The Kreisky Syndrome

Austria recently celebrated Bruno Kreisky’s 100th birthday, the only Jew ever to rule a German-speaking country. Examining the late politician’s inbred anti-Semitism makes today’s Jewish delegitimizers pale in comparison.

Bruno Kreisky (photo credit: COURTESY. Bruno Kreisky)
Bruno Kreisky
(photo credit: COURTESY. Bruno Kreisky)
Bruno Kreisky was the first and only Jew ever to rule a German-speaking country. Not only that, but in the thirteen years (between 1970 and 1983) that he served as Chancellor of Austria, he never lost a single election. The current centenary celebrations in Vienna of his birth in January 1911 have given rise to an intensive re-examination of Kreisky’s historic legacy.
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Of one thing there can be no doubt. He was certainly the most successful Austrian political leader of the last century. But from the perspective of Austrian Jews or the State of Israel, the period of Kreisky’s supremacy will always be remembered with mixed, not to say bitter feelings. The reasons for these divergent narratives are illuminating, especially in the light of the present-day delegitimization of Israel by left-wing Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
Bruno Kreisky was, after all, the first West European statesman to actively promote the Palestinian cause, to diplomatically recognize Yasser Arafat’s PLO and to condemn Israel as an “apartheid State.” He also claimed that Zionist ideology was a type of Nazi racism in reverse. Moreover, his opposition to Simon Wiesenthal’s efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice aroused particular resentment among Diaspora Jews. During the 1970s Wiesenthal, who also lived in Vienna, found himself battling amnesia regarding the Nazi past which was still predominant among most Austrians. Kreisky encouraged this amnesia and consistently downplayed Austrian complicity in Nazi war-crimes and its role in the Holocaust. Even more than his visceral anti-Zionism was Kreisky’s vendetta against the intrepid Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, which aroused suspicions that Kreisky himself might be a “Jewish anti-Semite”. 
Already in 1970, Simon Wiesenthal had exposed the fact that four members of Kreisky’s first Cabinet were former Nazis – something unprecedented in post-war European history. Subsequently, in 1975, when the Socialist Chancellor sought a coalition with the far right Freedom Party, it was Wiesenthal who revealed that its leader, Friedrich Peter, had served as a tank commander in the 1st SS infantry brigade on the Russian front, which had been responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent Jews. Kreisky never forgave these interventions, maliciously accusing Wiesenthal of being an “agent” of Israel, which was allegedly seeking to bring him down. To this charge he would subsequently add Communist-inspired slanders that Wiesenthal had collaborated with the Gestapo during the Second World War.
It is difficult to deny that there was a pathological element in Kreisky’s response to Wiesenthal and to “Jewish questions” more generally, that transcended mere opportunism or political differences. Wiesenthal once told me in a private conversation that the Austrian Chancellor’s hostility came from an overwhelming need to prove to the gentiles how detached he was from his “Jewish” roots. Others were even more trenchant. The Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon concluded in 1978 that Kreisky was “a first-class anti-Semite,” a “big brother [who] decided he’s got a hump, and therefore he hates all humpbacks.” The then-Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek (himself Viennese by origin) even declared that Kreisky required psychiatric treatment of the kind pioneered by fellow Viennese Jews like Sigmund Freud or Alfred Adler.
The Austrian Chancellor was no less vitriolic – especially towards the new right-wing Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, whom he liked to describe as a warped Ostjude (Polish Jew) “alienated from normal ways of thinking.” In the last years of his ascendancy Kreisky’s anger at Israeli Jews frequently exploded. He compared Israeli control of the West Bank to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, called the actions of the Israeli army against Palestinians a “refined form of banditry” and rejected any suggestion that he should feel empathy towards the Jewish State.
His relations with Labor prime ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin were almost as tense as those with Begin. In early October 1973, just before the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir had to rush to Vienna after Kreisky capitulated to Palestinian terrorist demands that he close Schoenau Castle – a transit point in Austria for Jewish emigrants from the USSR.
Kreisky evidently believed that one could only fight terrorism by embracing its perpetrators. Arab terrorist leaders like Libyan Colonel Ghaddafi and Arafat were not merely welcomed in Vienna but received the red carpet treatment. But this appeasement of Arab terror backfired cruelly. In 1981, the Abu Nidal wing of the PLO assaulted a synagogue in Vienna causing several fatalities; it also murdered the socialist President of the Austrian-Israeli friendship society in broad daylight in Vienna during a May Day parade; if that wasn’t enough, not much time passed before the PLO ambassador to Austria was caught at Vienna airport with two suitcases of weapons delivered from Beirut. The last straw was the murder of Kreisky’s closest Palestinian friend, Dr. Issam Sartawi, liquidated by radical elements in the PLO in 1983 – an act for which the Chancellor held Arafat personally responsible. This assassination led to a rupture of relations with Yasser Arafat. Although Kreisky was aware of Arafat’s compulsive lying, he chose to remain silent about it in public, in contrast to his scathing condemnations of Israel’s actions which continued unabated.
Kreisky’s intense hostility to the Jewish state seems to me to have been a curious mixture of self-loathing, Marxist ideology, and the hubris of the “universalist” Jew who believes he has transcended the tribalism of his more “backward” co-religionists. At the height of the Wiesenthal Affair he acidly remarked to Der Spiegel: “If the Jews are a people, then they are a repulsive people.” Kreisky’s cosmopolitan world-view – as an internationalist Social Democrat and Austrian patriot – led him to eradicate his identity of origin. But he could never shake off the latent insecurity of being a Jew in an anti-Semitic country. For all his undeniable achievements and ambition to become the golden goy, Bruno Kreisky ultimately failed to liberate himself from the fear of his Judaic shadow.
The writer is Neuberger Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House).