My mother couldn’t stand Arnold Schwarzenegger. She wasn’t a spitter but if she had been the type to expectorate over her shoulder, peasant style, she would have spat at Arnold.
If she hadn’t been Jewish she would have made the sign of the cross whenever she heard his voice or saw his image.
She was appalled to see her fellow Austrian become an American hero, a movie star. My mother died in 1991, before Arnold became the governor of California — luckily — but she lived to see him married to a member of the Kennedy family, further insinuating himself into mainstream American culture.
I always thought her deep Arnimosity was a bit of a quirk, but now I’m beginning to understand why America’s increasing embrace of an arrogant Austrian bodybuilder must have been such an affront to her.
Let me start with the myth of Austrian victimization by the Nazis, one that I believed until recently, in spite of my mother’s constant assertions that the Austrians were more anti-Semitic than the Germans. When German troops entered Austria on March 12, 1938, they received the enthusiastic support of most of the population. And, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The November 1938 Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom was particularly brutal in Austria. Most of the synagogues in Vienna were destroyed, burned in full view of fire departments and the public. Jewish businesses were also vandalized and ransacked.”
And consider this, from “Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust,” by Robert Wistrich:
Not only was the indigenous hatred of Jews in pre-1939 Austria greater than in Germany, but Austrians were disproportionately involved in planning and implementing the “Final Solution.” Apart from Adolf Hitler himself, the Austrian-born architect of the Holocaust, there were Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of Jewish deportations from the Reich and most of occupied Europe; [and] Odilo Globocnik (formerly gauleiter of Vienna), who supervised all the death camps in Poland…. And this is not to mention the fact that 40 percent of the personnel and most of the commandants of the death camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were Austrians, or that 80 percent of Eichmann’s staff were recruited from his Austrian compatriots.
Back to Arnold
My mother didn’t call Arnold a Nazi, even when she learned that his policeman father had been a member of the Austrian Nazi party in 1938. She didn’t fling that term around easily. When she accused Kurt Waldheim, the former president of Austria and the U.N. Secretary General, of being a Nazi before the truth about his past came out, she meant that literally. I didn’t believe her about Kurt Waldheim either, but she turned out to be right.
So although my mother never articulated it clearly, I think Arnold must have embodied everything in Austria during the war that she hated — or, to put it more accurately, that hated her, that forced her out of her beloved Vienna. How could seeing this man, all Aryan arrogance, become so famous in her adopted country not have affected her viscerally?
And, although it was just an instinctual disgust, she turned out to have been right about Arnold too.
Would she have experienced schadenfreude when Arnold was accused of sexual harassment during his gubernertorial run and when it was proved that he cheated on Maria Schriver with his housekeeper? Probably. But there are talks of reconciliation between the couple and Arnold continues to make movies. If he has fallen, it isn’t very far. Unlike those other seniors — he was born in 1947 and is thus eligible for social security — in those commercials for The Clapper, he can still get up.
Another thing my mother wasn’t fond of: “The Sound of Music,” perhaps the most pervasive popularizer of the notion of the Austrians as victims of the Nazis. But she loved edelweiss so she didn’t mind that movie’s kitschy ode to them.
I found those fuzzy flowers that she had brought with her to America, pressed like pale caterpillars on black paper and encased in plastic wrap, a little creepy. But I can see why she never turned against them. Unlike other Austrian witnesses of atrocities who claimed they could not have done anything to stop them, the edelweiss were genuinely innocent.