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The Jew Who Turned the Left Against Israel

A new book shows how Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was the ancestor of the Jews who now serve in the hate-Israel movement

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(L to R) West German social democratic leader Willy Brandt, Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres, Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat meet at the Vienna chancellery for unofficial talks on the Middle East situation. (AFP/Getty Images)
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For the first quarter-century of its existence, Israel could count on one bastion of foreign support: the Socialist International, an agglomeration of moderate Leftist parties like the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, and the French Socialists. Among the world’s democracies, no country was molded more by socialist ideas than Israel, and this commanded the admiration of other socialists worldwide.

But in the 1970s, one European leader took up the mission of reversing this good opinion. He was Bruno Kreisky, the Chancellor of Austria, Vice President of the International, and one of the most memorable European politicians of his era.

By turning around the Socialists, Kreisky hoped to effect a larger transformation. “I set out to change [the] attitude on the part of the Western world” whose sympathy for Jews as a consequence of the Holocaust was, in his view “exploited by those in power in Israel in the most brutal fashion.” As he saw it, “The European parties were one-sidedly pro-Israeli, and I considered this short-sighted and dangerous.”

Remarkably, Kreisky was himself of Jewish lineage, born in 1911 to a well-to-do secular Viennese family. But he apparently felt nothing for this heritage—at least nothing positive. At age 19 or 20, he had taken the trouble to have his name stricken from the official list of Austrian Jews. A few years earlier he had become a devoted member of the Social Democratic Party, a disciple of Otto Bauer’s, the chief theoretician of Austrian Marxism.

It is easy to trace a direct descent from Marx to Bauer to Kreisky, all three Germanic and of Jewish parentage who turned their backs on the latter heritage. Marx had penned a vitriolic monograph, On the Jewish Question, which described the Jews as the incarnation of capitalism. “Money is the jealous god of Israel,” he wrote, adding: “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Citing this essay as his foundational text, Bauer foresaw that the concentration of capital would reduce many Jews to workers. “Only then will the misery particular to the Jews disappear, and they will be left with the shared misery of the proletariat, which they will struggle against and triumph over, shoulder to shoulder with their Aryan colleagues.” With these mentors, the young and affluent Kreisky made himself over as best he could from a Jew to a proletarian, spurning the socialist students’ organization for the young workers’ movement so as to participate more directly in the class struggle.

This framework shaped his attitude toward his Nazi fellow-prisoners when, in the mid 1930s, he served time for subversive activities under the authoritarian regime of Kurt Schuschnigg, which repressed challenges to the Austrian state from radicals, left and right. Kreisky’s biographer, H. Pierre Secher, writes that political discourse among these factions was “rarely . . . hostile.” On the contrary:

There was a well-founded solidarity among the political [prisoners], directed against the despised “cleric-fascist” government. … Ideologically, the distinction between “Sozis” [Socialists and] Commies on the one hand and Nazis on the other, was probably only the internationalism of the Marxists and the nationalism of the Nazis. In every other respect they agreed on the evils of capitalism. Even the primary connection by the Nazis of capitalism with the Jews did not necessarily encounter heated critical opposition from the Socialists.

Released by the Austrian authorities, Kreisky was arrested again after the Nazi takeover. He then sent an audacious letter to the Gestapo, somehow supposing that its officers would harbor sympathy for him. He wrote:

I [have] decided to direct my request directly to the Gestapo since I believe that organization now consists largely of former illegals; I am prepared to provide you any time with the names of currently prominent, well-known members of the NSDAP [Nazi Party] who can testify that during my time as [a] prisoner I have always shown solidarity toward my National Socialist prison mates.

It is possible to understand why in the 1930s Kreisky, like many other Socialists who were steeped in Marxism and viewed capitalists as the true enemies, might have seen Nazis as merely misguided revolutionaries. Back then, it was hard to know what exactly to make of Hitlerian rhetoric. But it is much harder to fathom how Kreisky could have clung to such a view after the Holocaust since most of his immediate relatives had been murdered in it. Yet he did.

