Commentary Magazine

Haider and His Critics

Parliamentary elections in Austria are seldom the stuff of international headlines, but something extraordinary happened when Austrians went to the polls last October: the radical right-wing Freedom party, led by the youthful and telegenic Jörg Haider, won an unprecedented 27 percent of the vote, making it the country’s second most popular party behind the long-dominant Socialists. By February, the Freedom party had actually ascended to power, forming a coalition with the conservative People’s party, the third-place finisher in the election. Having declared that he would continue to serve as governor of the province of Carinthia, Haider himself declined to take a position in the new government, but his followers soon occupied half the seats in the cabinet—a development that prompted an unexpectedly swift and severe international backlash.

Citing the Freedom party’s long history of xenophobia and sympathy for Nazism, the European Union (EU), of which democratic Austria is a member, immediately imposed diplomatic sanctions, including a virtual boycott of the country’s ambassadors, a refusal to meet bilaterally with its ministers and senior officials, and a major scaling-back of cultural exchanges. France and Belgium—with support from Italy, Spain, and Portugal—endorsed even more radical measures, going so far as to hint at Austria’s eventual expulsion from the EU. Europe, one Belgian minister declared, must not become “infected by the gangrene of the extreme Right.” For its part, Israel recalled indefinitely its ambassador to Vienna, with Prime Minister Ehud Barak intoning that it was “impossible to accept that at the beginning of the 21st century a government can include a man with . . . the almost neo-Nazi opinions of Haider.”

In Austria itself, the reaction to this storm of protest varied widely. Many Austrians openly sympathized with the EU’s effort to isolate the new government, and tens of thousands descended into the streets to demonstrate against Haider and the “racist” coalition. Others expressed alarm at the damage that had been done to their country’s international reputation and, potentially, to its lucrative tourist industry. Still others responded with predictable defensiveness to what they saw as unwarranted interference in Austria’s internal affairs. By the end of February, Haider himself, in what appeared to be a capitulation to international pressure, resigned as head of the Freedom party—though not, pointedly, from politics altogether.

That the rise of Jörg Haider and the Freedom party has stirred such passions should come as no surprise. Austria may not figure prominently on the world stage, but recent events there have an unmistakable historical and political resonance. At issue, however, is not simply the matter of how to treat the Nazi past or the alleged recrudescence in Europe of Nazi-style politics. The deeper question raised by the Haider affair—and one unlikely to disappear anytime soon—has to do with the prospects for a united Europe, a project whose most determined advocates, even at this late date, remain dangerously indifferent to the national sensibilities that still prevail on the continent and to the basic requirements of democratic self-governance.



At the center of the controversy surrounding Jörg Haider is, of course, his oft-voiced affinity for certain aspects of the Third Reich. Born in 1950 to a father and mother who were active National Socialists in Austria even before Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Haider has always stressed the happiness of his childhood and his respect for his parents and their entire generation—a generation many of whose members cheered the Nazi Anschluss with Austria in 1938 and overwhelmingly ratified it in a notorious plebiscite (conducted, to be sure, after the fact and under the gaze of the occupying Nazis).

Haider himself is a direct beneficiary of this dark chapter in Austria’s history, a period during which a third of the country’s prewar Jewish population was murdered and the other two-thirds forced to flee. His personal fortune stems from a family inheritance that was gained by the coerced sale of Jewish property. The 38,000-acre forested estate that he currently owns—the “Valley of the Bears” in Carinthia—belonged to an Italian-Jewish timber merchant whose widow in 1940 surrendered it to one of Haider’s relatives, a local Nazi official, for a fraction of its true value, now estimated at some $18 million.

The influence of this family background has been evident from the outset of Haider’s political career in 1979, when he was first elected to parliament as a Freedom-party deputy. He has long maintained that those Austrians (and Germans) who fought dutifully in the Wehrmacht deserve every token of honor and respect. “Our soldiers were not criminals,” he has repeatedly said; “rather, they were victims.” Haider has also shown a penchant for addressing veterans of the Waffen-SS—the blackshirted units specially sworn to Hitler’s service—and praising their character. They, too, he has insisted, were “decent fellows.”

