Austria’s Attitude Toward Israel: Following the European Mainstream – Interview with Anton Pelinka

by Manfred Gerstenfeld, from European-Israeli Relations: Between Confusion and Change, 2006

Austria doesn’t  play a leading role in the European  Union  nor, as far as I’m concerned, should it. The country’s overall attitude can be characterized as ‘going with the mainstream and not being conspicuous.’ Before the enlargement of the EU in 2004, Austria was one of its smaller countries. Now it is usually considered a medium­-sized one.”

Prof. Anton Pelinka is a leading, internationally known political scientist. He is director of the Institute of Conflict Research at Vienna University and professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck.

“Austria did not treat Israel as a special case when itwas established in  1948. It behaved  as if its diplomatic relationship  with Israel was a normal one, despite its war past. This reflected Austria’s false claim to have been solely a victim in World War II. In this it intentionally acted differently than Germany. When Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion established their relationship, Austria demonstratively behaved as if this was not its concern.

“Until the 1960s, the two main Austrian parties, the conservative OVP (the People’s Party) and the Social Democrat SPO, had no interest in systematically confronting the crimes of the National Socialists or the Holocaust. Both parties needed an armistice consisting of ignoring the crimes committed by people in their camp. Each had a voter clientele as well as prominent members who were former Nazis.”

The Left-Right Divide

“Until the  Six Day War in  1967, Austrian  society’s  attitude toward Israel was more or less split along the Left-Right divide. The Austrian Left, which  meant  the  Social Democrats-the  Communist  Party was very small-were mostly very pro-Israeli. They had a link to the Israeli Left, especially to Mapai (the Labor Party). The ideological world of the kibbutzim greatly appealed to them. Israel was, to some extent, considered a model of democratic socialism. This changed in 1967. The Palestinians then became the underdog so much loved by the Left.

“The conservatives, until 1967, were strongly influenced by the anti-Semitic tradition of the Austrian Right. This was covered up, however, by Austria’s official diplomatic stance toward Israel.

“From the watershed year  1967  Israel  was  increasingly  seen as the dominant power in the Middle East conflict. Gradually the Right started to view it more positively, while on the Left sympathy diminished. Still, the official attitude was that there were normal relations with Israel. This changed when the Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky became chancellor in 1970.”

Kreisky’s Role

“Kreisky invited Yasser Arafat to Vienna to promote the interests of the PLO. It was not an official state visit, but the public could not distinguish between Kreisky in his role as SPO chairman and that as head of the Austrian government. He collaborated with Willy Brandt and Olof Palme to make the Socialist International lean toward a more pro-PLO policy, which was also reflected by the Austrian government’s official stance.

“Until Kreisky became Austria’s prime minister, Israel’s Labor Party was a rather normal member of the Socialist International. Thereafter, it always had to defend the Israeli positions.

“In Austria until then, it had been almost unacceptable to be openly critical of Israel. Now began a link between criticizing Israeli policies and using anti-Semitic stereotypes. The concept that ‘the Jews are doing the same to Palestinians as the Nazis did to the Jews’ was often expressed publicly. It was also promoted by the Austrian-Arab Association, which at that time was strongly influenced by then­ younger socialists like Karl Blecha.

“Kreisky never used such expressions. Yet much of what he said promoted the idea that the lesson of the Holocaust should be learned by the victims rather than the perpetrators. When his party colleagues said that Jews behaved like Nazis, or treated the Palestinians as the Nazis did the Jews, the underlying message was that it was not the responsibility of non-Jews to draw conclusions from the Holocaust.

“This anti-Semitic stereotype also attacked the Israeli alliance with the United States. It was portrayed as a partnership of American economic interests and Israeli national ones against the Palestinians, the underdog of the region. Thus for the socialists a convenient anticapitalist motivation also came into the picture.”

The Code Words of the Waldheim Affair

To put this in perspective, Pelinka points out that Austrians have always used the German language very circumspectly. “Austrians frequently use code  words.  This  phenomenon  has  been  described by early twentieth-century authors such as Arthur Schnitzler.  His novel Der Weg ins Freie (The Road to Freedom) and his play Professor Bernardi provide an  excellent analysis of turn-of-the-century anti­ Semitism in Habsburg Austria.

