Commentary Magazine


Jorg Haider

To the Editor:

I have great respect and admiration for Robert S. Wistrich as a historian and scholar. It is therefore with some surprise that I find myself in disagreement with his article on Jörg Haider [“Haider and His Critics,” April].

Mr. Wistrich correctly observes that the international outcry accompanying the entry of Haider’s Freedom party into an Austrian governing coalition in February was “unexpectedly swift” and “severe.” But even though he acknowledges that the Austrian demagogue represents a real threat, for some reason Mr. Wistrich has reserved his most critical comments for Haider’s accusers. There may be no shortage of hypocrisy among the European Union (EU) member states who have reacted by downgrading bilateral relations with Austria, but that is no reason to criticize them for taking a stand now.

Mr. Wistrich’s own writings (including a booklet called “Austria and the Legacy of the Holocaust,” published by the American Jewish Committee) demonstrate that he is well aware of Austria’s reluctance to come to terms with its past. Until recently, Austrian leaders gladly accepted the mantle of Hitler’s first victim even as they avoided paying compensation to Jewish victims and vied for the political support of former Nazis. This was the environment in which Haider—himself the child of enthusiastic Nazi-party members—grew up, so his political views and controversial statements should come as no surprise. As Mr. Wistrich himself reminds his readers, Haider “has been unable to hide his distaste for any honest appraisal of the Nazi past.” If European Union leaders are to remain silent when someone like Jörg Haider comes to power, then under what conditions should they speak?

Mr. Wistrich complains that “none of [Haider's] acts of contrition has been accepted, or reciprocated, by [his] critics in Austria and in Europe.” Why should they be, when he so clearly demonstrates his insincerity? Should they applaud his acknowledgment of the validity of property claims by Jewish Holocaust victims when he immediately links such claims to those of Sudeten Germans? Should they now accept Haider’s half-hearted apology for having praised the employment policies of the Third Reich, when on previous occasions he has repeatedly and vigorously defended his choice of words?

Mr. Wistrich reports that Haider has taken no office in the new national government, but has chosen instead to remain in his post as governor of Carinthia, and even resigned as chairman of the Freedom party in response to international pressure. But few people seriously imagine this party is anything but an extension of Haider himself. If one looks at its ministers in the new cabinet, the common denominator and seemingly only qualification is a fierce loyalty to the now “former” chairman. And even if they are imagined to be independent actors, they are guilty of the same offensive rhetoric and behavior that got Haider himself into trouble, including such things as calling concentration camps “punishment camps,” supporting Holocaust-denial publications, and charging that foreigners were receiving hormone shots from the government in order to increase their birth rate. With or without Haider—and no one really doubts his ambition to be Austrian chancellor someday—the Freedom party is a dangerous and ugly coalition partner.

On several occasions, Mr. Wistrich trumpets the new government as “the choice of the Austrian people.” But the matter is not so simple. In the elections of last October, the Freedom party received only 27 percent of the vote, barely edging out the conservative People’s party for second place and finishing well behind the first-place Social Democrats. Austrian voters were clearly divided. The real “choice” was made not by them but by Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of the People’s party, when he decided to break a long-standing taboo and form a government with Haider.

In reality, the “sanctions” adopted by the other fourteen European Union states also have more to do with Chancellor Schüssel and his ministers than with the Austrian people as a whole. Far from “nakedly bullying tactics,” as Mr. Wistrich calls them, those sanctions are more the stuff of canceling state visits, snubbing ambassadors, and avoiding handshakes and group photographs—offenses to diplomats and ministers, it is hoped, but hardly a punishing ordeal for the average Austrian citizen. In fact, a good many Austrians welcomed these sanctions as a legitimate expression of European values, as demonstrated by the 200,000 people who gathered on February 19 in the Heldenplatz in Vienna, to protest their new government.

One might expect Mr. Wistrich to applaud this popular reaction as reflecting a new maturity among Austrians and a mindfulness of their country’s history. (Remember that no Austrians demonstrated when Kurt Waldheim was elected president.) Instead, he inexplicably unleashes his wrath on these demonstrators, calling their actions “the mindless sloganeering of an infantile Left that is eternally replaying the Spanish civil war or other mythic scenarios of ‘antifascist’ resistance.”

In the end, Robert Wistrich’s contempt for European hypocrisy and his belief in the “vacuum of values in contemporary Europe” seem to have overshadowed his common sense. These nations may have been silent in the past when confronted with arguably similar situations; they are not so now. A real demonstration of a vacuum of values would have been for them to continue a policy of business as usual with Austria, whose government now includes a party that espouses openly racist and xenophobic views and only slightly veiled anti-Semitic ones.

[Rabbi] Andrew Baker
Director of European Affairs
American Jewish Committee
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Though Robert S. Wistrich’s review of the goings-on in Austria is solid, the conclusions he offers are not. He argues that the sanctions against Austria are a mistake, while his own solution is to give the Austrian people “ample opportunity to reconsider.”

It is true that Haider’s popularity has already dipped, but what if Mr. Wistrich’s hope—that a disenchanted electorate will eventually vote the Freedom party out of office—fails? What if, in five years’ time, Austrians feel vindicated by the policies of radical right-wing parties that have become mainstream in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, France, and Germany?

