Kreisky, Israel and Jew­ish Identity

  • Review
By – May 1, 2023

Bruno Kreisky (1911 – 1990), a proud Aus­tri­an and accul­tur­at­ed Jew, was Austria’s longest-serv­ing chan­cel­lor and a promi­nent states­man in post­war Europe. Through­out his life, Kreisky bal­anced his Aus­tri­an patri­o­tism, his polit­i­cal career, and his Jew­ish her­itage in com­plex and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry ways, which often appeared in his rela­tion­ship with Israel.

More than a biog­ra­phy, Kreisky, Israel, and Jew­ish Iden­ti­ty exam­ines spe­cif­ic episodes in Kreisky’s career that illus­trate how his Jew­ish­ness fac­tored into his poli­cies. Israeli diplo­mat Daniel Aschheim has care­ful­ly con­duct­ed oral-his­to­ry inter­views with twen­ty-three of Kreisky’s con­tem­po­raries — aca­d­e­mics, jour­nal­ists, asso­ciates — and he draws on inter­views con­duct­ed by Bar­bara Tau­far, a diplo­mat and jour­nal­ist. Tak­en togeth­er, Ascheim’s his­tor­i­cal method, exten­sive archival research, and wide range of sources show­case the many com­pli­cat­ed sides of Kreisky and his career. 

In 1938, Kreisky, per­se­cut­ed by the Gestapo for his pol­i­tics and reli­gion, fled Aus­tria for Swe­den, where he stayed until 1945. More than twen­ty of his rel­a­tives per­ished in the camps. This col­ored his view of Austria’s role in World War II in sig­nif­i­cant ways. For instance, dur­ing the nego­ti­a­tions that set­tled Austria’s role in the war, he sup­port­ed the posi­tion that the coun­try was the first vic­tim of Ger­man aggres­sion. Yet not all of Kreisky’s deci­sions fol­lowed suit. As chan­cel­lor, he baf­fling­ly appoint­ed five for­mer Nazis to his admin­is­tra­tion. Simon Wiesen­thal, the so-called Nazi-hunter, pub­lished that infor­ma­tion in Der Spiegel, a Ger­man news mag­a­zine. This led to a long and ugly con­flict between Kreisky and Wiesen­thal, with Kreisky ulti­mate­ly pay­ing a fine as a result of Wiesenthal’s defama­tion suit against him. 

Anoth­er episode grew out of Kreisky’s yield­ing, in 1973, to the demands of a Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist group that took three Jew­ish emi­grants and an Aus­tri­an cus­toms offi­cer hostage. Aus­tria had long been home to a tran­sit camp — the only offi­cial one in Europe — for Russ­ian Jew­ish emi­grants. In response to ter­ror­ist demands to close the camp, Kreisky shut it down. This pit­ted him against Gol­da Meir, the prime min­is­ter of Israel, and became an inter­na­tion­al issue. Glob­al atti­tudes toward the diplo­mat were large­ly negative.

Kreisky was the first Euro­pean leader who open­ly acknowl­edged the legit­i­ma­cy of the Pales­tin­ian Lib­er­a­tion Orga­ni­za­tion. With Willy Brandt of Ger­many and Olof Palme of Swe­den, he formed a group that sought to resolve the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict, among oth­er dis­putes. Although not sym­pa­thet­ic to Zion­ism, Kreisky rec­og­nized the impor­tance of Israel as a place of refuge. He made two trips to the coun­try, vis­it­ing Yad Vashem, where he saw a cousin’s name on the vic­tims list. Kreisky nev­er denied his Jew­ish­ness, and his per­son­al life resem­bled that of oth­er accul­tur­at­ed Jew­ish fam­i­lies — despite many accu­sa­tions that he was a self-hat­ing Jew. 

The book’s myopic focus and detailed doc­u­men­ta­tion speak to a read­er with a spe­cif­ic inter­est in Kreisky and his grap­pling with his Jew­ish her­itage, which Aschheim sees as an inte­gral part of his poli­cies, his achieve­ments, and his vision of a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion to the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian conflict.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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