“The Waldheim affair became a typical example of how code words are used in contexts involving Jews. In 1986 Kurt Waldheim, former UN secretary-general, became the OVP’s candidate for the Austrian presidency. During World War II he was a German intelligence officer. When asked, he told the media that he did not know about the Jews’ mass deportation from Salonika, which took place when he was stationed there.

“Waldheim said, for instance, ‘I did my duty in World War II like anybody else.’ This is classic code-word rhetoric. What does it signify when one does one’s duty as an intelligence officer in Salonika in 1943? It means you didn’t intervene when tens of thousands of Jews were transported from the ghetto to Auschwitz. Thereafter, you forget about it. If anyone must have been informed about this deportation it was the intelligence officer in the German garrison.

“In the Waldheim affair yet another code expression was frequently used: ‘We Austrians vote for whom we want to vote for.’ What it meant was: ‘Foreigners, i.e., Jews, should not tell us whom we should elect.’

“Another interesting aspect of the Waldheim affair was the OVP’s defense line. It was well expressed in an open letter by Carl Hodl, deputy mayor of Linz. He used partly anti-Semitic expressions to attack the World Jewish Congress, which was Waldheim’s main opponent. Hodl claimed that the Jewish organization’s activity might be responsible for a resurrection of Austrian anti-Semitism. In other words, he pretended there was no Austrian anti-Semitism and if it was there, the Jews were to blame.”

Kreisky Attacks Wiesenthal

“Earlier Kreisky had made use of coded semantics against Simon Wiesenthal. The latter had strongly criticized the composition of Kreisky’s 1970 cabinet, which included four former Nazis-Otto Rosch (interior), Josef Moser (construction), Erwin Friihbauer  (transport), and Hans Ollinger (agriculture). When Ollinger resigned, his successor was Oskar Weihs, another former member of the Nazi Party.

“Wiesenthal also attacked Kreisky in 1975 when it seemed that Friedrich Peter, the leader of the FPO (Freedom Party), would form a coalition with Kreisky and consequently become a cabinet member. Wiesenthal disclosed that Peter had served in the First SS brigade that had committed major atrocities in the Soviet Union against Jews and others.

“Kreisky reacted very emotionally, believing poorly fabricated rumors about Wiesenthal. He said something like: ‘This engineer Wiesenthal has done during the Nazi years things I could tell you about, but I won’t.’ He implied that he had collaborated with the Gestapo. This was typical Kreisky code wording. His calling the architect Wiesenthal an engineer contained, of course, an element of disdain. In 1986 Kreisky repeated these accusations. Wiesenthal took him to court and in 1989 Kreisky was found guilty of defamation and had to pay a fine.

“The Social Democrat minister and former Nazi, Rosch, said in 1975 during the Wiesenthal crisis that the ‘East Coast’ was responsible for the negative international response to Kreisky’s behavior. This expression is a typical code word for American Jews. The term East Coast would later be used frequently during the Waldheim affair.”


Haider Uses Coding

“Jorg Haider, the extreme right-wing leader of the FPO, used this expression many times. For instance when, in the local elections in Vienna in 2001, his campaign to make the FPO the largest party there

failed. The main SPO campaign  adviser was an American  consultant,                     I

Stanley Greenberg. Haider stretched his name to ‘Greeeenberg, who is from the East Coast.’ Everybody understood what he meant to say: ‘He is of course a Jew.’

“Haider also recycled the expression ‘Austria first,’ which had been used in the Waldheim campaign. It means that Austrian patriotism had supplanted traditional pan-German nationalism.”

Pelinka says this code wording became very clear to him during decades of teaching in Germany. “The German use of the language is sharper, more outspoken and provocative. Austrians don’t use this kind of polarizing rhetoric as easily as Germans, which is one among many aspects of misunderstandings between the two nations. They use the same language in different ways.”

Israel Recalls Its Ambassador

Pelinka mentions that Israel has twice recalled its ambassador from Austria. “The first time was when Waldheim was elected president in 1986. The Western boycott consisted of the United States blacklisting him  and none  of the other Western  states inviting Waldheim  for a state visit. Israel, however, played the strongest card, recalling its ambassador from Vienna. Itjust went one step further than the others, yet remained broadly in line with them.

