Bruno Kreisky (1911-1990) was chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983, presiding over a period of domestic prosperity combined with the a growing importance in international affairs.
Bruno Kreisky was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 22, 1911, into a wealthy Jewish family whose industrial fortune and political involvement could be traced to the early 19th century. Critical of his bourgeois background and angered by the poverty around him, Kreisky joined socialist working youth at dances when he was 16 without becoming a doctrinaire Marxist or entirely alienating his family. This fortunate set of circumstances later enabled him to appreciate much of the old Austria even as he adopted a progressive and socialist attitude toward the contemporary world.
In religious matters Kreisky was agnostic but found it difficult to escape the Jewish stereotype. Relations with his Catholic countrymen remained correct rather than cordial despite a personal friendship with Cardinal Koenig. He never considered himself Jewish, which ultimately limited his usefulness as a mediator between Arabs and Israelis when Zionists accused him of betraying the Jewish cause.
The Austrian government also considered the young lawyer a traitor. After the socialist uprising of 1934 he spent two years in prison and repeated the experience in a Gestapo jail for a short time after the 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany. He then took advantage of a period of grace toward Jews to flee the country. In Sweden for the duration of World War II, he worked in a consumer cooperative, got married, and formed a lifelong friendship with Willy Brandt, the future chancellor of West Germany.
Upon returning to Austria after the war, he found employment in the diplomatic service and was active in negotiating the state treaty that restored Austrian independence in 1955. He became a senior state secretary in the Chancellery in 1953 and foreign minister in 1959, leading the negotiations for entry into the European Free Trade Association in the same year. Other important activities during his seven-year term included efforts to associate Austria with the Common Market within the framework of Austrian neutrality and an attempt to solve the problem of the German-speaking South Tyrol where Italy had been governing since 1918.
Kreisky left the foreign ministry in 1966 when the opposition People's Party abandoned the coalition to form a cabinet by itself, and he used the next four years to consolidate his position within the Socialist Party. He defeated Bruno Pittermann for the chairmanship in 1967, won over the party newspaper, and redirected the Socialists away from the ideology of class struggle toward social reform on the Scandinavian model.
Kreisky's efforts to broaden the base of the party paid off in 1970 with an electoral victory that gave the Socialists a relative majority in the Parliament. Unable to form a coalition government, he assembled a weak minority cabinet that ruled precariously for 18 months until the voters gave the party an absolute majority. The Socialists then ruled alone for 13 years with the fatherly Kreisky as chancellor. He thus became the longest-running chief executive since the Hapsburgs, leading nostalgic Austrians to dub him "Kaiser Bruno."
Kreisky's achievements were notable both at home and abroad. Austria experienced solid domestic prosperity under him while it assumed an important role in international affairs. The first was partially attributable to a general economic upswing in the 1970s, but Kreisky made a contribution by cultivating a "social partnership" between labor and capital based on openness and compromise. Furthermore, his international contacts brought economic returns in the form of trade agreements and contracts for Austrian industry.
It was in the international arena that Kreisky received the most notice. He maneuvered with ease among the superpowers, arguing for coexistence, making forthright statements, and taking initiatives that could not be made by more powerful leaders. In 1974 Kreisky was the first head of government to meet with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), thereby giving legitimacy to a movement thought to be only a cover for terrorism. He followed it by inviting Arafat to visit Vienna in an official capacity and arranged meetings with other Western European leaders. He broke the diplomatic isolation of East Germany as well, becoming in 1975 the first Westerner to sign a consular treaty with that country and conducting a state visit there. He used his position as vice president of the Socialist International to visit Libya in 1975 and in 1982 invited Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to Vienna. He also led a mission of the Socialist International to Iran in 1980, stressing always the importance of keeping communications open between opponents.
The limitations of Kreisky's foreign policy became evident when he alienated Israeli leaders with critical remarks and when Austria proved too weak to be of much use to Arab leaders. Furthermore, Vienna became a target of terrorism, with an assassination, the bombing of a synagogue, and threats against Kreisky's life. He thereafter put distance between himself and the Palestinians.
Austrian domestic and environmental politics eventually turned against him. He made a referendum in 1978 on the startup of a nuclear power plant at Zwentendorf a test of his personal popularity but did not resign as he had threatened when the vote went against nuclear energy. The worldwide recession of the early 1980s hit Austria as Kreisky's health began to fail. He underwent dialysis twice a week and eventually received a kidney transplant, but insisted he was strong enough to run again in 1983. When the electorate gave the socialists only a relative majority, he resigned rather than lead a coalition government. Kreisky went on to serve as honorary chairman of the Social Democratic party until 1987. He died on July 29, 1990, in Vienna.
Kreisky's accomplishments could be seen symbolically in a Vienna transformed during his years in office. The modern subway system was a remarkable engineering achievement to serve the metropolis, and the towering UNO-City building complex had become home to several departments of the United Nations.
There is almost nothing in English by or on Bruno Kreisky himself. James Reston wrote an insightful column on him in the New York Times of February 6, 1983. Pertinent material on the economic, political, and cultural conditions of the time can be found in Kurt Steiner, editor, Modern Austria (1981). □