Fred Sinowatz: Reluctant Chancellor of Austria

Monday 08 September 2008 00:00

Fred Sinowatz served as Chancellor of Austria from 1983 to 1986. He was a local hero, the clever provincial boy who made good, but in office he found it difficult to cope with the complex problems facing his government. He was haunted by his own catchphrase, "Es ist alles sehr kompliziert" – "Everything is very complicated".

Sinowatz was born in 1929 in Neufeld an der Leitha, in the Burgenland region of eastern Austria, a small community not far from the disputed Hungarian frontier. Indeed, before the fall of Austria-Hungary in 1918, the area had been part of Hungary and a border war was fought over it. Sinowatz's parents were working class, Catholic and part of the small Croat minority. Because of the uncertain political and economic situation, emigration, especially to the United States, was common. Sinowatz's childhood was marked by poverty.

He was nine when Austria was incorporated into Hitler's Germany, in 1938. The Nazis introduced a policy of Germanisation, closing minority schools and discouraging the use of minority languages. After starting at the local school, Sinowatz won a place at a grammar school in the town of Wiener Neustadt, where he was something of an outsider because of his origins. When the Second World War ended, in May 1945, his part of Austria suffered the rigours of Soviet occupation, until the four Allied powers left Austria in 1955.

By that time, Sinowatz had completed his studies in history, German and journalism and had gained a doctorate in philosophy from Vienna University in 1953. He joined the Socialist Party of Austria (SPO), and gained entry into the civil service, working in the Burgenland archives in Eisenstadt.

Sinowatz's political career began with his election as secretary of the Burgenland SPO, in 1961. He was responsible for the party's successful election campaign in 1964, when it took over the regional (Land) government from the conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP). Sinowatz was rewarded by election as the first socialist president of the regional parliament. Picked by the colourful socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, perhaps because he appeared to lack ambition, Sinowatz served as Minister of Education and Art in the Austrian government from 1971 to 1983. In this capacity, he introduced reforms including co-education, free school books, free travel, a greater variety of schools, all aimed at greater equality of opportunity.

In 1981, when Hannes Androsch was forced out as Vice-Chancellor because of questions about his finances, Sinowatz was offered this office. After the SPO lost its absolute majority in 1983 and Kreisky resigned as Chancellor, Sinowatz reluctantly took over his position as head of government. He headed a coalition, initiated by his predecessor, with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), which was led by its liberal wing at that time. In autumn 1983, he succeeded Kreisky as chairman of the SPO.

However, he was soon hit by a number of problems. Late in 1984, he faced the crisis over the clashes between the police and thousands of protesters campaigning against the building of a power station on the Danube flood plain at Hainburg an der Donau, in eastern Austria. Sinowatz managed to reduce the tension by announcing a "Christmas peace" on 22 December.

The following year, he faced the "wine scandal" when it was revealed that some Austrian wine growers, including some from Burgenland, were using diethylene glycol (antifreeze) to "enhance" their products. Another scandal that rumbled on concerned the mounting construction costs of the new Vienna General Hospital, and Sinowatz faced the crisis of the increasing debts of the nationalised VoestAlpine AG, an industrial concern.

Also in 1985, the defence minister Friedhelm Frischenschlager (of the FPO) provoked uproar when he publicly shook hands with the war criminal Walter Reder on his return from prison in Italy. Most of these problems were not of Sinowatz's making; but he did not have the charisma and communication skills of his predecessor or of his successor, Franz Vranitzky, to deal successfully with these difficulties.

Sinowatz also became embroiled in the controversy surrounding Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary-General who stood as OVP candidate for the Austrian presidency in 1986. A private comment by Sinowatz about Waldheim's "brown past" was leaked and caused a storm. Sinowatz vigorously opposed him during the campaign and the day after Waldheim's victory he resigned the chancellorship. He remained SPO chairman until 1988, after which he withdrew to his home in Neufeld.

David Childs

Fred Sinowatz, politician: born Neufeld an der Leitha, Austria 5 February 1929; married (one son, one daughter); Federal Vice-Chancellor of Austria 1981, Chancellor 1983-86; died Vienna 11 August 2008.

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