How Arnold Schwarzenegger Overcame His Family’s Dark Past in Austria

Arnold Schwarzenegger is famous in lots of ways. His bodybuilding career is legendary, and his role as the Terminator is one of the reasons he’s considered one of the biggest action stars ever. He had a stint as the governor of California, and on a less positive note, made headlines when it became known that he’d fathered a child with his housekeeper while he was married to Maria Shriver.

Before Schwarzenegger started this journey as an American in the public eye, he was a kid in Austria, and his life then is unrecognizable compared to his life today. 

Growing up in the shadow of a violent father

Arnold Schwarzenegger smiling
Arnold Schwarzenegger | Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images

The Schwarzenegger home was a rigid and unhappy place. Gustav, his father was a police chief and a strict Catholic who enforced extremely strict rules on his family. Gustav wasn’t just demanding – he was abusive. He was an alcoholic, and he was also violent and cruel. He was convinced Schwarzenegger was gay, so he chased him with a belt and beat him. 

Schwarzenegger had an older brother named Reinhard. Gustav felt that Reinhard was the more athletic of the two boys, so he preferred him and even encouraged the brothers to fight each other in an effort to humiliate his younger son. 

But that wasn’t even the worst thing about Gustav.

A dark secret is revealed

In 1990, news reports surfaced claiming that Gustav had been a Nazi. Schwarzenegger could have denied the stories and ignored them, but he decided to find out the truth. He spoke to Rabbi Marvin Hier, who was the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization. Schwarzenegger was a longtime supporter of the center, and he asked Hier to investigate the accusations about his father. 

That investigation discovered that Gustav voluntarily applied for membership in the Nazi party in 1938. It also came out that he was a member of the “brownshirts,” the main paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. It was a difficult fact for Schwarzenegger to face, but he does not try to hide who his father was or that he strongly disagrees with the beliefs Gustav held. 

“It’s not a proud moment for anyone when you learn your father was a member of the Nazi Party,” Hier once said. “But Arnold is not his father, and Arnold has to be judged for who he is.”

He broke ties with his father long ago

When Schwarzenegger found out about his father’s dark past, Gustav had been dead for almost 20 years. Even before his death, Gustav and his son were estranged. Schwarzenegger was so determined to avoid Gustav that when Reinhard died in a car crash in 1971, he didn’t go to his funeral. Schwarzenegger didn’t return to Austria for Gustav’s funeral when he died in 1972 either. 

Schwarzenegger’s mom, Aurelia, wasn’t able to protect him from his father’s abuse and she also worried that he might be gay because of his bodybuilding posters. Nonetheless, she and Schwarzenegger stayed close until her death in 1998.

Coming to America

The decision to leave Austria was not an easy one. “You know that you have to struggle from the beginning; otherwise you wouldn’t be leaving your country. If you had this wonderful, rosy atmosphere, you would not want to leave.”

Despite how hard it was to leave everything behind, he knew from the time he was 10 that America held the promise of a future he wanted. “I said, ‘What am I doing here on the farm? Oh, God, I’ve got to move on. How do I move on?'” His experience has made him a strong advocate of immigration reform.

Schwarzenegger’s decision to start over in a new country was a huge success. He became a superstar, but more importantly, he was able to leave his painful past behind and choose a different life from the one he grew up in.