Oskar Helmer


Portrait of Oskar HelmerOskar Helmer (1887-1963) was an Austrian politician from the SPÖ, the Austrian Social-Democratic Party (photo: VGA). He started as a newspaper editor and in 1919 became the youngest member of his party to be elected in the parliament of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich). When Vienna was separated from Lower Austria he became active in Viennese politics.


In February 1934 he was arrested and after his release worked for insurance companies. After the war he became Interior Minister. As minister he built up the police force and helped the restoration of Austria in the post-war period. In 1959 he became president of the Austrian Länderbank.


Helmer is best remembered for his actions during the Hungarian crisis in 1956. On 26 October 1956 he announced that every Hungarian refugee would be granted political asylum.


When the Soviet forced invaded Budapest a committee was immediately set up in Vienna comprised of Oskar Helmer and his staff, UNHCR, the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), and the League of Red Cross Societies (LRCS), as well as a number of local and international NGOs.


It was decided that the LRCS would be the prime mover on the assistance front, and would also help ICEM, whose prime task would be to assist the registration, documentation and transport of refugees out of Austria. UNHCR would deal with the over-arching legal and protection issues, as well as the integration of those who remained in Austria. Helmer also wanted UNHCR to be the overall coordinator - or "lead agency" - a role that was subsequently confirmed by the General Assembly.


On the face of it, UNHCR was not in the best position to handle such a task. For one thing, it was only a temporary organisation with a mandate that was due to expire in 1958. Secondly, it was without a High Commissioner because in July 1956, Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart had died of a heart attack and his replacement, Auguste Lindt, was not elected until December. But the agency's other senior staff proved more than capable of handling the challenge.


Because of his immediate aid to the many Hungarian refugees and for his remarkable services to them the Nansen Medal Committee decided to award the 1959 Medal to Oskar Helmer. The Committee honoured Helmer for his humanitarian spirit when personally dealing with the refugee problem and for the generosity he opened the Austrian borders for those who sought refuge in an extremely difficult time.


The award ceremony took place in the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 13 October 1959.



Stamp catalogue


Austria                                          13 November 1987









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last revised: 1 March 2010