Prophet of the middle ground

Published: Mon, 01/31/2011 - 12:18 Updated: Mon, 01/31/2011 - 12:19

This year marks the 100th birth anniversary of Bruno Kreisky, executive head of Austria's first Socialist Party government from 1970 to 1983. Nicknamed the Red Prophet for transforming Austria into a relative paradise of peace and prosperity after World War II, Kreisky's talent lay in recognising and appreciating diversity. The lasting legacy of Kreisky is his social sensitivity. 

Kreisky is remembered for recognising talent and inspiring people to harness it for the common good of the majority in society. At a time of steep decline in socialist values and a rise of neo-conservative politics, he is missed more than ever both as a politician and as a person. He is missed as a mediator between warring ideologies, religions and states. 

He came from a Jewish family but made friends with the Catholic Church, which made it eventually possible for his government to legalise abortion and decriminalise adultery. The policy of the middle ground that he adopted helped him gain support even from opposing forces. 

Under his leadership the welfare state was no longer a Utopian dream. All kinds of magical ideas became reality under him. He made sure that Austria enjoyed full employment and that the country's social and economic issues did not get bogged down by petty politics. As an economist, he realised that achieving full employment was the key to alleviating the country's woes as well to his political survival. 

It was his idea that business and trade unions must work in partnership with each other. It was his idea to give both agriculture and industry equal importance as fuel for a healthy economy.

The numerous reforms initiated by Kreisky at home were as life changing as the leadership he provided in international politics. He believed that it was not possible to live in peace and prosperity if the majority nations in the world remained poor. Just as Austria was helped by the US to become a viable trade partner, he believed, affluent Austria should do the same. To his dying day, he remained a great friend of the developing world.

He was unafraid to preside over peace initiatives in the Middle East. He invited Yasser Arafat on a state visit to Austria at a time when the leader of the Palestinian people was labelled a terrorist by many leaders of the international community. It was Kreisky who opened a dialogue with Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Totally against war, Kreisky believed in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, an idea that was rejected by Austrians in a majority vote in 1978. A die-hard democrat, he chose to resign after his party lost its majority in the 1983 elections. He refused to cling to power as leader of a minority government. 

On his death in 1990, his residence was transformed into an open house for international dialogue. To this day his living room is a meeting place where Palestinians and Israelis, Americans and Russians, men and women, poor and rich, continue to talk to each other about changing the world without going to war.

He has left an entire collection of books and archives for use by the people of Austria. His former residence is no discotheque for his descendants but a temple for all those anywhere in the world interested in finding out how lofty ideas can be put into practice. 

Kreisky was 16 years old when he joined the Socialist Party, perhaps even against the wishes of his Viennese family of affluent Jews. As a 24-year-old angry, young man, he was imprisoned by fascist forces occupying his home. He eventually escaped to Sweden and lived in exile till the end of World War II.

During the war he helped Austrian and German refugees feel at home in Sweden. He married a Swede and befriended Swedish socialists like Olaf Palme and Germany's Willy Brandt. Like them, he believed that when it is possible to transform society democratically with structural reform, there is no need for a revolution.

Kreisky is both the Buddha and Gandhi of Austria in more ways than one. What the three great souls have in common is a river-long line of countless followers who love and admire them but are unable to put their thoughts into practice.

Recent polls reveal that the majority of Austrians remember and love Kreisky and a new biography of the legendary social democrat continues to enjoy top ratings here. Perhaps Kreisky's 100th birth anniversary is one auspicious occasion to also try and emulate the morality and ethics practised by the great politician both in his public and private life.

This story is from print issue of HardNews