Dancing with Nazis

Schwarzenegger Flaunts Totenkopf Ring

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This is an English translation of a Falter Article about Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing a Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Ring on a trip to his home town in Graz, Austria. Falter is a weekly news magazine published in Vienna. This is not a professional translation, but gives you a good idea about what took place there. That he wore a Totenkopf Ring to apparently provoke the politicians in his home town, with whom he had had a dispute over enforcement of the death penalty, suggests that he knows full well that the Totenkopf can be perceived as a Nazi symbol.

Sei nicht Böse, Arnie!
(Don’t be Evil, Arnie!)

Cover of Falter Magazine with Article about Schwarzenegger wearing a Totenkopf Symbol.

“Austria, very nice!” by Herwig Höller

Arni can’t stop: Arnold Schwarzenegger had pretty much finished in the Capital (Vienna). However, the Governor is always good for a provocation at just the right time. The summary of the ambivalent circumstances of Arnie’s 60th birthday.

Actually, it was supposed to be a private detour, which led Arnold Schwarzenegger and his eldest daughter, Katherine, last month to the old home town for exactly thirteen hours. However, the stressed provincial politicians knew how to thwart this effort: A regular horde of groupies met the Californian Governor with a amateurishly-organized reception at the Thalerhof Airport, including the Styrian provincial governor of the SPÖ (Austrian Socialist Party), Franz Voves, die provincial head of the Styrian ÖVP (Austrian Peoples’ Party), Herman Schützenhöfer and ex-ÖVP-congressman, Alfred Gerstl, who likes to describe himself as Arnie’s mentor. As a welcome present, the provincial governor presented his California equivalent with an oversized bottle of vegetable oil. As Volves mentioned, he and his lieutenant-governor had deliberated greatly about it. The guest was so impressed that in the turbulence of the airport he immediately left it behind. An embarrassing reception and to tell the truth they really don’t like each other.

Intuitively, Schwarzenegger may have already sensed what he was getting into. As he set foot for the first time in three years on Styrian ground an obvious Totenkopf ring adorned his right ring finger. By chance? At the meetings with the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Great Britain’s then still Premier, Tony Blair that followed his detour to Graz the accessory — which for a politician is a little unusual — was missing. In the Styrian context it could absolutely be perceived as a provocation: Did Schwarzenegger want to allude to the controversy over the death penalty and the return to Graz of his ring-of-honor a little more than two years ago? Or, simply to say – completely the Hollywood Star – “You can kiss my….”

Certainly, Arnie still feels, as always, personally nostalgic for Austria and Styr. In large degree, they are biographical raw material that he dispenses, as required, in carefully targeted doses to the American people, as he may at any particular time need to do. And an Austrian reference makes for good atmosphere: “I love this wind: It reminds me of Austria, very nice”, intoned the Governor once in an appearance near Sacramento, who since 1983 has had dual US-Austrian citizenship. But, in relation to his homeland, as with other themes, Arnold Schwarzenegger shows himself to be contradictory, even opportunistic. That is exactly what makes him an able populist and successful political strategist. His current popularity ratings shows that this calculation is valid: sixty percent of the Californians think he is doing a good Job.

His visit to Styr can hardly be explained as other than nostalgia. In his birthplace in the Styr, he was especially delighted by the fact that the façade of his childhood home had hardly changed. He recounted anecdotes at that place to his daughter from his schoolboy years. And he had a number of new items sent up to (at that point) modest Arnold Schwarzenegger museum on the church square of the community. These objects show clearly that the boy from Thal has become a significant man – powerful, and at the same time sensible: a signature box of thick Schwarzenegger cigars was part of the package, as well as calendar made by Arnold himself dedicated to his family with naive water color paintings, as well as a sculpture that shows Arnold in Rodin’s “Thinker” pose. This man wears Totenkopf rings?

His relationship to his home was never unproblematic. Recently, the situation escalated about the renaming of the stadium in December of 2005. The cause was the stubborn refusal of the politician to seek clemency for prisoners sentenced to death. No one wants to remember the contention of that time any longer: “I have distanced myself from this step. I consider that as being absolutely inappropriate.” Voves found it necessary to explain already on the Tarmac. While Schwarzenegger wants to have his peace, the official Styr wanted to get as close as possible to the born Styrian. But he didn’t think too highly of the attempt. For that purpose a delegation of Styrian ÖVP-politicians went so far as to visit Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles. After his return, The Party Leader Schützenhöfer announced future full cooperation in Snow Ski Instruction and Wine cultivation. Only, the official Homepage of the Governor never mentioned a word about it.

Schwarzenegger mentions his homeland and biographical details mostly when it can be favorably exploited in political discourse. For instance, when he is arguing for vocational schools and this requirement can be so supported, especially with his own positive personal experiences from vocational school. Or, as he – as in 2004 as main speaker at the Republican presidential convention – created a good sentiment, in so far, as he talked about his experiences with communism and encounter with Soviet Tanks. Another time he maintained even that Austria became a socialistic land after the Soviets pulled out. Certainly, that created a lot of outrage in the Austrian Peoples party (ÖVP). In the US, however, this communist and socialist bashing was well-received.

