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Governor’s Austria remarks scrutinized

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses the delegates at the Republican National Convention Tuesday in New York.  
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses the delegates at the Republican National Convention Tuesday in New York. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Roland Prinz Associated Press

VIENNA, Austria – Historians criticized Arnold Schwarzenegger for telling the Republican National Convention that he left a “socialist” country when he moved away in 1968, noting that Austria had conservative leaders during the entire time he lived there.

Some also were doubtful about Schwarzenegger’s remark that he saw Soviet tanks as a child, since he lived in an Austrian region occupied by British troops after World War II.

Still, the questions about the California governor’s memories of his homeland aren’t likely to dampen his enduring popularity among Austrians who admire him for rising from a penniless immigrant to become an international movie star and the highest official in America’s most populous state.

In his convention address Tuesday, Schwarzenegger said: “As a kid, I saw the socialist country that Austria became after the Soviets left” in 1955 and Austria regained its independence.

But Austria was governed by coalition governments that included the conservative People’s Party and the liberal Social Democratic Party, Martin Polaschek, a law history scholar and vice rector of Graz University, told the Vienna newspaper Kurier.

Between 1945 and 1970, all the nation’s chancellors were conservatives – not socialists. And when Schwarzenegger left in 1968, Austria was run by a conservative government headed by People’s Party Chancellor Josef Klaus, a staunch Roman Catholic and a sharp critic of both the socialists and the communists ruling in countries across the Iron Curtain.

Schwarzenegger “confuses a free country with a socialist one,” said Polaschek, referring to Soviet bloc communist officials’ routine descriptions of their eastern European countries as socialist. “He did not speak as a historian, after all, but as a politician.”

Norbert Darabos, a ranking official of Austria’s opposition Social Democratic Party, complained, “The Terminator is constructing a rather bizarre Austria image.”

Schwarzenegger’s spokeswoman, Margita Thompson, said the governor was not referring specifically to the Socialist party but rather to “a socialistic style of government and governing that he experienced when living in Austria.”

Some Austrians also questioned Schwarzenegger’s reminiscence about seeing Soviet tanks growing up in Austria, which was divided into U.S., British, French and Soviet occupation zones after the war.

“When I was a boy, the Soviets occupied part of Austria. I saw their tanks in the streets,” he told the Republican convention. “I saw tanks in the streets. I saw communism with my own eyes,” he added.

“It’s a fact, as a child he could not have seen a Soviet tank in Styria,” the southeastern province where Schwarzenegger was born on July 30, 1947, historian Stefan Karner told the Kurier, noting that province and neighboring Carinthia were guarded by British troops.

Thompson, the governor’s spokeswoman, said he was referring to a visit to the Soviet zone, which was as close as 30 miles to his family’s home.

“Never in there did the governor reference that the tanks were where he grew up. It was a reference to visiting Soviet-occupied Austria,” she said.

Many ordinary Austrians seemed in a forgiving mood Friday over any gaffes.

“Maybe he has a wrong recollection – it’s so many years since he left,” said Wilma Fadrany, 32, a waitress in Vienna.

“There must be political reasons for such comments,” she said. “You’ve got to tell the (convention delegates) what they want to hear in order to win them over. Politicians always talk the way it fits into their agenda.”

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