Kreisky: Nostalgia for Progress

The Chancellor of the Second Republic launched the reforms of modern Austria

News | John Hodgshon | February 2011

Theater pieces, exhibitions, a commemoration in the Hofburg, podium discussions, lectures and presentations – a celebration of Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s longest serving chancellor, who would have been 100 year’s old Jan. 22. Kreisky died just over 20 years ago, after serving as chancellor from 1970 to 1983, much of it with an absolute majority, and guiding the country through a period of radical reforms that continue to define Austria to this day.

It’s been an intense few weeks: On one side there’s been a lot of learned discussion – political heavy weights and intellectuals discussed the impact of Kreisky’s policies, and on the other, a nostalgic air of celebration. At events at the MAK and the Hofburg politicians and friends remembered Kreisky and told anecdotes of his life and their time with him. Whoever’s path he crossed, the footprints he left were large and lasting.

In every survey he is voted as the most popular chancellor of the Second Republic and, if you ask anyone to name any chancellor of the 20th century, most will immediately say Kreisky.

So, what is behind Austria’s fascination with Kreisky? In a word, nostalgia. Many people, especially Social Democratic (SPÖ) politicians, remember Kreisky’s time as a very positive era for Austria, perhaps even a kind of golden age, when the country really did seem to be ‘the isle of the blessed.’ For the ordinary people, Kreisky offered full employment, a social state that provided a safety net and a feeling that Kreisky had brought international respect to Austria.

"Hundreds of thousands unemployed matter more than a few billion Schillings of debt," Kreisky famously said. And he meant it.

The important reforms of his time as chancellor were legion:  Kreisky brought about big changes in family law: maternity law was reformed to institutionalize generous maternity leave with job protection, and to provide a "mother-child passport" covering all prenatal care and regular post natal doctor visits; there was support for young couples, as newly weds got a start-up boost of 15,000 Schillings supported by an equal rights act for women. Other reforms decriminialzed homosexuality and put all children on equal footing, in or out of wedlock. But perhaps most startling was the legalisation of abortion, a radical act Catholic country where many hospitals and social services have always been run by the Church. He also made a sharp break with tradition with reform of the criminal code, turning arrest, prison and harsh sentences into general custodial terms.

Other important reforms included the lifting of university fees, the introduction of alternative civil service for those who declined the military, the legalisation of homosexuality and the introduction of free schoolbooks.

But Kreisky brought more than social security. Throughout the discussions and speeches, the same words appeared again and again – "dynamism, reform, optimism, change." The emphasis reflects how important Kreisky’s reforms were for Austria, a country still recovering from the devastation of war and the cultural disaster of the Nazi years, and what a lasting impact they have had.

This was particularly true during the discussion Jan. 16 titled "Avant Garde GesmbH." The event brought together many of the heavy weights of the Austrian political scene in the opulent surroundings of the Burgtheater, now a regular venue for forums on issues of public concern.

Entering the theatre, you can’t help feeling that you’re entering into a rarified world, passing through the main hall, winding your way up and around the innumerable grand stairways and smoking rooms, hearing voices in impassioned discussion of high matters. It’s inspiring, and it’s important.

The discussions centred around Kreisky’s attempt – ultimately unsuccessful – to organise an exhibition of Austrian avant garde artists, which would show the world that Austria was a cosmopolitan and discerning state. So why had the project failed? Panellists were divided as to whether it was due to the artists or because of bureaucratic interference.

Panelist John Sailer was the gallery owner whom Kreisky asked to organize the exhibition. The artists who wanted to mount the exhibition bypassed the Ministries of Science and Education, he said, and went directly to Kreisky, who took matters into his own hands, bypassing the bureaucracy. Peter Weibel, artist and media theoretician, argued the failure was due to the artists, who attempted to bypass the jury process and put themselves on the list. If the artists had been chosen democratically, Sailer disagreed, it would have led to the exhibition being a "folk music show." In the end, he said, the project failed because of the envies and arguments which broke out among the artists.

"If you choose five in a land of 6,000 artists, you’ll have 5,995 who are against it," Sailer said. "So everybody was against it." Kreisky didn’t intervene, because he saw the conflicts this could lead to.

Still, it was a revealing tale, an example of Kreisky’s ‘hands-on’ approach, particularly illustrated by the case of Oskar Kokoschka. Kreisky was a great admirer of Kokoschka and had several of his paintings hanging in his office on Ballhausplatz. At the time (1974), Kokoschka was living in Switzerland with a British passport and Kreisky, without the artist’s knowledge, simply registered him at the Kreisky home on Armbrustergasse, in order to establish residency and be able to officially offer him Austrian citizenship. This story, often repeated, is used as an example of Kreisky’s dynamism and his ‘human touch,’ which allowed him to bring reforms and new projects into life, bypassing or breaking through what panellist and former Interior Minister Wolfgang Petritsch called Austria ‘encrusted bureaucracy.’

As the discussion entered its final round, a woman behind me began clapping. Did she think they were finished? I turned around. Why was she clapping. "They’ve gone on long enough, don’t you think?"  So why didn’t she just leave?  She dismissed me with a wave of the hand. Still, it spoiled the effect a bit.