Marc Salzberger
Middle Village, New York

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To the Editor:

Congratulations to Robert S. Wistrich for one of the best American pieces on European affairs that I have seen for a while. He has skewered the moral hollowness of the case made in Brussels against Jörg Haider, while making the important point that the EU’s stupid, hypocritical, and ill-considered action against Austria will be counterproductive.

It might be worthwhile to add a point that he does not stress but that is central to the messy European situation. The quasi-dictatorship of the EU is itself riddled with corruption. Popular resentment of the increasingly pettifogging and destructive diktats coming out of Brussels has been strengthened by the disastrous performance of the euro. And the Schengen agreement, abolishing many frontier controls on the Continent, has proved a massive blessing for both illegal immigration and illegal drug trafficking.

These problems are now seriously undermining the attempt to create a federal Europe, and they have fueled much xenophobic sentiment as well. Even in Britain, where I live, the New Labor government of Tony Blair is not immune to these effects. Asylum-seekers, legitimate or not, are finding life more difficult, and visitors from the Indian subcontinent can be required to post a £10,000 bond as surety of their economic viability and intention to return home. Even Haider has not demanded anything like that.

As Mr. Wistrich says, the climate today in Europe is not like that of the 30′s. But there is a pervasive sense of instability on the Continent that has been exacerbated by various EU crises and a fear of what appears to many to be an uncontrolled tide of “foreign invaders.” This new public sentiment needs to be taken seriously and addressed—not rejected out of hand as “neofascist.”

Herb Greer
Manchester, England

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To the Editor:

Robert S. Wistrich writes:

Nothing that has happened in Austria since the publication of my article has led me to revise my view of the European Union’s ill-judged and hasty actions in imposing sanctions on that country. The crisis of the EU has in fact deepened—Herb Greer, in his well-informed letter, points to some of the more recent symptoms—and, contrary to the dire predictions of its adversaries, the present Austrian government has done nothing thus far to justify the quarantine into which the country has been placed. Cracks are appearing in the EU consensus about the wisdom of its intransigent policy, though, under the upcoming French presidency of the Union, nothing much is likely to change in this regard.

The Austrians, meanwhile, are proceeding with their promised compensation of the victims of Nazi slave labor, notwithstanding the presence of the Freedom party in the ruling coalition. Austria’s policy with regard to immigrants is, if anything, more liberal than that of most of the other European Union member-states. There has been no anti-Semitic backlash even remotely comparable to the time of the Waldheim affair.

In light of these facts, Andrew Baker’s concerns, while they may be understandable, strike me as misplaced, curiously parochial, and lacking a sense of political reality. Ignoring the examples I gave in my article of contemporary Europe’s constitutive racism (and there are many more such examples), he remains fixated on Austria as if it were unique and existed in some kind of sociopolitical vacuum. He takes the EU’s reaction at face value as if it really stemmed from a concern for universalist values, a naive view to say the least. Failing to address the concrete reasons I gave for the rapid rise of Haider’s party, he instead reiterates points about Austria’s Nazi past that are not only well known but were clearly spelled out in my introductory remarks. He even demagogically implies that I expect the EU to accept unquestioningly Haider’s half-apologies, when I wrote precisely the opposite.

In my view, Rabbi Baker is also far too hasty in assuming that all the Freedom-party ministers are or will remain Haider loyalists; equally, it is a simplistic generalization to imply that they are all racists and xenophobes from the same stable. The present finance minister, for one, does not answer to either of these descriptions.

Contrary to Rabbi Baker’s statement, I did not “trumpet” the new government as the choice of the Austrian people. Those are his words, not mine, and they are quite misleading. The fact is, however, that the present government holds 104 out of 183 seats in the Austrian parliament, after an impeccably democratic election. If that is not a sufficient mandate, then Rabbi Baker and I have very different notions of the meaning of democracy. As for Chancellor Schüssel’s decision to form a coalition with Haider’s party, Rabbi Baker neglects to mention that Schüssel negotiated for months with the socialists, who were determined to cling to power on their own terms, and he turned to the Freedom party only after those negotiations failed.

Rabbi Baker reproaches me for being unenthusiastic about the demonstrations in Vienna against the present government. Let me be clear: I have nothing against democratic protests. Among those protesting, as it happens, were people I count as personal friends and whom I greatly respect. Not one of them has told me that he finds the EU sanctions helpful to his cause.

In answer to Marc Salzberger, I cannot of course predict the future any more than he can. But I do believe that a spell in government for the Freedom party is no bad thing for Austria’s democracy. It will not endanger the liberal order (which is solid); it will expose many of the contradictions in the party’s program and its lack of positive solutions for Austria’s problems; it will give the socialists a chance to free themselves from the corrupting effect of 30 years in office and to modernize their outdated ideology; and it will accelerate long-overdue changes in Austrian social attitudes and political consciousness, on both the Right and Left. It will also offer Europe a chance to redefine itself in a deeper way than by seizing on a symptom of its own malaise and scapegoating a single country. In that sense, Haider, a thoroughly mischievous and unscrupulous demagogue, may turn out to have provided a very useful wake-up call for Europe, if not beyond.

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