What were Soviet tanks doing in Austria's British-occupied sector?
Posted Friday, Sept. 3, 2004, at 3:56 PM PT
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.
—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Aug. 31, 2004
"It's a fact—as a child he could not have seen a Soviet tank in Styria," the southeastern province where Schwarzenegger was born and raised, historian Stefan Karner told the Vienna newspaper Kurier.
Schwarzenegger, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born on July 30, 1947, when Styria and the neighboring province of Carinthia belonged to the British zone. At the time, postwar Austria was occupied by the four wartime allies, which also included the United States, the Soviet Union and France.
The Soviets already had left Styria in July 1945, less than three months after the end of the war, Karner noted.
—Roland Prinz, Associated Press, "Historians Criticize Schwarzenegger For Austrian History Gaffes," Sept. 3, 2004
Discussion. The AP story quotes Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson saying, "Never in there did the governor reference that the tanks were where he grew up. It was a reference to visiting Soviet-occupied Austria." But he sure as hell implied 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. 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 8 years old since the Soviets left Austria for good by September 1955—why can't we hear the details? 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.
That the Schwarzenegger family would have wanted to take such a trip seems doubtful in the extreme. Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times, in an earlier examination of this claim, noted the obstacle of "British and Soviet antipathy during the occupation." The very fearsomeness of the Soviets would have made any sensible Austrian reluctant to enter their jurisdiction. Remember, too, that Schwarzenegger's father had volunteered to be a brown shirt in Hitler's Sturmabteilung, an item on his resume that might have given the Soviets a legitimate reason to detain him.
I can't let pass Schwarzenegger's smarmy implication that postwar socialism, to whatever extent it was practiced in Austria, was the legacy of Soviet occupation. 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.