The affection for Kreisky is often intensely personal. The current MAK exhibition, hung on huge suspended panels in the Academy library, has displaying three dozen photos by the photographer Konrad Müller, which show Kreisky and his world from 1980-1989, just a year before his death, an intimate portrait of the former chancellor that most people rarely saw.

The exhibition opening was in itself an event:  in the appealing, intimate rooms, lined with floor to ceiling book cases, with spiral staircases leading to the upper gallery walk ways, President Fischer and Die Zeit Vienna bureau chief Joachim Riedl gave speeches to a packed hall. The crowd was a mixture of journalists, political celebrities, and well-wishers, craning to hear the speeches, or wandering through the exhibition, faces lighting up at the sight of so many old friends.

The affection Müller himself felt for Kreisky was evident in his speech, even to the point referring to the chancellor as an ‘ersatz father-figure.’  Reverence, too was evident as Müller’s quoted an article by Thomas Bernhard in 1981, where the playwright called Kreisky a ‘soci-monarch,’ an ‘elevated sun king’ – to Berhnard’s  biting tongue mind somehow ‘fatally bourgeois,’ Müller commented. The fact that such criticism can still excite strong feelings 30 years on is a sign of the respect and loyalty Kreisky still engenders.

This affection was shared by many. His secretary, Margit Schmidt, spoke about him as a charismatic and humorous man, who behaved in a ‘non-hierarchical way’ and was able to communicate with people from many different walks of life. Historian Oliver Rathkolb explored these themes in the film Bruno Kreisky- Politik and Leidenshaft’ (Politics and Passion) by Helene Maimann, when he discussed the way in which Kreisky could turn the most complex political arguments into simple statements that made sense to the public and helped earn their trust.

The artist Andreas Heller elaborated, describing his ability to communicate and, most importantly, befriend not only with radical artists – most famously Udo Proksch, the enfant terrible of the Austrian art scene – but also with workers and farmers from the provinces.

But, one can’t help wondering, how much of this nostalgia is healthy? Or productive? Of course Austria, and perhaps particularly Vienna, has long had a cult of nostalgia – leading the Wien Museum to mount an exhibition a few years back called "Old Vienna – the City that Never Was." And to be fair, it cannot be said that the all these commemorations have white washed the trouble spots – the Wiesenthal Affair has certainly received enough attention, for example, as have the vehement protests over the nuclear power plant in Zwentendof – but the recent events have very much been a celebration of the era, and not a critical analysis.

This was something which the series of plays at the Schauspielhaus Wien have addressed. The series, entitled Kreisky-Wer Sonst? (Kreisky- Who Else?) and playing every week through to mid-April, follows the stages of Kreisky’s life, lows as well as highs. The third part, called ‘Kreisky, ein echter Österreicher’ (Kreisky, a real Austrian) dealt with the actual celebration and provided a refreshingly ironic twist on the current festivities; a dusty room with hideous 70s beige decor, tattered posters from Social-Democrat events and three people in outfits to match the decor anxiously awaiting for the Great Man himself.

Then he enters. Ably played by Johannes Zeiler, he nicely presents the formality (hand shaking included) one would expect from an elder statesman. The four reminisce, drink and talk about reform and progress.

But there’s an air of futility about it. What can all this talk about ‘bread and work’ mean for a world focused on globalisation and rationalisation? As both Margit Schmidt and Oliver Rathkolb explained, Kreisky was ideologically motivated to maintain full employment, but he was also a man who was able to see the possibilities of the current situation, and it is questionable whether the same options would be open to him today as 40 years ago.

The play also confronts the more difficult topics in Kreisky’s career, particularly Kreisky’s difficult relationship with his Jewish heritage. His three party assistants suddenly turn into white faced ghosts of his past, accusing him of forgetting his Jewish identity and the Holocaust, and of working with known Nazi war criminals in the name of ‘co-operation’.

The message is that, in the end, Kreisky failed to escape from the shadow of Austria’s unresolved past and chose instead to follow a policy of co-operation with people, who, in the words of his secretary Margit Schmidt, at least sympathies with the previous regime. Many historians have tried to explain the reasons for this. Oliver Rathkolb believes that it was part of Kreisky’s attempt to maintain the social consensus that Austria had entered into the Second World War.

The play’s message, in the end, is that Kreisky had a ‘difficult’ relationship with the past, and was unable to free Austria from the shadow of its past. As the journalist Werner Perger said "one cannot say that Kreisky preached wholesale forgetting of the past….yet one can also say……. That he did just as little to deliberately confront his countrymen with the past."

This same ‘problematic attitude’ to the past could also be said of the current celebrations. The SPÖ, and Austria in general, seem to yearning for the days of full and a chancellor who pushed through far-reaching and dynamic reforms. One cannot blame them, as Kreisky’s era was certainly a golden era for Austria, but, as Kreisky’s former Chief of Staff Ferdinand Lacina said in a previous interview, the changing circumstances mean that Kreisky, even if he were chancellor today, would not be able to push through policies of full employment, or carry out reforms. The fall of the iron curtain, globalisation, Austria’s integration into the EU and the changing political landscape mean that Kreisky’s course could not have been the same.

Kreisky was a man of his time, who understood used the opportunities presented to him, perhaps as fully as anyone could have. Austria needs someone now who can do the same.

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    the vienna review February 2011