More controversial—and, on occasion, damaging to Haider’s career—have been statements suggesting a broader sympathy for the Nazi cause. Concentration camps, he has remarked, were essentially “punishment camps” for civilians. He has publicly praised the “orderly” employment policies of the Third Reich. And when asked by a television interviewer about war criminals of the 20th century, he omitted Hitler—but managed to assert that Churchill was worse than Stalin.

Though Haider himself has avoided explicitly anti-Semitic remarks in public, he and his party have consistently opposed efforts aimed at encouraging Austrians to come to terms with their country’s considerable role in the Holocaust. Indeed, despite the prominence of many individual Austrians in carrying out the “Final Solution”—from Hitler himself to Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka—as well as reliable estimates that Austrians composed as much as 40 percent of those most intensively involved in the Nazi genocide, the Freedom party has tended to promote a soft form of Holocaust denial. In the party press in particular, the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews have often been questioned, trivialized, or whitewashed.

Nor have Haider and his followers hesitated to appropriate certain aspects of Nazi ideology. During the 1980’s, for instance, Haider was fond of observing that, as an independent entity, Austria was an “ideological monstrosity”—that is, it had no reality except as an integral part of the German people. Even now, Freedom-party literature speaks openly of the dangers of an “ethnic transformation” of Austria, invoking the country’s need to preserve its Lebensraum (living space) and its völkisch character in vocabulary drawn directly from the lexicon of the Third Reich.

Of late—and for obvious reasons—Haider has made an effort to distance himself from Nazi-era military veterans, to explain away his previous statements of admiration for National Socialism, and even to apologize explicitly for any offense that his views may have caused. This effort at self-rehabilitation has included not only an admission that the Third Reich was a “cruel” dictatorship but also a much-vaunted visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Moreover, upon joining the new coalition government, he pledged that Austria would undertake a “self-critical scrutiny of the National Socialist past,” and he formally acknowledged the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust.

None of these acts of contrition has been accepted, or reciprocated, by Haider’s critics in Austria and Europe. And perhaps with reason; for even while seeking to refashion himself as a mainstream politician, Haider has been unable to hide his distaste for any honest appraisal of the Nazi past. Within days of signing the coalition accord in which he seemingly repudiated many of his past positions, he was equating the Czechs’ postwar expulsion of Sudeten Germans with Nazi persecution of the Jews. A truly “patriotic” Austrian government, he declared, would compensate these elderly Germans just it has compensated the victims of the Holocaust.



These sentiments cannot be fully understood without reference to the circumstances attending the history of the Freedom party—a movement that hardly came out of nowhere—or to its relations with the Austrian political establishment. Indeed, any attempt to place the Haider phenomenon in context must come to grips with the paradox that the success of this party has depended in large part on the cooperation and encouragement of Austria’s ostensibly more enlightened sectors.

Established officially in 1956, the Freedom party was the heir to a postwar pressure group called the League of Independents, which had sought to represent those Austrians who fell outside both the socialist and the clerical-conservative camps. Many of these voters were former members of the Nazi party who had been amnestied after the war and were seeking to protect their interests. During the 1950’s and 60’s, both the organized Left and the organized Right actively courted the Freedom party, realizing that its support might easily turn an election.

One facet of this opportunism was that successive Austrian governments, regardless of political bent, were notably soft on de-Nazification. While working to establish pension rights for ex-Nazi civil servants, for example, they at the same time discouraged the return of Jews who had been forced to flee Austria before the war, and erected countless obstacles to the compensation of Holocaust survivors.

