enshrined equal legal rights for men and women. Most notably, it was the liberalization of the law on abortion, an issue on which Kreisky had originally adopted a ‘neutral’ position to avoid jeopardizing the newly achieved truce with the influential Catholic Church – until leading women politicians in his party pushed him to change his mind.

President’s Preface

It is already clear from the book’s introduction that the author will treat the object of his interest with kid gloves, reserving any criticism for what is unavoidable. When he does deal with Kreisky’s shortcomings, he never goes beyond what has been said before. So much so that the reader might detect, right from the start, a whiff of an ‘officially authorized’ work, since the preface has been penned by no less than Kreisky’s long-standing party and parliamentary colleague and later the country’s President, Heinz Fischer, a kind of “walking chronicle of Austria’s social democracy”. The mere fact that Kotanko asked him to write the preface suggests that far from being overly critical the book will add a further piece to the mosaic of Kreisky’s mythology.

A similar bias is apparent when we look at the public figures Kotanko chose to interview for his book. For the most part, they are people who worked most closely with Kreisky: his long-serving secretary Margit Schmidt, his chef de cabinet Alfred Reiter, and the chief of protocol at the cabinet office Ernst Braun. In contrast, the sole ‘independent’ voice in the book is that of the recently deceased grand old man of Austrian journalism and chronicler of postwar Austria, Hugo Portisch. It would have been worth approaching some of Kreisky’s former adversaries who are still with us, such as the former leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and his 1970 election rival, Josef Taus.

Thus, the picture that emerges from the accounts of all of Kotanko’s interviewees is very similar: Kreisky was a very accessible man whose phone number never disappeared from Vienna’s phone directory. Any fellow citizen could ring him and Kreisky is said to have spent hours talking to them on the phone. Journalists, whose questions he willingly answered after government meetings and not only then, were similarly in his thrall. That helped him bridge the gulf that used to exist between politicians and the journalistic profession while, on the other hand, laying the latter open to the charge of lack of objectivity.

Kreisky was a very accessible man whose phone number never disappeared from Vienna’s phone directory. Any fellow citizen could ring him and Kreisky is said to have spent hours talking to them on the phone.

One of Bruno Kreisky’s greatest strengths was his television presence. He mastered this new mass medium, which in the 1970s became accessible to broader audiences, with greater skill than any of his contemporaries. Especially in the runup to elections, he employed it to great effect to win over undecided voters, who made a key contribution to his triumphs.

Right at the start of his book, Christoph Kotanko articulates a few basic theories as to what, he believes, made Kreisky a remarkable politician. The first is the assertion that he was the only Chancellor who still had roots in the old monarchy and had been active in politics during the first and second republics, and that the impact of his decisions is still felt in the twenty-first century.

His second contention is that Kreisky would not have been so successful if his conservative predecessor Josef Klaus had not embarked on the path of reform. For one thing, he left Kreisky a balanced budget, and he also oversaw the reform of public broadcasting, thereby profoundly changing the character and quality of political discourse in the country. Ironically, Klaus was not adept at using the new media while Kreisky proved himself a master of them.

Kotanko’s third argument is that Kreisky always managed to remain independent of his own party by never becoming its paid employee and avoiding any other kind of material dependency. This brought him into conflict, especially in the early years of his party chairmanship, with a number of professional party functionaries, particularly those representing the powerful unionist faction, who still viewed politics through the lens of class struggle.

And, fourthly, even long after his death, Kreisky has remained a point of reference for many politicians irrespective of their party.

Nevertheless, it is a rare and distinctive political figure who is free of contradictions and Bruno Kreisky was no exception. In his case, this starts with his background. Born into an affluent assimilated Jewish family, his political roots went back to the young Social Democrats who fell, at least initially, under the spell of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. When all political parties, including the Social Democrats, were banned in Austria after 1934 under Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’s Austrofascist regime, for a while Kreisky landed up in prison. He shared this fate with members of the illegal Nazi party who had been involved in several failed coup attempts. Some of his biographers believe that this shared experience of persecution under the Dollfuss regime explains the leniency he showed to former members of the Nazi NSDAP in later life, often excusing their behavior by saying “everyone is entitled to make a mistake”.  During his time as Chancellor, he quite deliberately downplayed any new information showing that one of his government ministers or a top politician had been involved with the Nazi regime.

His attitude to aristocracy was similarly ambivalent. In the 1960s, in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs, despite being a Social Democrat he greatly valued contacts with members of the aristocracy, keeping many of them in the diplomatic service. Furthermore, he allowed them to continue using, in their official capacity at the ministry, their old titles even though these had been officially abolished when Austria became a republic in 1918.

An Ambivalent Relationship With His Own Roots

Like many authors writing about Kreisky before him, Kotanko too regards his subject’s relationship with his Jewish roots as a key to the Chancellor’s personality. On the one hand, he had never shown particular pride in it, a fact that may be connected to his rather privileged background.  He was keenly aware of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Austrian society as well as in his own party. “They will never accept a Jew,” he is reported to have said on several occasions to those who tried to persuade him to stand for the leadership of SPÖ. During the 1970 election campaign, the then Chancellor, ÖVP’s Josef Klaus, went as far as to put the slogan “A Real Austrian” on his posters in what was a clear wink towards Kreisky’s Jewish background. In addition, it was meant to suggest that instead of governing in accordance with Austria’s interests, Kreisky would follow the script of the international socialist movement.

Kreisky’s ambivalent attitude was even more apparent in his later years in his disagreements with the ‘Nazi hunter’ Simon Wiesenthal, founder of the Jewish Documentation Centre, who had helped to track down Adolf Eichmann.

On the other hand, this did not prevent Kreisky, after he became Chancellor, from making active use of his Jewishness in his foreign policy in the Middle East. Hugo Portisch told Kotanko that one of Kreisky’s closest friends was the Austrian Jewish industrialist Karl Kahane. Kahane regularly let Kreisky use his private airplane for trips to the Middle East where he met with Arab leaders. This was repeatedly criticized by Israeli officials who could not understand how someone with Kreisky’s background could cultivate contacts with the Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, regarded as a terrorist by Israel’s political elites.

Kreisky’s ambivalent attitude was even more apparent in his later years in his disagreements with the ‘Nazi hunter’ Simon Wiesenthal, founder of the Jewish Documentation Centre, who had helped, among other things, to track down the main architect of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. However, Wiesenthal was also behind the uncovering of the Nazi past of several of Kreisky’s ministers. Kreisky increasingly nursed a grudge against Wiesenthal, which eventually turned into open hostility. He often insinuated that Wiesenthal, who had been held in several concentration camps during the war, could not have survived, for example, without collaborating with the Nazis and spying for the Gestapo. Their disagreement eventually ended up in court, where Wiesenthal was awarded damages. Kreisky never paid, however, prompting Wiesenthal later to make the sarcastic comment: “He preferred to die rather than make the payment ordered by the court.”

A number of Austrian journalists, still under the spell of Kreisky’s personality and his style of communicating with them, tended to side with the Chancellor in his disputes with Wiesenthal. This attitude, along the lines of “what is the point of revisiting history and reopening old wounds” helped delay the process of Austria’s coming to terms with its Nazi past. Very few journalists were capable of treating Kreisky with genuine critical distance.

Thus, in its way, Christoph Kotanko’s book demonstrates that the fascination with Kreisky can endure for decades after his death.

Robert Schuster

is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent for the Austrian daily Der Standard in the Czech Republic from 2000 to 2012. He has been a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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