Bruno Kreisky

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Bruno Kreisky

Bruno Kreisky (January 22, 1911July 29, 1990) was an Austrian politician. Kreisky served as Chancellor of Austria from 1970 to 1983 and was the first Jew to hold that position.


Life and political career

Kreisky was born in Vienna, the son of a clothing manufacturer. At 15 he joined the youth wing of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, and remained politically active while studying law at the University of Vienna. In 1934, when the Socialist Party was banned by the Dollfuss dictatorship, he joined underground political work. He was arrested in January 1935 and convicted of high treason, but in June 1936 he was released. In March 1938 the Austrian state was incorporated in Germany, and in September Kreisky emigrated to Sweden, where he remained until 1945. In 1942 he married Vera Frth.

He returned to Austria in May 1946, but he was soon back in Stockholm, assigned to the Austrian legation. In 1951 he returned to Vienna, where Federal President Theodor Krner appointed him Assistant Chief of Staff and political adviser. In 1953 he was appointed Undersecretary in the Foreign Affairs Department of the Austrian Chancellery. In this position he took part in negotiating the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, which ended the four-power occupation of Austria and restored Austria's independence and neutrality.

Kreisky was elected to the Austrian parliament, the Nationalrat, as a Socialist in 1956. He was elected to the Party Executive along with Bruno Pittermann, Felix Slavik, and Franz Olah, and thus became a member of the central leadership body of the party. After the 1959 elections, he became Foreign Minister in the coalition cabinet of Chancellor Julius Raab in July of that year (VP). He played a leading role in setting up the European Free Trade Association, helped solve the South Tyrol issue with Italy, and proposed a "Marshall Plan" for the countries of the Third World.

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Bruno Kreisky as a prisoner in 1935

Kreisky left office in 1966, when the Christian Conservatives (VP) of Josef Klaus won an absolute majority in the Nationalrat. In February 1967 he was elected chairman of the Socialist Party. At the April 1970 elections, the Socialists won a plurality (but not a majority) of seats, and Kreisky became Chancellor. He was the first Jewish Chancellor of Austria. In October 1971 he called fresh elections and won an absolute majority. He won comfortable victories at the 1975 and 1979 elections.

He turned 70 in 1981, and by this time the voters were reacting against what they saw as Kreisky's complacency and preoccupation with international issues. At the April 1983 election, the Socialists lost their absolute majority in the Nationalrat. Kreisky declined to form a minority government and resigned, nominating Fred Sinowatz, his Minister of Education, as his successor. His health was declining, and in 1984 he had an emergency kidney transplant. During his final years he occasionally made bitter remarks at his party, who had made him their honorary chairman. He died in Vienna in July 1990.

Political views and programs

In office, Kreisky and his close ally, Justice Minister Christian Broda, pursued a policy of liberal reform, in a country which had a tradition of conservative Catholicism. He reformed Austria's family law and its prisons, and he decriminalised abortion and homosexuality. Nevertheless he sought to bridge the gap between the Catholic Church and the Austrian Socialist movement and found a willing collaborator in the then Archbishop of Vienna, Franz Cardinal Knig. Kreisky promised to reduce the mandatory military service from nine to six months. After the election the military service was reduced to eight months (if it is done at once or six months plus eight weeks later on). Furthermore, during Kreisky's premiership employee benefits were expanded, the workweek was cut to 40 hours, and legislation providing for equality for women was passed. Kreisky's government established language rights for the country's Slovene and Croatian minorities. Following the 1974 oil shock, Kreisky committed Austria to developing nuclear power to reduce dependence on oil, although this policy was eventually abandoned after a referendum held in 1978.

Kreisky played a prominent role in international affairs, promoting North-South dialogue and working with like-minded European leaders like Willy Brandt and Olof Palme to promote peace and development. Although the 1955 State Treaty prevented Austria joining the European Union, he supported European integration. Austria cast itself as a bridge between East and West, and Vienna was the site for some early rounds of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Kreisky opposed Zionism as a solution to the problems faced by the Jewish people. He cultivated friendly relations with Arab leaders such as Anwar Sadat and Muamar Gaddafi, and in 1980 Austria established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He tried to use his position as a European Jewish Socialist to act as a mediator between Israel and the Arabs, but many Jews and Israelis regarded him as a traitor. He had a stormy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He once said that he was "the only politician in Europe Golda Meir can't blackmail." In the long run his efforts at mediation achieved little.

Kreisky also had a tense relationship with another prominent Austrian Jew, the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. When Wiesenthal claimed that four members of Kreisky's 1970 cabinet had "Nazi backgrounds," Kreisky said that Wiesenthal was "living from telling the world that Austria is anti-Semitic. What else can he do?" Wiesenthal retorted that "Kreisky has a disturbed relationship to Nazism and Judaism." Despite Kreisky's ambiguous attitude to Jewish issues, throughout the 1970s Austria was a transit point for Jews leaving the Soviet Union for Israel and the West.

In 1976 the Bruno Kreisky Foundation for Outstanding Achievements in the Area of Human Rights was founded to mark Kreisky's 65th birthday. Every two years the Bruno Kreisky Human Rights Prize is awarded to an international figure who has advanced the cause of human rights.

As an orator and as far as his media appearance was concerned, Kreisky was a natural. In the 1970s the Austrian state television introduced TV debates before general elections, and Kreisky, highly intellectual as well as quick at repartee, by general consent easily won against a succession of Conservative party leaders. Relying on his wit rather than soundbites prepared by spin doctors, he was never at a loss for words during interviews either.

Kreisky's legacy

Today, Kreisky's premiership is still the subject of controversy. Many of his former supporters see in Kreisky the last socialist of the old school and look back nostalgically at an era when the standard of living was noticeably rising, when the welfare state was in full swing and when, by means of a state-funded programme promoting equality of opportunity (Chancengleichheit), working class children were encouraged to stay on at school and eventually receive higher education, all this resulting in a decade of prosperity and optimism about the future.

But also many of Kreisky former followers see him now very critical. His reforms did cost a lot of money and some of them had to be withdrawn later on because of financial reasons. During Kreisky's premiership the taxes where raised significant and deficits grew bigger. The number of lifelong officials (which cannot be quitted by the gouvernment) and the bureaucracy grew drastically. A lot of money was given to gouvernment owned companys which just made losses. With todays knowledge we see also: Under Kreisky was the right time to create a fair pension system for younger people. But Kreisky and his successors did not touch the pension system for around 20 years.

Conservatives criticise Kreisky's policy of deficit spending, expressed in his famous comment during the 1979 election campaign that he preferred that the state run up high debts rather than see people become unemployed. They hold Kreisky responsible for, as they see it, Austria's subsequent economic difficulties.

See also

External links

Preceded by:
Josef Klaus
Chancellor of Austria
Fred Sinowatz
Preceded by:
Bruno Pittermann
SP Party Chairman
Preceded by:
Leopold Figl
Foreign Minister of Austria
Succeeded by:
Lujo Tončić-Sorinj
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