Josef Klaus

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The Independent Online

Josef Klaus, politician: born Mauthen, Carinthia 15 August 1910; Chancellor of Austria 1964-70; married 1936 Erna Seywald (five children); died Vienna 25 July 2001.

Josef Klaus appeared to be inaugurating a new era in Austrian politics when he headed the first single-party government in post-war Austria, from 1966 to 1970.

He was elected Chancellor in 1964 and led a government of his right-of-centre People's Party and the Social Democrats until 1966. In that year, his People's Party secured an absolute majority of seats in the Austrian parliament, the first time that any party had done so since 1945, and he moved to break the traditional "black-red" coalition of People's Party and socialists.

After the war, the two main parties had decided on grand coalitions because Austria was under occupation by Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States until 1955, and it was felt that the pre-war divisions between Catholics and socialists had made it easy for Hitler to gobble up the country in 1938. Klaus's predecessor as head of government was Alfons Gorbach, who had, like many of his socialist opponents, been imprisoned by the Nazis in Dachau concentration camp. Klaus had served in the German armed forces.

By the 1960s many Austrians, especially older ones, were used to coalitions and felt that compromise rather than confrontation was the best way forward. Others believed that such coalitions just made it that much easier for professional politicians to feather their own nests. In some respects Klaus's dramatic move was more surprising when one considers that Austria's democratic neighbours – Italy, Switzerland and West Germany – seemed more than ever wedded to coalitions of the moderate right with the moderate left.

Born in Mauthen, Carinthia, in 1910, the son of a baker, Klaus went to the grammar school in Klagenfurt. From there he went to the universities of Marburg/Lahn and Vienna, graduating in law in 1934. In the pre-war Catholic corporate state of Dollfuss and Schnuschnigg, he was a full-time official of the unity trade union organisation working as secretary to its leader, Johann Staud.

He rose to be deputy head of the economic department of the Vienna Chamber of Labour. After the German occupation of Austria in 1938, he worked for a timber firm until being called up for war service. In 1945, he became a lawyer in Salzburg and was active in the People's Party. He was elected deputy mayor of Hallein in 1949 and in the same year chairman of the regional government. Thus Klaus played a key role in the area's restoration and return to the international tourist map. In 1952, he was elected People's Party Chairman for the Salzburg region.

When he left Salzburg for Vienna on his appointment as Federal Minister of Finance in 1961, his wife, Erna, put a portrait of Gandhi on his desk, "to remind him to remain modest". But Klaus was seen as a man with a mission and he saw off Gorbach as party leader in 1963. In the following year he became Austrian Chancellor. Klaus appealed to the younger generation of "reformers" in the People's Party against the more conciliatory Gorbach and his followers.

He engaged in a bout of shadow boxing with the socialists over the issue of whether the Archduke Otto Hapsburg-Lothringen, the exiled son of the last Austrian emperor, should be allowed to return to Austria as a private citizen. The socialists took a hard line; Klaus wanted to lift the ban. In the interests of coalition politics, he was forced to accept the ban for the time being.

By 1970 the Klaus experience was over. What had gone wrong? One problem for Klaus was that his party had the opportunity for the first time to fill all the ministries rather that just half of them. The People's Party is made up of various auxiliary, Catholic and secular, and regional organisations and these all sought appropriate representation in a new single-party government. There was considerable friction among would-be office holders. The Klaus government came to grips with the problem of massive and growing subsidies for state-owned enterprises, especially the coal mines. Klaus also had to face the large subsidies for his "own" people, the small farmers, shopkeepers and other businesses. He was less successful in dealing with this. He reformed the state-run radio and television removing them from direct, party political influence. These reforms lost him some support.

In foreign affairs Klaus pursued a policy of moving closer to the European Economic Community (EEC). The socialist opposition believed there were dangers in this policy in that the Soviet Union would interpret it as a breach of Austria's neutrality under the 1955 settlement, which ended the Allied occupation of the country. At the time the Americans also reasoned that closer Austrian (and Swedish) ties with the EEC would weaken its cohesion, which they favoured. In any case, the French were worried that close ties between Austria and the EEC would strengthen German economic influence in Austria.

Klaus paid a state visit to Moscow in March 1967 during which he was given to understand that the Soviets would oppose Austria's attempts to link up with the EEC. Italy also vetoed any form of associate membership of Austria in the EEC. The problem in Italian-Austrian relations was that of the (formerly Austrian) South Tyrol.

In 1966 the Socialist Party had suffered a damaging split, which weakened it in the election of that year. By 1970, it had recovered under the charismatic leadership of Bruno Kreisky. Some on the right saw Klaus's attempt to placate Italy over South Tyrol as a sell-out and voted for the Freedom Party. However, during the Klaus chancellorship the percentage of Austrians feeling that Austria was a nation went up from 47 per cent in 1964 to 66 per cent in 1970. Klaus's electoral defeat heralded many years of socialist dominance in Austria until the change of government in February 2000. His period in office helped to convince the socialists that the People's Party did not hanker after the "good old days" of Dollfuss's authoritarian state. Klaus retired from politics and was not seen often at public events.

David Childs