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.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Democracy, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. That is a rather odd mode of attack, I must say.

  2. Well, technically, the social democrats and Christian Democrats essentially established a corporatist state where they divvied up the spoils among their supporters in roughly equal portions, at least until Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party started upsetting the balance in the 1990s. Good for Arnie that he didn’t try to nuance all that into a speech, though. 😉

    But the one thing the social democrats and the Christian Democrats agreed on was expanding public entitlements, so I suppose it’s not unfair to call it a socialist regime. (Socialism is essentially an economic system, while democracy is a political system; the intersection of the two, social democracy, combines features of both.)

  3. Incidentally: not only was Austria divided into 4 occupation zones, but Vienna was also divided into 4 occupation zones (like Berlin was) until 1955. So it’s entirely plausible that Viennese (Viennans?) would cross these boundaries on a fairly regular basis, as did Berliners until the Soviets and East Germans built the wall around West Berlin in 1961.

  4. Randy Paul says:

    They were, roughly speaking, the France of the Eastern Bloc.

    Although we disagree quite often, that’s a great analogy!

  5. The Monk says:

    Do those “democratically elected governments” also include Sweden, Norway and Denmark? How about Netherlands and Belgium? How about pre-Thatcher Britain? Each of those economies are (or were) “mixed” economies in the loose sense that they have capitalist elements, but each and everyone of the ones I named is socialist. Yglesias’ comment is dompletely disingenuous.

  6. New Meme! says:

    Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED! Arnold LIED!

  7. dc says:

    Here is California Swcharzenegger is getting tiresome. The more we see of his baffoonary the less we like him.

  8. JK says:

    Just imagine how pathetically spoiled Yglesias’ sophomoric attempted nitpicking sounds to someone who was exposed to and managed to escape real totalitarian oppression.

  9. Donovan Janus says:

    I grew up in The Netherlands, far away from the communists and way too young to remember the second world war even (born in 1978).

    The Netherlands is a democracy, but also very socialistic. Starting your own business, not being part of a union, believing in free trade, are all things that are looked down upon. Even worse, if you are a politician that stands up for it, you literally get killed.

    The #1 reason why I left the Netherlands four years ago is because its never ending push for socialistic ideals. Being against them is oddly enough described as fascist and Nazi like.

    I came to America for much the same reasons as Arnold did. While I am not, yet, nearly as successful as him, I have had a better life and more success than I ever had in Europe.

    And while not old enough to know anything from first hand experience on WWII, Vietnam or the start of the cold war, I do remember the anti-nuke protests of 1986 in Amsterdam. As an 8 year old, I clearly was too young to understand why this was necessary. But Arnold was right when he said that it was the U.S., and Reagan, that took the threat of the Sovjets away, and with that the much hated nukes. It takes time to win the peace and it takes even more time to win it in way that in the end everybody wins. It is something that is easily forgotten, just as it seems like 9/11.

    Arnold’s speech summed up why I moved to the U.S., why I am proud to be here and why the struggle to get a green card and a citizenship is worth it. He reminded me why I am here, why I support the Republican party and why I am proud to be able to contribute to the greatest nation in the world.

  10. ahem says:

    And yet George Soros, who actually faced Nazi and Soviet occupation in Hungary, before immigrating to the US and making his fortune, is maligned by Republicans as a foreign-born Nazi-collaborating self-hating Jew, in bed with drug cartels.

    Curious, that.

    How about pre-Thatcher Britain? Each of those economies are (or were) “mixed” economies in the loose sense that they have capitalist elements, but each and everyone of the ones I named is socialist.

    Wow, ‘The Monk’: you’re astonishingly ignorant of European economies.

  11. john b says:

    Donovan’s point is a good one. An Arnie speech about how growing up in market-socialist Austria was tedious and (like everyone in the west) they were scared of being blown up if the Cold War turned hot would have been reasonable. Erroneously implying that he personally lived under Soviet occupation, which he didn’t, is not so reasonable.

  12. Elrod says:

    Actually I think a far more persuasive critique of Arnold’s speech comes from Will Saletan. According to Will, “I agree with every one of these things. I can see myself as a Schwarzenegger Republican. But I can’t vote for Bush.

    Why not? Let’s start with that Humphrey-Nixon story. It conveys that Schwarzenegger’s understanding of the two parties is frozen in 1968. That’s a long time ago. Both parties have changed a lot. The Democrats under Bill Clinton rediscovered a centrist philosophy they had abandoned. They became more attentive to public safety and more friendly to free enterprise. The Republican Party also shifted—not to the center, but to the right. If you liked where Nixon stood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you’re more likely to find similar policies 30 years later not in the administration of George W. Bush, but in the administration of Bill Clinton and possibly the administration of John Kerry.”

