On Bruno Kreisky

Kreisky, Israel and Jewish Identity

by Daniel Ashheim

Published by University of New Orleans Press, 2022, pp.225

Bruno Kreisky was the longest serving Chancellor of Austria (1970-1983). He was also a Jew who had fled to Sweden when Hitler annexed the country to the Third Reich. More than 20 family members perished in the Shoah, but he returned to a country where ‘most Austrians had supported Hitler’s cause to the bitter end’. Highly intelligent and a deep thinker, he was conflicted about his Jewishness and about Israel where his disabled brother lived and where his nephew served as a paratrooper. To figures in the Israeli peace camp such as Aryeh ‘Liova’ Eliav and Uri Avnery, he would open his heart to them, but close it to Israeli diplomats — on often the same non-political subjects.

Many have written previously about the mass of contradictions that was Bruno Kreisky. The Israeli diplomat, Daniel Aschheim, has now drawn on all past research, interviewed former ambassadors and examined the archived correspondence between the Israeli embassy in Vienna and the foreign ministry in Jerusalem. This is a forensic attempt to uncover the real Kreisky — even so, it is akin to walking into a hall of mirrors.

Kreisky came an acculturated family which belonged to the upper Jewish middle class, rebelled and joined the Socialist party. As it was for Mahler, Schoenberg, Zweig, Freud — and indeed Herzl — being Jewish in Vienna was a problematic affliction. As Chancellor, Kreisky attempted to compartmentalize his affiliations at a time when 25 per cent of Austrians, born after the war’s end, held anti-Semitic views as late as 1979. Kreisky believed in realpolitik and adopted a cynically, pragmatic approach to former Nazis in public life. Yet he was married to a Jewish woman who played bridge with her Jewish friends and he also had an affair with the wife of a leading Jewish intellectual. Daniel Aschheim characterises him in private as very much a Central European Jew.

Kreisky allowed Austria to blur its recent past — Hitler, Eichmann and Seiss-Inquart were all Austrians — by according it a victim status of German Nazism. Indeed he provided a legitimacy to Austrians to contract a historical amnesia. He was also aware that ‘Jew’ in post-war Austria was not simply descriptive but also a weapon to be used against him.

A furious life-long row broke out with the right-wing Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal when Kreisky cultivated Friedrich Peter, the head of the Freedom Party in 1975 to ensure his own party’s supremacy in coalition. Wiesenthal revealed that Peter had served in the 1st SS Infantry Brigade which was responsible for the murder of 8,000 Jews.

Kreisky labelled Wiesenthal, in turn, ‘a Gestapo collaborator’ — one of many emotional, often bizarre outbursts, linked to his identity.

In 1973 Kreisky closed down the transit centre for Soviet Jews at Schönau when members of the Palestinian as-Sa’iqa held hostage new immigrants. In a face-to-face acrimonious confrontation with Golda Meir, Kreisky rejected the charge that he had ‘opened the door to terrorism’. Weeks later, he opened a new camp at Wöllersdorf for Soviet Jews under the remit of the Austrian Red Cross instead of that of the Jewish Agency and gave them the choice of leaving for countries other than Israel.

Daniel Aschheim describes the demonising coverage of Kreisky in the Israeli and Diaspora press — sometimes justified, often distorted. This reflected the simplicity of describing Kreisky as a ‘self-hating’ Jew whereas Aschheim’s well-researched book depicts him more as a buffeted subject of the twentieth century’s lethal storms. Kreisky never fitted into a conventional Jewish template.

Jewish Chronicle 12 January 2023

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