America-compatible exaggeration along with slight distortions of the facts belonged to Schwarzenegger’s standard repertoire since his bodybuilding time in the Übersee. His father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, was a beat cop who was rumored to have been a disciplinary problem. In the seventies, he made him out to be a police chief in a place called Graz. His friend, at that time, the medicine student, Karl Gerstl, became in his first biography, “The Education of a Bodybuilder” (1979) a completely educated doctor and at least eight years older. Also, the central roll of Karl’s Father, Alfred Gestl, as the fatherly mentor in Schwarzenegger official Biography, was constructed only relatively recently.

Schwarzenegger deals with Austria’s Nazi past with contradictions. Over the years he has sent strong signals in the direction of the Left as well as the Right. From an Austrian perspective he has sometimes acted exemplarily relative to the history of his homeland as well as that of his father. Repeatedly, he condemned the NS-Regime. Already, in the middle of the 80’s, he asked the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to cast light on the past of his father, who died in 1972 and who was a member of the Nazi Party as it came to be publicly known in 2003. Also, he was in the SA. In addition, Schwarzenegger became one of the most important sponsors of this institution und he visited Simon Wiesenthal several times privately in Vienna.

In the meantime he had also let himself be heard on the subject with disturbing tones. In the year 2003 in the middle of the California election campaign some telling passages in interviews for the Film “Pumping Iron” appeared. “I have always dreamed of very powerful men”, said the, at that time, bodybuilder in the clips. Of dictators – “I was always impressed by men that were remembered centuries or as with Jesus even for thousands of years.”

And further in the cut parts of the film is he said to have given expression to his apparent admiration for Hitler. The part of the film where it occurred was however not used. What Arnold really said at that time can no longer be learned. For, already at the beginning of his political career Schwarzenegger bought all of the parts of the original clips that were not used in the Film. Rigorous image-control is counted as one of the standard procedures of the former actor. A heated discussion of his past followed. In the short term, it threatened to derail the largely successful campaign. Only a relief-offensive produced peace, with among others, participation of the citizens of Graz.

Schwarzenegger was not always so successful in controlling his relationship to homeland and history. Often, the homeland also caused him problems. So he saw himself confronted with Nazi accusations in 1986, because he supported the ÖVP candidate for Austrian president, Kurt Waldheim with a declaration and an invitation to his wedding with Maria Shriver – at a point in time when the debate over the concealment of Waldheim’s war history was in full flame. And, even though Waldheim was put on the watch list the day after the wedding, Schwarzenegger visited the President privately only a few months later. In the following years, however, Schwarzenegger increasingly distanced himself from Waldheim. Even at the burial of Thomas Klestil, as the mutually well-acquainted politicians stood next to each other, Schwarzenegger signaled by his body language that he didn’t want to have anything to do with Waldheim. Also, when Waldheim died the governor of California was silent.

The contradictions that Schwarzenegger laid bare with his relationship to Austria is only symptomatic of the way he deals with other themes. As bodybuilder, as actor, as politician: Schwarzenegger built himself up and re-invented himself, even if biographical gaps arose. For years he drove his extreme gasoline-guzzling Hummers. Only when he smelled that, even in the US, it was hip to be ecologically-minded, did he equip his cars to run on biodiesel and hydrogen and gives himself out now as an apostle of climate protection. And while he, on one side, has his homepage in English and Spanish, on the other side he tells the Hispanics, who mostly come from Mexico, that they should stop watching television in Spanish.

Provocation was in this strategy always a part of the plan. Here the Totenkopf (Death’s Head) ring comes in. He also recently let himself be seen with a Totenkopf belt buckle for a joint Time Magazine cover with the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. That was absolutely directed against Washington. And when he fancies the laughter to be on his side, incorrectness can, for once, be allowed to take place. He also doesn’t leave out sexism und reaches deeply into this box, as happened in the last election campaign against Arianna Huffington. In 2004, he characterized his opponents as “girlie men”, which in addition enraged homosexuals, as a homosexual initiative was being planned. Schwarzenegger got these methods from bodybuilding as well as show business. His biographer, Joe Matthews, writes in this relation about a politic that is from a Hollywood-derived marketing mechanism. It produces scandal for him certainly. In sum it has, however, until now benefited him well. As nimbly as Schwarzenegger has acted in particular cases, the man has also at the same time in a certain way remained steadfast. Even the youthful ostentatious muscleman of the town of Thal has distinguished himself though enormously difficult to comprehend self-confidence, coupled with an unbounded desire for provocation, as many witnesses can attest. Arnie can not give it up. However, he can also express it more sensible. “I love Austria and the Austrians. But I always knew that America was the place for me.”

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