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.