Hannes Richter

A Tribute to Former Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil (1932 - 2004)

Hannes Richter
Klestil.jpgThe sudden death of Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil on July 6, 2004 struck the Austrian people as well as his international colleagues and friends with unexpected intensity. Dr. Klestil, who was to have terminated his second, six-year term in office as President on July 8, died before having enjoyed the resonance of appreciation from the Austrian people. This has weighed heavily on many of Austria's citizens. Voices worldwide have expressed their grief over the loss of a statesman with extraordinary capabilities as mediator. German Federal Chancellor Schroeder, in his expression of condolence, emphasized that not only his country but also all of Europe has lost a "builder of bridges." This is a perception confirmed at all levels of society. Held especially high in esteem was Dr. Klestil's role as an advocate and combatant for European unity and his special commitment made toward the integration of Eastern European states into the European Union.

Dr. Klestil took not only a neutral, non-partisan stand but also set for himself the goal of being 'someone who unites and not divides'. This creed left a stamp on his term in office, during which time he made 130 state visits to foreign countries - more than any other Austrian Federal President before him - and some of these visits were indeed of a ground-breaking nature. He was the first Austrian Federal President to visit Israel and openly expressed sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust in a speech to the Israeli parliament in 1994. He was committed to tolerance and reconciliation among nations, one particular aspect praised in touching words by the Israeli President, Moshe Katzav, who hoped that the legacy of brotherhood and reconciliation that President Klestil left behind might be carried on in Austria and the rest of the world. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed: "He was a great statesman and servant of his people, as well as a servant of all mankind. He will be missed." United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan paid tribute to him remembering him as "an outstanding statesman and diplomat." While U.S. President Bush depicted

Klestil "as a man dedicated to freedom and human dignity, and as president, he was a committed and eloquent advocate of these values."

Dr. Klestil projected openness to all groups within Austria's population. He was particularly open about his past life - a man from modest beginnings as son of a streetcar operator who became Federal President - and at his seventieth birthday, he spoke proudly of the possibilities that Austria offered to all of its citizens.

Former President Klestil was born in Vienna in 1932. He enrolled at the College of World Trade (today Vienna's University of Economics and Business Administration), where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1957. After his career in the civil service with the Austrian Federal Chancellery in 1959, he was assigned to the OEEC (later OECD, the Organization for European Cooperation and Development in Paris). From 1962 to 1966 he was appointed attaché at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., returning to Vienna in 1966 after having joined the staff of Austrian Federal Chancellor Dr. Josef Klaus. In 1969 he was responsible for establishing the Austrian General Consulate in Los Angeles, befriending fellow Austrian and current Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. From 1974 on Dr. Klestil played a key role in bringing important UN organizations to Vienna. He served as Ambassador to the United Nations in New York in 1978, and from 1982 to 1987 as Austrian Ambassador to the United States. Some eighteen years out of his diplomatic career of thirty-five years were spent in the United States - it was these many years of service as a diplomat abroad that influenced his later presidential office immeasurably.