For all its influence, however, the Freedom party remained a marginal presence in Austrian politics until it was given instant respectability by, of all people, Bruno Kreisky, the country’s first Socialist chancellor—and a Jew. In 1970, Kreisky succeeded in breaking the hold of Austria’s conservatives, who had dominated every coalition government since the end of the war. For the next thirteen years, Kreisky would reign as a kind of uncrowned Austrian emperor, establishing the preeminence of the Socialist party on a scale heretofore unseen in any western democracy.

At the same time, Kreisky wanted to be, as he declared, “chancellor of all the Austrians.” What this meant, unfortunately, was a determination on his part to bury the file on the Nazi era once and for all. Like earlier Socialist leaders, Kreisky angled for the support of the Freedom party, but he also went a good deal farther, signaling that the party’s leaders were fit for participation in a governing coalition. His first cabinet included no fewer than four ex-Nazis.

Controversial as this was at the time, tensions over Kreisky’s willingness to embrace former Nazis reached a boiling point five year later, with the Socialist party’s spectacular victory in the 1975 election. Kreisky had let it be known that he had no objections to an alliance with the Freedom party and its leader, Friedrich Peter—a position to which he adhered even after the Austrian Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal revealed that Peter had been a tank commander in World War II, serving in an SS unit responsible for the murder of more than 10,000 innocents, including many Jews. Although Kreisky no longer required the Freedom party’s support to rule, he went out of his way to defend Peter and to denounce Wiesenthal for his “mafia” methods.

As this episode suggests, Kreisky’s enthusiastic association with the Freedom party was a matter of political expedience; but it also went much deeper. Austria’s Socialists, like the country’s conservative People’s party—which in the mid-1980’s indignantly defended its candidate for the Austrian presidency, Kurt Waldheim, despite damning revelations about his own Nazi past—have only recently shown any interest in revisiting the history of Austria’s role in the Nazi regime. Indeed, the survival—and now the success—of the Freedom party would be unthinkable if the entire Austrian political establishment had not been so consistent during most of the postwar period in proclaiming the country’s lamb-like innocence of any wrongdoing in connection with the Third Reich.



Still, it would be a mistake to focus solely on Jörg Haider’s attitudes to the past in explaining the rise and success of the Freedom party. The chief source of his appeal undoubtedly lies not here but rather in his ability to present himself as a genuine populist, a champion of political and economic reform. As Haider would have it, he is an enemy of the “system,” a spokesman for the “little man” against a status quo created by the two main political parties, both of which have seen their support decline in recent years in the face of widespread disillusionment and boredom.

In particular, Haider has been relentless in exposing the corrupt carve-up of power and patronage under the system of Proporz—or proportionality—that Austria’s ruling class has administered since 1945. Under this arrangement, as Haider persuasively argues, the bureaucrats of the Socialist party and the oligarchs of the People’s party—the Reds and the Blacks, as they are known—have divided among themselves and their loyalists both the state bureaucracy and the heavily nationalized private sector. Popular resentment after decades of Red-Black misrule is perhaps the most powerful factor propelling Haider and his party.

Haider’s presentation of himself as an energetic modernizer—on the model of Great Britain’s Tony Blair—has made him especially attractive to young Austrians of every class, including well-educated yuppies who feel constrained by Austria’s overregulated economy and wish to follow the path of Anglo-American capitalism. (In a February 22 article in the London Daily Telegraph, Haider drew parallels between the Freedom party and Britain’s New Labor in the areas of employment, education, the family, health, immigration, and law and order. Though the analogies were instantly dismissed as risible by Downing Street, they contain an undeniable grain of truth.) Attracted by Haider’s smooth, sporty manner and his pop-star looks—and seemingly not put off by the authoritarian cult of personality that surrounds him within the Freedom party—these young Austrians see him as a much-needed force for dynamism and change.

