Hannes Richter

Big Challenge for Austria’s Information Service during the Waldheim Years

Hannes Richter

Wolfgang Petritsch (1984 - 1992)
Dr. Wolfgang Petritsch had served as Federal Chancellor Kreisky’s Press Spokesman before he was assigned to New York as Director of the Press and Information Service in 1984. “When I came to New York,” Petritsch recalls that times were relatively quiet in comparison with the Kreisky Era, when there was occasional controversy in the press. That was nothing compared to what was to follow: First the news about the cache of Nazi-looted paintings in Mauerbach (these paintings had remained after WWII in a monastery outside Vienna and had not been restituted to the owners partly due to the rather unprofessional and reluctant efforts by the local authorities to track down the owners). Another was the so-called “wine scandal” where millions of gallons of Austrian wine suspected of being laced with diethylene glycol had been removed from stores in Austria and countries around the world, including the United States. In March 1986, when we believed it couldn’t get any worse, the “Waldheim affair” appeared in the news. It will be a special chapter in my memoirs, if I ever write them. One day early in the morning when I picked up the New York Times and read the feature article about Waldheim, two things came to mind: Austria with its failure to confront the past and the reaction to it in the U.S.

Waldheim was very well known in the U.S. as “Mr. UN.” The inquiries came like a Tsunami flooding the Information Service and it took a long time for the office to attempt to clear up matters. Also discussions began in Vienna how to improve public relations. People like Paul Lendvai and Hugo Portisch tried to set the record straight, an extremely difficult task. Within the framework of our media work, we tried to write articles and conduct interviews in attempt to offer an Austrian view while at the same time shifting our focus to cultural issues, where it was easier to present Austria in a positive light. As an example, in 1986 there was an impressive exhibition, “Vienna 1900” in MoMA, which we used as a point of departure for offering diverse information about Austria. At the time I began cooperating with PBS-Ch13 in New York by producing a TV documentary on “Vienna 1900,” which was broadcast all across America. This was followed by a one-hour documentary on Biedermaier as well as on Mozart operas staged by the then “enfant terrible” Peter Sellars, presented by PBS as well. I tried to strengthen our capability for getting out good information in order to counter the one-sided picture which came out in the press.

The third area of concentration was the economy. Together with the Austrian Trade Commission and the Austrian Business Agency we accomplished a lot, particularly outside of New York and Washington where the Waldheim affair tended not to dominate the news.”

Despite all the painful aspects involved, those affairs also contributed to a more complete picture of Austria, forcing the country to face reality while at the same time reversing its sense of having been a victim only. The Press and Information Service contributed greatly to those discussions. With the Jewish organizations, those difficult years encouraged a more vigorous exchange and led to strong and constructive talks with one another. Also the visits by Austrian represenatives and contact with NGOs were taken very seriously and probably relationships at that time became stronger to the extent possible when speaking about a large country like the U.S. and a small country like Austria.

As Petritsch recalls, “the topic of neutrality also played a role much like our role as a transit country for Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. The concrete example of working toward helping Jews leave the Soviet Union for Israel of the U.S., for that matter, made the understanding of Austrias’s policy of active neutrality more tangible. It revealed that Austria is a country which is firmly anchored in the West but had tried to entertain correct relations with the Soviet Bloc including the promotion of human rights and the support for dissidents.”

In terms of the future Petritsch believes that Austria is strongly bound to the USA historically. “Our push toward modernization after 1945 was largely through help from the USA, and that is the legacy of American-Austrian relations. Against the backdrop of a reshaping of transatlantic relations, it is important to understand that Austria is a loyal friend and partner, one with strong cultural connotations, in which the USA assumes a central significance. Undoubled still to this day, the feeling of historical gratitude is an advantage to the United States. Finally, what was truly important to me was the people-to-people contact, which drew solidarity from a mutually-shared source.”

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Ambassador Dr. Wolfgang Petritsch was born 1947 in Klagenfurt. After his university studies at the University of Vienna he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Southern California in L.A. From 1977 – 1983 he was Press Secretary of Federal Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, and in 1984 he was assigned to New York, where he served as the Director of the Austrian Press and Information Service for nine years. In 1997 Petritsch was appointed Austrian Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. From October 1998 to July 1999 he served as the European Union’s Special Envoy for Kosovo and in February and March 1999 as the European Union’s Chief Negotiator at the Kosovo peace talks in Rambouillet and Paris. Between August 1999 and May 2002 Petritsch was the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina implementing the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords. Petritsch’s reflections as foreign policy expert on Southeastern Europe have been extensively published in the international press and he is the author or co-author of several books. From 2002-2008 he was Austria’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Since 2008 he is Austria’s Permanent Representative to the OECD in Paris.