“The same happened in 2000 when the EU member states downgraded their diplomatic relations with Austria as a  protest against Raider’s party becoming part of the government. Israel again went a step further by recalling its ambassador.

“In the current government the BZO faction of the right-wing Freedom Party is a coalition partner. The BZO has, however, given all foreign policy authority to the larger OVP. Both the chancellery and the Foreign Ministry are held by the conservatives.

“Chancellor Wolfgang Schlissel has a clear concept. He wants to fight the negative response by the West and Israel to the inclusion of the Freedom Party in his cabinet. He does so by accelerating the decision on restitution to Holocaust victims. The Freedom Party accepted this policy of the conservatives. This was part of the government’s effort to restore normal diplomatic relations with Israel. This policy succeeded when Israel again appointed an ambassador in Vienna.”

Main Parties’ Attitudes toward Israel

“The OVP, now Austria’s largest party, seems, on the surface, most friendly to Israel. The opposition SPO is divided on the Middle East conflict. The issue is not debated much among party members. Among SPO activists there is a strong  minority that is pro-Palestinian, anti-American, and very critical of Israel. One of its most prominent members is former foreign minister Erwin Lane.

“Even more negative toward Israel is Fritz Edlinger, secretary­ general of the Austrian-Arab Society. He acts as a lobbyist for Arab interests against the state of Israel in Austria. Another major critic of Israel is Hannes Svoboda, a prominent member of the European Parliament. They are part of a significant minority in the SPO.

“Another wing of the party is traditionally more Israel-friendly. It includes activists like the chairman of the Austrian-Israeli Society, Sepp Rieder, who is deputy mayor of Vienna. He follows in the path of what used to be called the right wing of the SPO. This can be defined as-if in doubt, be pro-Israeli.

“The party leadership tries to balance these two wings. When SPO chairman Alfred Gusenbauer was in Israel in spring 2006, he met both with Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Labor Party leaders. He did not meet with the Hamas leadership.”

The Right Wing

“The Freedom Party has split. We do not know what the BZO, which has existed only one year, will become. In our analysis it is better to consider the two factions as one party that has split for tactical reasons. Both have strong ties to Arab countries. One party leader in the parliament, Herbert Scheibner, is head of the Austrian-Syrian Society. Ewald Stadler, a former prominent Freedom Party member, used to be  chairman of the Austrian-Iraq Friendship Association until 2003. He is now people’s advocate, one of the three ombudsmen elected by the parliament to represent citizens in disputes with the bureaucracy.

“Haider visited Saddam Hussein twice in Baghdad, and Qaddafi many times in Tripoli. The party’s  prime  connections were with the more extreme Arab  leaders, not  with  Egypt  and Jordan. They tried to profit from the anti-American mood that is also directed against Israel.

“The Green Party is fairly new and doesn’t have former Nazis in its rank and file. Initially it resembled the German Greens and was thus in some respects strongly anti-Israeli. It changed direction since. It has abandoned much of the leftist anti-Zionist rhetoric and become more pragmatic as far as Israel is concerned. Yet it remains to be seen how the Greens will behave if they are ever invited to join a government. So far they have never held responsibility at the federal level.”


“The largest Austrian daily is a yellow paper, Neue Kronenzeitung. Hans Dichand, its founder and 50 percent owner, is rather pro-Israeli and this shows itself in the paper. He is over eighty, was a member of the Wehrmacht, and as far as I know has no Nazi past. Dichand is now rich and wants to achieve respectability’s final symbol, i.e., to be accepted by the Jews. This seems to drive him. He has never written anti-Semitic articles. One has to understand that in Austria one can be both anti-Nazi and anti-Semitic. In the 1990s one of the paper’s columnists, Richard Nimmerrichter, wrote some articles with anti-Semitic undertones under the pen-name Staberl. This no longer happens.

“Among the quality papers, the left-of-center Standard has a hybrid position  on Israel. The owner and publisher,  Oscar  Bronner, is Jewish and more or less pro-Israeli. Some of its writers have since the first Gulf War become more and more critical of Israel. This is a byproduct of their criticism of the United States.