Of course, that is not all there is to it. Like many an effective rabble-rouser in modern times, Haider has shrewdly combined a program of sensible reform with a rhetoric of ethnocentric nationalism. Much of his success has been built on an appeal to “Austria for the Austrians,” directed against the foreigners who already amount to a tenth of the country’s total population (a higher percentage than for any other EU country, with the possible exception of tiny Luxembourg). Facts to the contrary notwithstanding, Haider has accused immigrants of social “parasitism”—declaring them a source of crime, housing problems, and abuse of the welfare system—and has painted nightmare scenarios of future cultural conflict unless Austria closes its borders to newcomers. He has also skillfully exploited the planned extension of the EU to include four nations that share a border with Austria—Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia—by raising the specter of an uncontrolled influx of cheap foreign labor.

When one adds to these concerns a general fear of “globalization” among Austria’s less educated workers, it is little wonder that Haider has made such inroads among constituencies formerly loyal to the Socialists, whose decades of uninterrupted rule have made them less responsive to the concerns of ordinary Austrians. In the most recent election, almost half of the country’s blue-collar voters opted for the Freedom party.

The most remarkable thing about this burst of support for Haider and his agenda is that it has come about in the midst of great political stability and a thriving economy. Unlike the Austria of the 1930’s, today’s Austria is not bounded by Hitler’s Germany and fascist Italy. There is no atmosphere of civil war, no yawning gulf between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, no hyperinflation or mass unemployment, no yearnings for a lost empire or dreams of Anschluss with a greater Germany—in short, none of the conditions that political scientists have taught us are the warning signs of fascism. Jörg Haider is the product of peacetime prosperity and a tranquil welfare state, of a society that has never had it so good—and of the peculiar set of insecurities to which such societies are prey.



That brings us to the unprecedented and widespread alarm that his meteoric career has generated.

In part, what the success of Austria’s Freedom party portends is the looming contest between the respectable and the radical Right throughout Europe. For decades, Europe’s mainstream Right—the Gaullists in France, the Conservatives in Britain, the Christian Democrats in West Germany and Italy—successfully absorbed and contained the forces of right-wing extremism, sometimes in the teeth of barely disguised efforts by the Left to encourage the rise of such movements for its own electoral advantage. But Europe’s conservative parties are today in crisis—out of power and either rocked by financial scandal, especially in Germany, or politically divided as in France and Italy (where the Christian Democrats were almost wiped out by corruption), or almost terminally impotent as in Great Britain. Not only that, but more generally they are out of touch with their electorates.

On traditional issues like defense, law and order, and fiscal policy, today’s mainstream conservatives have lost ground to newly moderate—or newly conservatized—socialists. And simultaneously they have found themselves threatened by the ability of the populist Right to mobilize opinion around growing anxieties over national identity—anxieties whose sources include immigration, the global economy, and the increasingly ambitious officialdom of the European Union.

But, that is only one piece of the puzzle. For if Europe’s conservative parties have so far been at a loss to present a positive political alternative to right-wing extremism, Europe’s socialist or social-democratic parties and governments have added fuel to the fire by reacting to such movements, and in particular to Haider, in ways that range from the merely cynical to the breathtakingly hypocritical.

Although one would never know it from the self-righteous condemnations of events in Austria, that country is hardly alone in harboring a Haider. Indeed, in responding as vociferously as they did to the success of the Freedom party, the governments of the EU were also surreptitiously acknowledging other, no less festering dangers within their own countries: the rise of a xenophobic and separatist Flemish movement in Belgium; the 36 percent of Germans who in opinion surveys say they agree either “totally” or “in many respects” with Haider’s policies, including a complete ban on immigration; the antiforeigner and virulently Europhobic Danish People’s party; and so forth. No more than the respectable Right has the respectable Left been able to contain these forces. Instead, it has tried through various clumsy and self-defeating ways to coopt and even to mimic them.

Thus, even as the EU categorically denounces Haider’s anti-immigration agenda, its own member nations—and especially the richer ones—have been competing with each other to keep out nonwhite immigrants from the developing world. Indeed, rarely has there been so much heated public debate in Europe over so-called “bogus asylum-seekers” and the burden that unwelcome foreigners place on economies and welfare systems. Haider’s recommendations may be extreme, but in recent years a clampdown on the entry of refugees, guest workers, and clandestine migrants has become the norm in “Fortress Europe.”

