The foundation stone of the modern Austrian state was the so-called ‘victim myth’. Following the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the idea took hold that Austria had been the first casualty of Hitler’s aggression when in 1938 it was incorporated into the Third Reich. Memories of ordinary Austrians waving Swastikas as German tanks rolled in, tossing flowers at stormtroopers and flashing smirks of approval as Jews were forced to scrub pavements were filed away. As the veteran Austrian-Hungarian journalist Paul Lendvai documents, the victim narrative held sway for four decades. It was blown out of the Danube in 1986 by the revelation that Kurt Waldheim, elected president that year, had participated in the deportation of Jews and the massacre of civilians while serving in the German army in the Balkans. Overnight, Hitler’s first victim became, in Lendvai’s words, ‘the last nest of national socialism’.
Yet was the ‘victim myth’ entirely a myth? As German soldiers made their leisurely progress across Austria on 12 March 1938, Himmler and a Gestapo contingent flew ahead to Vienna to arrest the leader of the First Republic, Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, who had been so impudent as to call a referendum on whether Austria should remain independent. Three weeks later, a train rolled out of Vienna carrying several hundred Prominenten – leading supporters of Austrian independence – to Dachau. Among the prisoners was the Farmers’ League leader and future chancellor Leopold Figl, who received twenty-five lashes on arrival for uttering the now-forbidden word ‘Austria’. Some fifty thousand Austrians followed him into detention.
The resurrection of an independent Austrian state after 1945 owed much to the quiet bravery of figures like Figl, who came from a peasant family that lived near the wine-growing Wachau region. The Austrian state that Figl had struggled to preserve in 1938 was by no measure a democracy: all parties other than Schuschnigg’s Fatherland Front were banned and paramilitaries patrolled the streets. On the other hand, in the chambers of Schuschnigg’s chancellery there were no fantasies of a thousand-year Reich, no department for racial affairs and certainly no desire to see Catholic Austria subsumed into its Protestant-dominated neighbour. It was here that the seeds of a post-Habsburg, Germanic yet non-German state in Cisleithania were sown.
To be sure, some of these seeds fell on stony ground, as the ecstatic welcome many Austrians extended to Hitler revealed. Yet some took root, coming to flower after 1945. If one buys the argument that the ‘victim myth’ was indeed a myth, the most remarkable thing about the Waldheim affair in the 1980s was that no such scandal had previously engulfed Austrian politics. For four decades after the war, Austrians elected leaders who had opposed or eschewed Nazism – or, in the case of Bruno Kreisky, Austria’s only Jewish chancellor, been racially undesirable. If a victim narrative predominated in this time, it’s partly because many of Austria’s leaders had indeed been victims.
Postwar Austria’s relationship to its Nazi past is the dominant theme of Lendvai’s oddly organised but engrossing book. The focus is on high politics, from the highest of the high, the Habsburgs, down to mere presidents, chancellors and regional governors. The bread and butter of politics – foreign affairs, fiscal policy, national defence, social security – are not so much side dishes as out of sight in the pantry. There is no discussion, either, of the ‘economic miracle’ that saw Austria transformed from a battered, occupied and refugee-filled wreck into one of the most prosperous states in the EU.
Yet such issues would, like an abstract sculpture in a portrait gallery, only distract from the main matter. Lendvai, who escaped deportation from Budapest to Auschwitz in 1944, has known anyone who was anyone in Austria from the 1960s to the present, making this as much a memoir as a work of history. Few of these figures have left much of a mark outside Austria, which is what makes Lendvai’s character sketches so fascinating. Those that have – notably Kreisky and Waldheim – owe their fame to the ways their lives intersected with Nazism.
Modern Austria’s two main political forces, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPO), set their faces against Nazism from the outset. The two parties governed the country in coalition between 1945 and 1966, putting aside differences to entrench the country’s independence from both Germany and the USSR. They have also provided all but one of Austria’s chancellors up to the present. Lendvai has previously written a biography of Kreisky, who as SPO leader won five elections between 1970 and 1983, and considers him the outstanding figure in postwar Austrian politics, both for marrying social democracy to a sense of national greatness and for his efforts to put the country at ease with its Nazi past.