“To put this in perspective, though, even the anti-Israeli wing in the Standard is more moderate than that of the British Guardian. They will not write that Israel is an apartheid state. Criticism oflsrael in Austria is usually moderate as a result of the country’s Nazi past. Unlike the British, Austrians still have to demonstrate that they have nothing against the Jews.

“The other quality paper, the Presse , takes a Center-Right stance. Its general tendency is to be more or less pro-American. Concomitantly, it is also more pro-Israeli. Yet other opinions can also be found there. It is owned by Styria, a publishing house in tum owned by the Catholic church. Styria also owns the largest regional paper, Die Kleine Zeitung. Out of its profits it finances the Presse.

”Another significant paper is the daily Kurier. It was established by the American occupation administration in the late 1940s, and later was taken over by Austrians. Kurier is in most cases rather pro-Israeli and probably the most friendly to it among the leading Austrian papers.

”Among the weekly journals, Profil should be mentioned. Established at the beginning of the Kreisky era, it was and still is very outspoken in all matters of Nazi attitudes and anti-Semitism. Profil played a significant role in criticizing Kreisky in 1975, during the Kreisky-Peter-Wiesenthal affair, and again in 1986 when it was a leading force in the anti-Waldheim movement in Austria.”

Regional Papers

 “There has been much improvement in the regional press over the past twenty years. That concerns more than the anti-Semitism issue alone. The Tiroler Tageszeitung, which has almost a monopoly in the province of Tyrol, a few decades ago published anti-Semitic articles. One of these by a prominent editor made the Jews responsible for all evils.

“They also invented Jews by turning non-Jews into Jews. This is an old pattern of anti-Semites who do not have enough Jews, so they convert them on paper. The Tiroler Tageszeitung editor would, for instance, write about the negative role of the Jew Bertold Brecht, who of course was not a Jew. Since a change in ownership such crude anti­ Semitism doesn’t appear there anymore.

“I know no prominent local paper that is predominantly anti-Israeli.

The most respected regional paper is the Salzburger Nachrichten, which is trying to become a national daily. After the war it was strongly in favor of reintegrating former Nazis into Austrian society. Among them several played a role in the paper. Because of a change of generations in the owning family, this is no longer the case.”


“Intellectuals have their  different  environments.  On the  Left,  there is the now  almost  dominant  stream  of  criticizing  neoliberalism.  It is strongly flavored by anti-Americanism, which also means being one-sidedly anti-Israeli. It usually tries to distinguish itself from anti­ Semitism by saying that it is anti-Zionist.

“One old proponent of this tendency is John Bunzl, a descendant of a well-known Austrian family of industrialists. He doesn’t try to deny his Jewish identity. He is one-sidedly overcritical oflsrael. His position is based on that of the Israeli journalist Uri Avneri who claims that Jews must have higher standards than others.

“Iwould never judge Jews by standards different from other people. This comes from the same mentality that the lessons of the Holocaust have first to be learned by Jews and not by non-Jews. Bunzl will never argue that Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. He will instead say provocative things such as that he is not in favor of Ahmadinejad but one has to understand him in the context of his national history.

“As there are not many  experts  on  the  Middle  East,  Bunzl has become a central figure in Austria in this  area. Kreisky  very much favored him and put him in the Osterreichische Institut fiir Internationale Politik,  an  independent  research  institute  where  he is till now. One might say he is out-Kreiskying  Kreisky. He plays the Kreisky role in academia and says he can speak out more openly because he is a Jew.

“Bunzl is very typical of the leftist attitude that measures Israel with specific criteria none of which are applied to Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia nor ever existed for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One also sees examples of such an attitude at the BBC.”

Criticism of Israel

Pelinka has often been criticized in Austria for his positions. Haider has taken him to court. He now sums up his stance on the Middle East by saying the most important issue is to treat Israel as a normal state.

“One can criticize Israel for any specific policy under the condition that it is within a universal standard. That is a basic position of my profession as a political scientist. There can, however, be no specific standard regarding human rights for Israel only. If one criticizes Israel, one also has to face the question, what about human rights violations in Syria? Many people do not want to face this.

“One of my basic arguments in a debate is that I do not know any other Arab city in the world that is as democratic as Nazareth. All Arab cities can learn from it, and that includes Amman and Cairo, let alone Riyadh and Damascus.”

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