The Dark Side of Austrian Social Democracy

The Dark Side of Austrian Social Democracy

On April 7, just two months after the formation of a coalition government that includes members of Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), Alfred Gusenbauer, newly designated chief of the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ), a former youth leader not known for bold pronouncements, issued an extraordinary document. The “declaration” revealed details of the so-called “brown-spots” in the Party’s postwar history and acknowledged “the errors and omissions” for which it was responsible during the Second Republic. Among these, it specified that after the civil war of 1934, many rank-and-file Austrian socialists, out of disappointment and bitterness, “had been driven into the hands of the National Socialists.” Moreover, it admitted that the Party’s leader and the first president of the Second Republic, Karl Renner, had “for reasons that have not yet been fully explained,” welcomed the Anschluss with Nazi Germany in 1938. It further acknowledged that after the war efforts at denazification were “incomplete” and that Austrian courts frequently ignored serious cases or handed down sentences and acquittals that today would appear “unacceptable.” During the period of reconstruction, and, especially during the early cold war, when Austria (until 1955) was still under allied rule (the West and the USSR), the pursuit of legal justice, reparations, or the return of confiscated property succumbed to a “collective repression.”

At the heart of the declaration was the recognition that both major parties in postwar Austria, the socialists and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)—the heir of the prewar Christian-Social Party—were responsible for the creation of a third party designed to attract former Nazis, the “Association of Independents” (VdU), the forerunner of today’s FPÖ. The VdU, it noted, was greeted with a “positive attitude” by SPÖ leaders and was brought into existence as a consequence of the “tactical interests of the coalition partners at that time.”

Finally, and most important, the declaration reserved its sharpest criticism for former chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s role in promoting the careers of former Nazis in the SPÖ. Though it praised Kreisky as a “creator of modern Austria,” it did not mince words in condemning his attacks on Simon Wiesenthal—who at the time vehemently denounced Kreisky’s willingness to take former Nazis into the cabinet—as “unfair and therefore unacceptable.”

The Gusenbauer declaration was applauded by former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitsky, but criticized by Wiesenthal as “coming too late,” and by the Green Party’s Peter Pilz for focusing on the “brown-spots” in Austria’s past at the expense of the “blue-spots” (the FPÖ’s color) in its more recent history. Still, the SPÖ took a major step to make public some of the facts that historians and many Austrians have long since known. As early as 1953, Joseph Butti...

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