Austrian Archives Reveal Nazi Military Role of Actor’s Father
In July 1990, following news reports that his father was a Nazi, movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger approached his friends at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and asked that they find the truth.
“ ‘I don’t know much about my father’s past,’ ” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Wiesenthal Center, recalled Schwarzenegger’s telling him. “ ‘I don’t know if it’s good or bad, and I’d like you to find out.’ ”
Asking the Wiesenthal Center to handle the investigation was a logical choice: The center, named after the famed Nazi hunter, had the resources to conduct such a probe. And it was an institution that Schwarzenegger had financially backed over the years.
After a two-month investigation, in which Simon Wiesenthal was involved, the verdict was in: Gustav Schwarzenegger was indeed a member of the Nazi party; he voluntarily applied for membership in 1938. But there was no evidence that he was a war criminal. Nor had the Wiesenthal Center found any evidence that the senior Schwarzenegger belonged to any of Germany’s notorious paramilitary units, such as the Sturmabteilungen (SA) or the Schutzstaffel (SS), which were populated by some of Adolf Hitler’s most ardent supporters.
But documents in the Austrian State Archives in Vienna, reviewed by The Times this week, show that Gustav Schwarzenegger had a deeper involvement in Hitler’s regime than the Wiesenthal Center had uncovered. Hier said the documents were unavailable to the center’s researchers when they investigated the matter.
One document in particular shows that Gustav Schwarzenegger was indeed a member of the Sturmabteilungen, also known as the “storm troopers” or “brownshirts.” He joined the SA on May 1, 1939, according to the entry in the archive file -- about six months after the storm troopers helped launch Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, when Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were attacked across Germany and Austria and thousands of Jews were hauled off to concentration camps.
The records contain no other information about his activities with the SA. And, with the exception of Kristallnacht, the force had lost its position of dominance to the SS as far back as 1934. Without further documentation, it is difficult to draw conclusions about what Gustav Schwarzenegger did with the SA, said Ursula Schwarz, a researcher with the Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance. At the same time, she noted, one had to apply to join the SA, unlike, say, the German army, which Austrian males were required to join after their country was annexed in 1938.
The Austrian documents also show that Gustav Schwarzenegger served with German Army units that saw some of the most brutal bloodshed of World War II, including the invasions of Poland and France and the German rampage through Russia and the siege of Leningrad.
As a military policeman, he appears to have been in theaters of the war where atrocities were committed by the army. But there is no way to know from the documents whether he played a role.
Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who has written 14 books on the subject, said that based on the records, Gustav Schwarzenegger appears to have been “in the thick of the battle during the most difficult times” when some of the “most horrific military and nonmilitary killings” occurred.
“He was in the heart of hell,” Berenbaum said.
Gustav Schwarzenegger was made a master sergeant with the Feldgendarmerie, the military police known by the nickname Chained Dogs, apparently from the metal links they wore around their necks as part of the uniform. Although they were police units, many served as combat troops, always on the front line, and were used to suppress civilian populations for the advancing German army.
According to the records, Gustav Schwarzenegger received a great deal of medical attention, and may have been wounded. At some point he contracted malaria. He left the army in 1943.
The Austrian archives also include the papers, part of a so-called de-Nazification process, that in 1947 determined he could work for the postwar state because no specific war crimes had been attributed to him. He worked as a police officer in Austria until his death in 1972.
For years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been dogged by his father’s past. And critics have seized on Schwarzenegger’s public association with Kurt Waldheim, the former president of Austria and former secretary general of the United Nations. Waldheim was accused of having covered up his involvement in Nazi atrocities committed during World War II.
Schwarzenegger invited Waldheim to his 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver, then anchorwoman of the “CBS Morning News” and a niece of President Kennedy.
The wedding was in April, a month after Waldheim had been publicly accused of lying about his wartime past. Waldheim did not attend the wedding, but sent a gift, prompting an emotional toast by Schwarzenegger, who lauded Waldheim, according to a wedding guest.
“It was so gratuitous and insulting,” said the guest, who asked not to be named. “It ... stunned the crowd into silence.”
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign said the actor has changed his views on Waldheim.
“Arnold has said that if he knew then what he knows now [about Waldheim’s past], he would not have offered the toast,” said spokesman Rob Stutzman. “Arnold has said it was a stupid thing to say.”
Stutzman said Schwarzenegger wanted to consult with the Wiesenthal Center before commenting on the Austrian documents about his father’s war record.
But, Stutzman said, “It’s been well documented that Arnold is concerned about his father’s activities in the German army. He’s been asked about it for years, and over those years it is abundantly clear that Arnold’s views are completely opposite of those of his father.”
Hier agreed, saying Schwarzenegger is shamed and embarrassed by his father’s past. He said the actor has been a strong supporter of Jews and Jewish causes over the years. Arnold Schwarzenegger has contributed about $750,000 to the Wiesenthal Center and has helped to raise millions more by chairing fund-raisers and other events.
Hier said the Wiesenthal Center aggressively pursued information on Gustav Schwarzenegger’s war record, and was not influenced in any way because Arnold Schwarzenegger is a financial supporter of the institution. He said the Austrian records were not available at the time of the center’s investigation because of a “30-year” rule that prohibits the release of information on a soldier until he has been dead for 30 years.
Showed copies of some of the Austrian documents reviewed by The Times, Hier on Wednesday immediately assigned researchers to dig deeper into Gustav Schwarzenegger’s past.
In southern Austria, friends of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Thal, where he was born, and the adjacent town of Graz, where he attended school, said the son had a loving but difficult relationship with his father.
Gustav Schwarzenegger was tough and authoritarian, the friends said. He frequently pitted his two sons against each other in athletic matches and would then praise the winner, usually Arnold’s older brother Meinhard.
Himself an athlete, Gustav Schwarzenegger did not approve of his son’s pursuit of weightlifting and bodybuilding, longtime friend Alfred Gerstl recalled. He wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps as a champion in a traditional Austrian ice sport similar to curling.
“His father was a strong, domineering person who taught him discipline,” said Werner Kopacka, the correspondent in Graz for the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung and a friend of the actor. “He taught Arnold to fight and to bear pain.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he never knew what his father did in the war. Kopacka, 53, said Austrians of his generation as a matter of course did not ask such questions.
“In those days you didn’t ask your father,” he said. “None of us talked much about the war.”
Kurt David Bruhl, for 22 years head of the Jewish community in Graz, did not know Gustav Schwarzenegger but has known the younger Schwarzenegger since the 1960s. Bruhl said he was confident Gustav Schwarzenegger had not taught Nazi-inspired hatred to his children.
“It would be unfair to bring any connection to the son from the father,” Bruhl said.
Wilkinson reported from Vienna, Lait from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Scott Glover contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.