The same approach to Nazism was not taken by the ‘third camp’ in Austrian politics, the Freedom Party (FPO), to which Lendvai devotes much space. A uniquely Austrian phenomenon, the FPO came to international attention in 2000, when its entry into coalition with the OVP elicited EU sanctions against the country (the sanctions stemmed not from any policy put forward by the party but from remarks by its leader at the time, Jörg Haider, making light of Nazism). Yet, as Lendvai’s account of its ‘rollercoaster ride’ sets out, the FPO’s history stretches further back than that.
The party originated in the late 1940s among ex-Nazis and non-Nazis opposed to aggressive denazification. Nowadays, the FPO occupies a recognisable place in the ranks of European populist parties. Over the decades, however, it has at different times been characterised as pan-Germanist, Austrian nationalist, liberal and ‘Nazi’. The figure of Friedrich Peter, FPO leader from 1958 to 1978, encapsulates its shapeshifting quality. A former Waffen-SS Obersturmführer, Peter in 1970 provided Kreisky, a Jew, with the votes to form a minority government, campaigned for European integration and, after stepping down as FPO leader, denounced as ‘shameful’ statements by his successor Haider that the Nazis had implemented ‘proper’ employment policies.
The perma-tanned adrenaline junkie Haider, FPO leader from 1986 to 2000, is perhaps the most arresting figure in Lendvai’s book. Under his leadership, the FPO increased its vote share fourfold and became a major political force. This ‘postmodern Robin Hood’, says Lendvai, owed his success to a mixture of charm, taboo-busting and opportunism. The last of these, he suggests, lay as much behind his downplaying of Hitler’s actions as genuine sympathy for Nazism did. The global opprobrium his comments attracted meant that Haider never took ministerial office. Nevertheless, he can fairly be credited with transforming – and thoroughly disenchanting – Austrian politics. Far from rejecting the Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant furrow ploughed by the FPO under his leadership, the OVP and the SPO have raced down the same tracks.
For all his sins, says Lendvai, Haider never posed a ‘dramatic threat’ to democracy. Even so, his amoral approach to Austria’s past inaugurated a loosening of standards across its political elite, which Lendvai records in gruesome detail. The template was set by ex-SPO chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, who, after his resignation in 2008 became ‘a fabulously paid lobbyist for authoritarian post-Soviet regimes’. High-ranking politicians of all stripes followed suit: another ex-SPO chancellor, Christian Kern, was appointed a director of Russian state railways, while former OVP finance minister Hans Jörg Schelling became a Gazprom adviser. By the mid-2010s, says Lendvai, a group of ‘Putin-friends’ was straddling the divide between business and politics in Austria. When at her wedding in 2019 FPO foreign minister Karin Kneissl danced with the guest of honour, none other than Putin himself, the scale of Austrian subservience to Russia could be measured in the depth of her curtsy to its leader.
It seems barely remarkable that in the period since this book went to press, the subject of Lendvai’s freshest portrait, Sebastian Kurz, has been charged with giving false evidence to a bribery investigation. Kurz became OVP foreign minister at twenty-seven and chancellor at thirty-one, serving in that office on two occasions between 2017 and 2021. A university dropout with rosy cheeks and slicked-back hair, Kurz’s sole purpose in politics was to achieve high office. Lendvai first encountered him at a conference in 2011, when he was a junior minister, and his recollection of the occasion is telling: ‘Even during the speeches of the foreign dignitaries, he concentrated almost exclusively on his mobile phone.’ Kurz accomplished his aims with an alacrity that would impress even Boris Johnson, building a powerbase in the OVP youth movement, courting the media through a series of publicity stunts (voting for him, he declared, would make you cool and/or horny) and casting himself as the grandson everyone wished they had. Not yet forty, he has gone from Wunderkind of Austrian politics to just one more symbol of Old Corruption.
Even for those with no particular interest in Austria, this book is worth reading for the worldly wisdom with which Lendvai anatomises the workings of power. If nothing else, British readers despairing of the chaos of politics in their own country will find here consolation in one statistic: while the UK has had five leaders since 2016, Austria has had six.