Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Communist Boot
Matt Yglesias and others have questioned the validity of part of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s convention speech last night:
When I was a boy, the Soviets occupied part of Austria. I saw their tanks in the streets. I saw communism with my own eyes. I remember the fear we had when we had to cross into the Soviet sector. Growing up, we were told, “Don’t look the soldiers in the eye. Look straight ahead.” It was a common belief that Soviet soldiers could take a man out of his own car and ship him off to the Soviet Union as slave labor.
My family didn’t have a car — but one day we were in my uncle’s car. It was near dark as we came to a Soviet checkpoint. I was a little boy, I wasn’t an action hero back then, and I remember how scared I was that the soldiers would pull my father or my uncle out of the car and I’d never see him again. My family and so many others lived in fear of the Soviet boot. Today, the world no longer fears the Soviet Union and it is because of the United States of America!
Matt thinks this was intended to give the false impression that Schwarzenegger grew up inside the iron curtain.
[T]his is the story of a young Czech (or Polish or Hungarian) bodybuilder, it’s not what actually happened in Austria. Rather, the Soviets occupied part of the country (and the Americans [and maybe the other Allies] occupied the rest).
The Soviets occupied part of Austria from 1945-1955 (a fact that I had largely forgotten). Schwarzenegger was born in 1947, so he would certainly have been old enough to remember the incident in question. Occupation in the Soviet zone was hardly comparable to that in the American, British, or French zones. Remember, Stalin was still running things until 1953. And, even after 1955, Austria was bordered by three Communist Bloc* states (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia) so the fear of Soviet invasion was not entirely unwarranted. After all, the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Matt also takes exception to the next paragraph in the speech:
As a kid I saw the socialist country that Austria became after the Soviets left. I love Austria and I love the Austrian people — but I always knew America was the place for me. In school, when the teacher would talk about America, I would daydream about coming here. I would sit for hours watching American movies transfixed by my heroes like John Wayne. Everything about America seemed so big to me so open, so possible.
Matt believes this to be nonsense:
Austria became a democracy, whose democratically elected governments constructed a mixed economy, much like the democratically elected governments in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the rest of western Europe.
Democracy and socialism aren’t mutually exclusive options. Certainly, Austria was and is a “free” society in the sense that people have a right to choose a government that does the popular will. But as a result of free and open elections, Austria was a socialist country during Schwarzenegger’s formative period. Indeed, socialists dominated Austria’s politics from the World War I era until very recently. Yes, Austria had a “mixed economy” in the sense that it wasn’t purely socialist — an ideal type existing only on paper — but the extent of public ownership of the key industries was much higher than in most of Western Europe, let alone the United States.
Schwarzenegger’s desire to leave Austria for the greater opportunity–and, yes, risk–of America has long been part of his biography. It’s hardly something he invented for last night’s speech.
*Update (1220): I had incorrectly written “Warsaw Pact” in the initial draft. Yugoslavia, while Communist, had an odd relationship with the Soviets and was not a member. They were, roughly speaking, the France of the Eastern Bloc. Thanks to Yglesias commentator Randy Paul for the correction.
Update (1623): Matt has issued an update to his post. Lest fisticuffs ensue the next time I run into Matt at a DC blogfest, I presume Matt’s knowledge of history is exemplary. My disagreement is only with his attempt to read between the lines of Schwarzenegger’s statement and see something that I don’t believe is there.