Having survived by escaping to Sweden, Kreisky set to work after the war resurrecting the Austrian Socialist Party. He rose to become Foreign Minister in the 1960s and then to lead the party in national elections. The Socialists lost in 1966 when the leader of the rival People’s Party campaigned as a “true Austrian” in implicit contrast to Kreisky’s Jewish roots. But in 1970, for the first time, the Socialists won a plurality of seats. Rather than put together a coalition, Kreisky managed to form a minority government by securing the agreement of Friedrich Peter, leader of the Freedom Party, not to oppose him. The Freedom Party traced its roots in part to traditional liberalism, that is, belief in free enterprise, but it also was a magnet for former Nazis, a body of voters proportionately larger in Austria than in Germany, itself. Austria’s leading political scientist, Anton Pelinka, put it bluntly. The Freedom Party, he said, was “founded by former Nazis for former Nazis.”

Kreisky’s 1970 cabinet appointments sparked contention when the famous Austrian Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, revealed that no fewer than four of the eleven ministers were former Nazis. Kreisky replied that no one, including those who had been Nazis, should be condemned for past political positions unless he or she could be shown to have committed a crime. He lashed out furiously at Wiesenthal calling him a “Jewish fascist,” adding: “Wiesenthal … is a reactionary and they do exist among us Jews, just as there are among us Jews also murderers and whores.”

In the run up to the next election, in 1975, the Austrian press reported that secret negotiations were underway about a possible coalition between Kreisky’s Socialists and Peter’s Freedom Party. In response, just after the election, Simon Wiesenthal released records showing that Peter, himself, had served as a sergeant in an Einsatzgruppen brigade whose sole mission was the extermination of civilians in occupied territory, in particular, Jews.

Confronted, Peter acknowledged having belonged to the unit, although he had previously obscured this, but he denied having been present when any of its ten thousand victims were killed. Kreisky responded with rage—not at Peter, but at Wiesenthal. He launched into a campaign of vilification, accusing Wiesenthal of “mafia methods” and “spying” and of making a “living from telling the world that Austria is anti-Semitic.”

Kreisky’s vendetta against Wiesenthal culminated in the accusation that this famous scourge of former Nazis had himself been a Nazi collaborator. “I understand that at that time he wanted to save his life, but he has no moral authority to point an accusing finger at others,” said Kreisky. The evidence on which Kreisky based this allegation had come from the intelligence service of Communist Poland. Wiesenthal sued for libel but, after the intervention of some mutual friends, he withdrew his suit when Kreisky publicly retracted the accusation. A decade later, having left office, Kreisky repeated the charge and Wiesenthal renewed his legal action, winning the largest libel award in Austrian history to that point.

The scholars Andrei Markovitz and Anson Rabinbach note that Kreisky’s antics and his “apparent personal dislike of Jews” were no domestic liability: “Kreisky’s personal prejudice happened to be superb politics in a country where well into the 1970s more than 70 percent of the population still harbored anti-Jewish sentiments.” Nonetheless, the dislike was obviously genuine.

While acknowledging his “Jewish origins,” Kreisky rejected the idea of a “Jewish people.” He viewed Judaism as nothing more than a religion, and he himself was an adamant non-believer. To sharpen his point in an interview with Der Spiegel, he added provocatively that if the Jews did constitute a people “they are a wretched people.”

Whether the motive was political or psychological, Kreisky seemed to revel in using his Jewish lineage as a shield from which to take on the Jewish world with a fierceness that would have been impossible for a gentile politician. Explaining his attack on Wiesenthal he boasted: “So far no one has dared to talk back to this man because everyone was afraid that Mr. Wiesenthal would say, ‘well, this is because you were perhaps a Nazi.’ … It is necessary that someone say: ‘now, look, Mr. Wiesenthal, that has gone far enough.’ ” More consequentially, he adopted a similar approach in his relations with Israel, quipping once that he was “the only politician whom Golda Meir could not intimidate.”

Meir was Prime Minister of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and accompanying Arab oil embargo. America’s emergency airlift of arms saved the day, but the cowed Europeans refused to cooperate, prompting Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to accuse them of betraying the spirit of the NATO alliance.

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The Jew Who Turned the Left Against Israel

A new book shows how Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was the ancestor of the Jews who now serve in the hate-Israel movement