The Austrian journalist Hugo Portisch was perhaps the greatest editor, TV commentator, and historian of modern Central Europe, and largely shaped Austria’s modern sense of identity. Hugely-loved and admired, the lifelong pro-European was also famously witty, and clear when he explained the most complex stories. His watchword was “Check, Re-Check, Double-Check“ and a permanent duty to stick to facts and truth.
Former AEJ President Otmar Lahodynsky describes a convinced European and a man of unusual generosity:
Hugo Portisch (1927-2021)
Obituary by Otmar Lahodynsky
With the death of Hugo Portisch, Austria loses a great journalist who explained world events and their own recent history to Austrians in an understandable way. With series of articles and books like “So sah ich die Sowjetunion”, “So sah ich China”, all of which became bestsellers, Portisch, born in Pressburg/Bratislava as the son of a journalist, brought world politics closer to the people in the 1960s. He was, rightly, soon celebrated as the “nation’s history teacher”.
But he was also one of the most important fighters in Austria for media freedom, which he had become more familiar with during a study visit to the USA. In 1950, he was selected by an US-program to study modern quality-journalism as trainee with the „New York Times“ and „Washington Post“, an experience which should influence his future career as journalist. Likewise, his dissertation was dedicated to the “American Press”. In 1964, as editor-in-chief of the Kurier, he initiated the “Broadcasting Referendum” for the independence of the ORF, the first referendum in the Second Republic. It secured public broadcasting television far-reaching independence from the influence of the government and parties to this day. In the mid-sixties, he wrote editorials against a resurgence of National Socialism and anti-Semitism, which he fought as a convinced humanist and cosmopolitan until his death.
From 1981 onwards, he worked for ORF on in-depth documentaries on Austria’s contemporary history. After “Osterreich II” about the emergence of the Second Republic, he set to work on the series “Osterreich I”, with which he illuminated the country from the collapse of the monarchy to its annexation to the Nazi dictatorship. He used historical film material from various sources, including archives in Moscow that were opened especially for these documentaries.
In 1991, following the wishes of the two main parties, the Socialist SPO and the Conservative OVP, he was invited to become Federal President, succeeding the controversial and globally-isolated Kurt Waldheim. He declined because he did not want to give up his “favourite profession” and remain a journalist. “I don’t like to be forced into anything, and as a politician you are always forced into something,” he said, who, after working as editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Kurier, also always turned down fixed employment.
But he advised the then Federal Chancellor Franz Vranitzky in 1991 during his important speech in Israel, in which he also addressed the complicity of Austrians in the Holocaust for the first time. Later, he strongly advocated Austria’s accession to the EU. A convinced European, he also wrote books about Europe and was still significantly involved in the ORF documentary “The Birth of Europe” in 2019. In recent statements he was very critical with Austria’s far-right party FPO and its influence on Austria’s reputation in the world.
Together with his wife Traudi, a children’s author, Hugo Portisch was also an enthusiastic mushroom picker. In Tuscany, he lovingly renovated an old farmhouse with olive trees, to which he also dedicated a book.
And he was a strict boss, but also one who cared about his staff. For example, when the sports reporter Heribert Meisel was terminally ill in hospital and still wanted to continue writing a daily commentary on the ongoing World Cup, Portisch, as Kurier editor-in-chief, fulfilled Meisel’s last wish. The commentaries, which were barely comprehensible due to Meisel’s illness, were printed in a special edition limited to a few copies and delivered to the sports journalist at his bedside.
Austria has lost one of its most respected personalities and a great journalist.
The daily newspaper Kurier carried this portrait. Portisch edited the paper for nine years before joining Austrian TV and becoming its leading commentator: https://kurier.at/kultur/ medien/hugo-portisch- oesterreichs-beruehmtester- journalist-ist-tot/401336703
ORF (Austrian TV) obituary
The Wiener Zeitung