Tim Noah is a columnist for Slate who apparently thinks of himself an expert on the history of Austria. Noah claims to have caught Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger in a “whopper.” In his keynote at the Republican convention, Arnold recalled the fear he experienced as a child in Austria, when a significant part of the country was under Soviet military occupation. “When I was a boy, the Soviets occupied part of Austria. I saw their tanks in the streets. I saw communism with my own eyes. I remember the fear we had when we had to cross into the Soviet sector. Growing up, we were told, ‘Don't look the soldiers in the eye. Look straight ahead.’ It was a common belief that Soviet soldiers could take a man out of his own car and ship him off to the Soviet Union as slave labor. My family didn’t have a car – but one day we were in my uncle’s car. It was near dark as we came to a Soviet checkpoint. I was a little boy, I wasn't an action hero back then, and I remember how scared I was that the soldiers would pull my father or my uncle out of the car, and I'd never see him again. My family and so many others lived in fear of the Soviet boot. Today, the world no longer fears the Soviet Union and it is because of the United States of America! As a kid I saw the socialist country that Austria became after the Soviets left. I love Austria and I love the Austrian people – but I always knew America was the place for me.”
Pretty unremarkable stuff, it would seem. But according to Noah, it’s a skein of lies. Citing an Austrian daily, Noah claims that Arnold and his family lived in an Austrian province governed by the British, not the Russians. Well, fine, but does that imply he never traveled, as he said, with his family to the Russian zone? Actually what Noah says is that Arnold “implied [his emphasis] having lived on an everyday basis with both the risk and the reality of encountering Soviet goons. Phrases like ‘Growing up, we were told’ and ‘I remember the fear we had when we had to cross into the Soviet sector’ strongly suggest that Soviet soldiers were milling around Thal, the village where Young Arnold lived, or nearby Graz, the closest urban center. Which was impossible, because both were inside the British zone.”
But Arnold implied nothing of the kind. He stated, quite clearly, that his family took a trip to the Soviet zone. Noah, however, is persistent. “If, as Thompson says, Schwarzenegger was referring to a specific trip he took from Austria’s British zone to its Soviet zone—he would have been at most eight years old, since the Soviets left Austria for good by September 1955—why can’t we hear the details?”
We have heard the details. Why should Schwarzenegger be expected to describe down to the last roadstop a trip he took as a child? But the prosecutor in Tim Noah will not rest. “Schwarzenegger has told the Soviet tank story before (in his inaugural address and, earlier, in remarks to the California Republican convention), and every time he’s left vague the particular circumstances that brought him into contact with the Soviet military. As Schwarzenegger has noted many times, his family was poor. A trip from Thal, in Austria’s south, to the Soviet sector, in the north, would have left a deep impression.”
But it obviously did leave a deep impression, since he both remembered it and has spoken vividly about it. What is missing from his story? An account of the weather? Noah is also apparently a psychologist. “That the Schwarzenegger family would have wanted to take such a trip seems doubtful in the extreme.” Does it? Perhaps they were compelled to do so by some family matter. Is that outside the realm of possibility?
Not content with these ungrounded speculations, Noah also questions Arnold’s negative impressions of Austrian socialism (we hardly need to guess why): “There was and remains a big difference between European-style socialism and communism. The former boasts a long and proud tradition of anticommunism. That would have been especially true in Austria, where every chancellor between 1945 and 1970 was a conservative. The characteristic vice of Austrian conservatism isn’t softness on communism. It’s softness on Nazism.”
This characterization of Austrian socialism and of Austrian politics in general is one that any respectable historian, to say nothing of millions of Austrians, including Arnold, will immediately recognize as Beltway improvisation. In reality, the Austrian Socialist party was the most left-wing in Europe aside from the Norwegian and Spanish parties, giving rise to a specific variety of radical leftism known as “Austro-Marxism.” Noah’s generalizations about Austrian constitutionalism are uninformed. While it is true that from 1945 to 1966 the conservative Austrian People’s Party held the chancellorship, it ruled in a coalition with the Socialists. What this has to do with the veracity of Arnold’s remarks is a secret locked somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy of Timothy Noah’s mind. When Arnold describes Austria as a socialist state, he means the heir to that bureaucracy – a welfare state of the more pronounced European kind, which is exactly what Austria was and has remained since the second world war. Austria was also neutral in the Cold War, when the West confronted the most oppressive empire in history, and continued to be exploited by the Soviets as an espionage post.
If Noah really doubts the terror that the Soviet presence in Austria inspired after the second world war he should rent a movie called The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, starring Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, and Trevor Howard, released in 1949. The film, considered one of the greatest classics of all time, brilliantly presents the brutality of the Soviet occupation officials and the fear of them experienced by ordinary Austrians. Perhaps Noah would regard all these Austrians as ex-Nazis.
To repeat Noah’s claim, “The characteristic vice of Austrian conservatism isn’t softness on communism. It's softness on Nazism.” This sweeping generalization comes at the end of a paragraph in which Austrian Socialism is essentially described as a subset of Austrian conservatism. Thus the entire Austrian body politic, left and right, is stained with a Nazi taint.
The absurdity of this stigma is revealed by an event that Noah has overlooked because it would conflict with his fantasy. Although it is hardly remembered today, on February 12, 1934 – the seventieth anniversary of which was marked this year in Austria –the Austrian Socialist party rose up in an armed insurrection against the conservative government of Engelbert Dollfuss. The worker rebellion was led by an armed leftist formation of tens of thousands, with the piquant title, in retrospect, of the “Republican Defense Corps.” The latter had been formed in the early 1920s to protect the socialist and labor movement against fascist attacks.
Beginning in 1933, the Dollfuss government emulated the Hitler regime by seeking to curtail the activities of the labor movement. The Republican Defense Corps was banned, and attempts were made to confiscate its weapons. In February 1934, with fascism clearly on the march in Europe – and while the French Communists, notably, maneuvered for an accommodation with the fascists in their own country – Austria exploded when police raided a Socialist office in Linz. Fighting began, and news reached Vienna, leading to a general strike.
Soon the uprising was general. The Austrian army responded by bombarding the Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, the famous Socialist-built housing project. Three hundred workers were killed and thousands injured in the insurrection, and its leaders were hanged by the Austrian state. The Austrian Communists played almost no role in the drama. Dollfuss was eventually murdered by the Nazis.
But the world was electrified: the Austrian Socialists were the first in Europe to offer armed resistance to fascism. Later, some of their leaders, who had been invited to the Soviet Union, were deposited in the gulag, which might possibly have contributed to anti-Stalinism in their ranks.
We will continue to hear slanders against Arnold, and against all Austrians, which seek to portray them as Nazis -- this was a prime theme of the Democrats’ campaign against Arnold in the California recall election. When such smears are attempted, one should think of the sacrifice of 1934, 70 years past, when the Socialists of Austria gave the rest of Europe a lesson in courage and freedom. They deserve to be remembered. Not so the facile allegations of Timothy Noah which are so much partisan hot air.