    Saletan’s point being that Arnold was the big appeal to moderates who like fiscal conservatism but are turned off by the Christian fundamentalists who dominate the party today. And yet the Republican Party Arnold lauds in 1968 is actually the Democratic Party of today. Arnold is, and has always been, a Rockefeller/Eisenhower Republican. These folks never rejected the basis of the New Deal – they just wanted it to be less intrusive than the Democrats wanted. Even as the GOP turned to the right in 1980 the alternative for Arnold Republicans was still unacceptable as the Mondales still dominated the Democratic Party. But then with Clinton we had a free trader and budget balancer, and a generally centrist outlook. The old Great Society Democrats were largely repudiated in the party. Not completely absent, mind you – Paul Wellstone, Jesse Jackson, Teddy Kennedy were all there to keep the flame burning. But nobody from that economic wing would ever be nominated for President again. Even the “maverick” Democrat this year, Howard Dean, was a fiscal conservative as Governor. So if Arnold Schwarzeneggar was inspired by the GOP of 1968, and by all indications his ideology hasn’t shifted to the right since that time, then the party holding it most is the Joe Lieberman – and possibly John Kerry (though who really knows 🙂 – wing of the Democratic Party, not the George W. Bush wing of the Republican Party.

  13. lex says:


    Good luck to you, and glad to have you here. Striving, hardworking immigrants are America’s secret weapon. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.


  14. Beldar says:

    I bummed around Austria on a Eurail pass in the summer of 1977. I met plenty of Austrians who still recalled the Soviet occupation quite vividly, pointing out to me the structures and signage that still remained. I spent two nights in a youth hostel that had been a barracks for Soviet troops.

    Matthew obviously missed Orson Welles’ classic The Third Man, set in circa 1949 Vienna, as part of his liberal arts education.

  15. Terry says:

    Saletan’s got an interesting hypothesis, but I think it’s got a couple flaws:

    #1. It assumes that Schwarzeneggar’s political philosophy has remained frozen since his immigration. I don’t think that is realistic and it is very hard to tell exactly how it has changed since that time from his current rosy-colored speeches. He wasn’t a political figure at the time, so there’s not a good record of his political thoughts from the period to compare to now;

    #2. He does leave out a few things that may have tarnished WJC’s credentials in Schwarzeneggar’s eyes: Hillarycare, the fact that WJC was a very reluctant welfare reformer (although very good at hopping aboard enthusiastically and claiming the credit once he realized he wasn’t gonna win the fight), the slow and aimless reduction of the military by funding attrition in the post Cold War period, his absolutely ineffectual projection of military power in all cases but Kosovo (and arguably ineffective in the longer-term there), and most importantly, Schwarzenegger’s love of tax cuts. Less certainly, I seem to remember reading that Schwarzenegger is a moderately firm supporter of 2nd amendment rights, an area traditionally weak for the Democrats.

    #3. Schwarzeneggar is a Republican not just in the US as a whole, but specifically in Kah-leee-for-neee-aaa. While perhaps not a rabid as they once were, I think there are still enough “Californian Democrats” (worse, HOLLYWOOD Democrats!) around that the constant daily exposure to them would tend to, uhhhh, negatively impact any perception of a “centralizing” Democratic shift that he might otherwise see coming from Washington.

  16. Marksman says:

    Arnold’s speech summed up why I moved to the U.S., why I am proud to be here and why the struggle to get a green card and a citizenship is worth it. He reminded me why I am here, why I support the Republican party and why I am proud to be able to contribute to the greatest nation in the world.

    Amen, brother. I came to the US from Holland in 2000 and haven’t looked back since.

    What I appreciate most is American’s openness (I live in SC) and can-do attitude. Of course, the fact that everyone isn’t terminally depressed because of lack of sunshine helps 😉

    I have one gripe with Arnold’s speech, however. According to Arnold:

    In this country, it doesn’t make any difference where you were born. It doesn’t make any difference who your parents were.

    Not so. Once you have a Green Card it doesn’t make any difference anymore. But before that happens, not having the right papers is the modern-day equivalent of being a leper (to HR folks, at least). I have personally been passed over for many job opportunities, regardless of my competence or experience, because I don’t have work permission yet.

    Nevertheless, if I were an American citizen seeking to stay in the Netherlands, I’d be in a worse position. Because, (1) lots of people would hate my guts or think I’m stupid because I was an American, and (2) there is no Green card system in Holland for non-Europeans.

    It seems both countries have a paradoxical problem with immigration: it’s easy for illegal workers who take bad, low paying jobs, but hard for professionals who can really make an impact and help grow the economy. In my opinion, the US should STRIVE to be a brain-drain on the rest of the world. Smart immigrants aren’t a threat to American jobs. They are more of a threat to American jobs if they are forced to work oversees.

  17. Remy Logan says:

    I never got the sense from Arnold’s speech that he lived under Soviet occupation, or that he was trying to imply it. In his bit about driving in his uncle’s car, it is quite clear that he was talking about moving from one zone to another. When he talked about looking at the soldiers in the eye, again he made it clear that was the lesson taught to children when they were going to be in the Soviet sector.

    The people who believe that Yglesias has found an Arnold lie are the same ones who believe Kerry spent Christmas in Cambodia (which not even Kerry believes anymore).

  18. alpha says:

    ahem, you troll, no one talked about george soros here. you’re just mad someone brought up the soviet union. So unclassy to go on about all those dead bodies and the murderousness of communism…wouldn’t you just prefer to call us all “brownshirts” and be done with it? get outta here…