The Arnold they remember back home
THAL, AUSTRIA — When Arnold Schwarzenegger left this tiny Alpine farming village to chase bodybuilding dreams in America, he retained more of his upbringing than just his trademark accent, people here say.
There's a lot of Europe left in the California gubernatorial candidate, says Werner Kopacka, who has known Mr. Schwarzenegger for 20 years "And even the most conservative European is more concerned with the social issues of ordinary people than the most social[ist] American," says Mr. Kopacka, a reporter with the newspaper Kronen Zeitung. "He is a politician of a different type for America - a conservative who would really protect the small guy."
But it's another part of Schwarzenegger's background that has drawn much of the attention since he announced his candidacy.
Schwarzenegger was born in 1947 to a father who belonged to the Nazi party and served as the village's police chief. Yet, while he is the son of a Nazi, Schwarzenegger was mentored in his youth by a man who had been active in the anti-Nazi resistance.
"Arnold isn't a Nazi and he never was one," says the mentor, Alfred Gerstl, whose office walls include a large signed photograph of Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.
Schwarzenegger's childhood unfolded amid a national culture that denied Austria's part in Hitler's atrocities. After World War II, many Austrians chose to believe their country had been an innocent victim of Adolf Hitler, who annexed Austria into the Third Reich in 1938. This overlooked that Hitler and many of his closest associates were Austrians and that Nazi policies had considerable support here before and after the annexation.
Schwarzenegger has said that he did not know what his father did during the war and that he found out about the Nazi party membership only after asking the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to investigate in 1990.
After a more recent investigation, Wiesenthal Center officials said this month that they had found no evidence linking Gustav Schwarzenegger or his Sturmabteilungen (SA) paramilitary unit to Nazi war crimes.
Gustav is said to have been a very strict parent who regularly pitted Arnold against his older brother, Meinhard, in various sports competitions. "Arnold always tried to do better than his brother to get the favor of his father because he knew that his father liked the kid who was physically better," Kopacka says. "He knew he had to fight hard to beat his brother and please his father."
As a teenager, Arnold began hanging around the nearby Thalersee Restaurant, a lakeside retreat that was at the time a hangout and training site for local weightlifters.
Gustav disapproved of the future Mister Universe's interest in body building - an activity the father regarded as the pursuit of homosexuals.
It was through body building that Arnold met Mr. Gerstl. The father of one of Arnold's body building friends, Gerstl was a half-Jewish opera singer and fitness enthusiast who later served as president of the Austrian senate. By many accounts, Gerstl became a second father to the ambitious teenager, taking him to antifascist demonstrations and introducing him to opera and literature. And it is this legacy - and not Gustav's - that Arnold carried into adulthood, friends say.
"[Arnold's] father was an old Nazi - there were many of them around then - but Arnold was completely the opposite," says Gerstl, interviewed at his home in nearby Graz, where Schwarzenegger attended high school. "He's a committed antifascist."
"Normally when you are the son of your father, you have your father's ways, but not in this case," agrees Kurt David Bruhl, the president of Graz's Jewish community for more than two decades. "I've known him since he was a young man, and he never had any Nazi ideas."
Schwarzenegger's friendship with Gerstl continues to this day. Four years ago, the movie star was best man when Gerstl remarried after two decades as a widower.
Schwarzenegger has raised eyebrows abroad, however, for his public association with Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general. Mr. Waldheim was elected president of Austria despite the revelation that he had concealed his service in a Nazi army intelligence unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans. Schwarzenegger invited Waldheim to his 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver, a niece of John F. Kennedy.
In nearby Graz, however, where he continued his bodybuilding career until moving to the United States in his early 20s, Schwarzenegger is a hero. He is known as the man who bench- pressed his way from humble beginnings in an 18th-century country house to a spot on the roster of the world's wealthiest entertainers. His photos adorn restaurants and cafes, particularly ones the actor frequents on his visits here. And Austrians are following their native son's political aspirations in California.
Graz's popular soccer franchise competes in the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium, a modern facility seating more than 15,000 near the cobblestone streets of the centuries-old city center. Toward the back of the stadium, body builders train at the Fitness Paradise gym, which houses a small Arnold Schwarzenegger museum. The latter is adorned with vintage photographs of the young bodybuilding champion and features weightlifting gear he used in the 1950s, including a set of 15-kilogram barbells he made himself at a local metalworking shop.
"Since he decided to run for governor, we've had visitors from all over the world coming to see these things," says gym manager Hans Neumayer. "People here in Graz are very proud of him."