Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

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

Joshua Muravchik
July 29, 2014
(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)
(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)

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.

After this, Meir sought a meeting of the Socialist International at which she confronted the party leaders, eight of whom were then heading governments: “Not one inch of your territory was put at our disposal for refueling the planes that saved us from destruction.” Meir’s complaint was on moral grounds and on the presumed sense of solidarity among Socialists. Amazingly, no one replied, and in the silence Meir reports that a voice behind her said: “Of course they can’t talk. Their throats are choked with oil.”

While most of the socialists were embarrassed, Kreisky saw the situation as a welcome opportunity. “We cannot ignore the political consequences of our clear dependence upon essential reserves vital to Europe’s energy economy,” he wrote later. “As a result of the shock of the oil crisis I achieved a breakthrough with the Socialist International.”

The breakthrough consisted of a decision to create a fact-finding mission to the Middle East under Kreisky’s chairmanship. The Arab-Israel conflict was, however, neither new nor obscure; all of these leaders and their parties had been dealing with it since its inception. So it is hard to understand what “facts” they may have lacked. Had they nonetheless wanted a genuine probe of the subject they would have chosen someone neutral to head it, whereas Kreisky, who had proposed the mission, had already carved out a position as the leader of the International least friendly to Israel. His role, then, was to run interference for the others as they shifted away from their longstanding support for Israel in deference to their newly-felt need to win Arab favor. That Kreisky was of Jewish background was a bonus. By allowing him to lead the way, they shielded themselves against charges of anti-Semitism.

Their report blamed the lack of peace in the Middle East squarely on Israel although not a single Arab state had yet expressed any willingness to accept Israel’s existence nor had the Arab League altered its 1967 summit resolution, pledging “no peace … , no recognition … , no negotiations.” Nonetheless, the report concluded airily that “Israel would be totally unchallenged in her existence” if only she would “take into account developments in the Arab world and adjust … her future political aspirations to this area.”

In 1979, Kreisky took a further step, hosting Arafat in Vienna for talks with himself and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt on behalf of the Socialist International. The three leaders issued a joint communiqué blasting Israel, and at a concluding press conference, Kreisky likened the Palestinians’ situation to his own Swedish exile during World War Two, thereby, as Carl Gershman, the U.S. representative to the International, put it, embracing the PLO’s claim, that its “campaign against Israel [was] analogous to the European resistance against the Nazis.”

The summit with Arafat paved the way for a shift in Europe’s relations with the PLO. Until then, Western Europe generally mirrored U.S. policy that made diplomatic contact with the PLO conditional on its willingness to accept Israel’s existence and to renounce terror. Now, however, Europe began to open its arms to the PLO in the hope that moderation would come later.

Eventually, too, the International admitted Arafat’s party, Fatah, into membership. The Socialist International had once described itself as democratic socialist, with an emphasis on the adjective. But, with the rise of the Third World, the members of this organization felt increasinglyembarrassed at belonging to a club of the white skinned and prosperous. In atonement, they began to admit various parties in the developing countries that preached socialism without practicing democracy. It was no barrier that Fatah had never even given lip service to democracy in the Western sense, nor for that matter, socialism. Meanwhile, Israel’s Labor Party, once the most accomplished member of the International, was dropped from the rolls for non-payment of dues.

In later years, after Israel itself recognized the PLO in the 1993 Oslo accords, Kreisky was credited by his admirers (and himself) with having been ahead of the curve. But at Oslo, the PLO made a historic change: it agreed to accept Israel and live in peace with it, renouncing violence. To recognize the PLO once it had done this was entirely different from recognizing it and granting it legitimacy while it was still sworn to Israel’s destruction and practicing terrorism. Had Israel and the U.S. followed Kreisky’s position, that is, had they not insisted that they would deal with the PLO only if it made the concessions that it finally did at Oslo, who knows if it would ever have signed on for compromise and a peaceful solution?

Like his approach to the Middle East conflict, Kreisky’s whole attitude toward Jews and Arabs, exhibited a double standard. He despised one Israeli leader after another often in overtly anti-Semitic terms. In Meir he noted mannerisms “so characteristic of Jews from Eastern Europe.” Menachem Begin, he said, was a “political grocer … a little Polish lawyer,” adding, “they think in such a warped way, these Eastern [European] Jews.” Kreisky accused Begin’s successor, Itzhak Shamir, of being so cynical as to welcome anti-Semitism because “it makes Israel the last and only refuge of the Jews.”

In contrast, he developed an abiding affection for Arafat and he found Egypt’s Anwar Sadat “impressive, fascinating, elegant, open, prophetic.” Sadat, of course, won many admirers thanks to his bold initiative of peacemaking with Israel. But this was precisely the part of Sadat’s record that Kreisky did not like, and he denigrated the Camp David accords that Sadat entered into with Begin. In addition, Kreisky courted Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, hosting him for a four-day state visit in March 1982, and later praising Libya’s “advances in water management and … remarkable development projects.” He also expressed admiration for Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, whom he called “an outstanding personality … very ‘European.’ ”

In his memoirs Kreisky justified his relentless animus toward Israel:

What is happening presently in Israel is so abominable and repugnant that it is really difficult for me to remain calm about it. And why should I? I have always utterly detested violence and injustice and have combated them wherever they appeared, and I feel it to be a moral duty to take the same attitude towards Jews who commit or defend such wrongdoing.

This bit of self-admiration was, if not a plain lie then delusional. Arafat, Assad and Qaddafi committed grave abuses of their own citizens, and each was also was stained with the blood of other Arabs, not to mention Israelis, but there is no record of Kreisky’s having “combated” or voiced “detest[ation]” of any of this. At bottom, Kreisky nursed, as he admits in his memoirs, a “critical attitude towards the existence of the state of Israel.”

Bruno Kreisky was the ancestor of the Jews who now serve in the front ranks of the hate-Israel movement, using their ethnic “authenticity” to lend weight to their attacks on the Jewish state. But few have matched the impact of Kreisky, who stands alongside DeGaulle as the foremost leaders in undoing Europe’s sympathy for Israel and its people.

Excerpt from Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned against Israel by Joshua Muravchik. Copyright © 2014 by Joshua Muravchik. Used by permission of Encounter Books. All rights reserved.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Joshua Muravchik is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel and Trailblazers of the Arab Spring: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.

Joshua Muravchik is the author ofMaking David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel and Trailblazers of the Arab Spring: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.