As the Terminator and a slew of other quick-draw movie heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous for lines like “Hasta la vista, baby” and “You’re luggage” while pulling triggers on opponents both human and reptile.
But even if words took the place of shotgun blasts in Schwarzenneger’s stunning January 10 video broadside of Capitol rioters (and their inspiration, Donald Trump), the impact was no less powerful.
The actor and former California governor made it clear that for him, it’s personal. Although other Republicans (ultimately including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) were forceful in their condemnations of the mob that seized the U.S. Capitol on January 6, none came close to Schwarzenegger’s invocation of the ghost of Nazism haunting his family’s past.
He drew parallels between the Nazi mob on Kristallnacht in 1938 and the Proud Boys who were in the vanguard of the Capitol insurrection. But he went a step further, talking about growing up in post-war Austria amid “broken men drinking away their guilt over participation in the most evil regime in history.”
Among them: His own father, Gustav.
“My father would come home drunk once or twice a week and he would scream and hit us and scare my mother,” he said, a revelation about which he has never spoken.
Several neighbors did much the same thing. “They were in physical pain from the shrapnel in their bodies and in emotional pain from what they saw or did,” he said.
Displaying the sword he used in “Conan the Barbarian,” he compared the tempering of its metal to the strengthening of democracy. “The more it is tempered, the stronger it becomes.”
The video tweet went viral. It got 10 million views, 1.2 million likes. On YouTube, it logged 5.8 million views. Most of the comments appeared positive.
The Wiesenthal Center said it could find no evidence of Gustav Schwarzenegger’s participation in war crimes. But a subsequent look at the Austrian national archives by the Los Angeles Times showed he joined the SA (Sturmabteilung), the notorious “Brown Shirts,” in 1939.
And he served as a military police officer on the Eastern front, from the invasion of Poland through Hitler’s desperate—and ultimately failing—attempt to defeat Soviet Russia.
The military police were used on the frontline as well as against local civilian populations. The L.A. Times quoted a Holocaust scholar, Michael Berenbaum, as saying Gustav Schwarzenegger was “in the heart of hell.”
After a bout of malaria and possible wounds at the front, the elder Schwarzenegger received a discharge in 1943—the same year the Soviets ultimately defeated the Nazis at Stalingrad and turned the tide of war against Germany. Gustav Schwarzenegger went back to Austria to become a postal inspector and police officer. He died in 1972 at the age of 65.
The younger Schwarzenegger’s disavowal of Nazism has not always been so absolute. He was close to Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations and before that, president of Austria. Waldheim was invited to Schwarzenegger’s wedding to Maria Shriver in 1986, just after exposure of his Nazi past. He did not attend.
Over the years Schwarzenegger has contributed significant sums to the Wiesenthal Center. And once he embarked on a political career, he was a conservative in the mold of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He served as California’s governor from 2003 to 2011.
Like so many center-right Republicans, Schwarzenegger morphed to the center simply because Trump sucked all the oxygen out of the party’s right-wing—right up to the point of inciting his followers to riot.
Schwarzenegger declined to endorse Trump in 2016, saying prophetically: “As proud as I am to label myself a Republican, there is one label that I hold above all else—American. So I want to…remind my fellow Republicans that it is not only acceptable to choose your country over your party—it is your duty.”
Top photo: Arnold Schwarzenegger (pictured in 2019) (Photo: Jun Sato/WireImage)