In Denmark, for example, once considered one of the EU’s most tolerant countries, the socialist government has been implementing draconian restrictions on immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees—without, naturally, evoking the slightest hint of European sanctions. This form of Haiderism without Haider, and at the official governmental level, has led in Denmark to the highest rate of unemployment among foreigners anywhere in Europe—deriving not from the alleged “parasitism” of immigrants on the welfare state but from massive job discrimination against people with non-Nordic names. Meanwhile, the Social-Democratic premier has assured his people that there will be no multicultural society in Denmark at any time in the future, nor will they be made to feel like strangers in their own home. In the light of such facts, the notion that Austria—which, to take one notable instance, accepted close to 100,000 refugees after the Bosnian war—is more xenophobic than other European states begins to look laughable.

The hypocrisy of Haider’s accusers has been evident in other ways as well. To step outside Europe for a moment, it is far from clear why the state of Israel should have singled out Jörg Haider—a politician who has not yet been shown to have voiced anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist sentiments—for his “almost neo-Nazi opinions” even as it turns a blind eye to the torrent of vitriol against the Jewish people that is the regular fare of the Arab world, including not only such sworn enemies as Syria and the PLO (by whom Israelis are daily slandered as the true “Nazis”) but Jordan, the Gulf states, and especially Egypt. And as for Europe, one wonders why similar protestations in the name of political morality and the democratic ethos were never lodged against those Communists—active sympathizers of a brutal and murderous Soviet regime—who, in recent memory, have helped to form governments in France and Italy or, for that matter, against the inclusion in Silvio Berlusconi’s 1994 government in Italy of the National Alliance, which could claim lineal descent from Mussolini’s Fascist party (although admittedly the current allies of the out-of-power Berlusconi, from the Northern League, are much worse).

But Austria, it seems, has the misfortune of presenting a politically correct target—as well as a convenient deflection from uncomfortable realities at home.



As destructive as the European attitude is of simple honesty, it is no less false to the elementary requirements of democratic governance. The fact is that the Freedom party, however distressing its history and platform, has observed the rules, winning its place in the Austrian government not by violence or intimidation but through the freely given votes of the Austrian people. Not only was its route to power perfectly consistent with the Austrian constitution, it conforms to both the letter and the spirit of the European Union’s constitution as well.

It would be another matter altogether if the new Austrian government were to embark on a policy of discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities, or if it in some way infringed individual liberties or fundamental human rights. Should this occur, the European Union, of which Austria is a member, would be politically and legally entitled to intervene—indeed, it would be obligated to do so. But such transgressions are not taking place at the moment, nor is there any reason to think that they ever will under the present Austrian government. This is the case not only because the Freedom party does not rule alone but because, finally, Jörg Haider—despite the more florid rhetoric of some of his critics—is not a neo-Nazi demagogue, an Austrofascist throwback, or another ultranationalist xenophobe, and certainly not Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or even Slobodan Milosevic.

He is, rather, an unsavory type of democratic politician who is also something of a compulsive provocateur and poseur. If he presents a threat, and he does, it is one that should be met not by rejecting the choice of the Austrian people but by giving them ample opportunity to reconsider. By contrast, the EU’s diplomatic embargo seems calculated to turn Austria into a pariah state, a policy that may give some temporary satisfaction to the cosmopolitan defenders of a united Europe but is likely to backfire in the end.



It should be recalled that Austria has made considerable progress over the past decade in joining what might be called the historical consensus of Europe. Most of official Austria has by now abandoned the myth that the country was the first victim of Nazism, and recent governments have begun to make amends for the collective amnesia that had previously gripped the nation. The country has formally recognized its complicity in the Holocaust, and has assisted in the restitution of Jewish property and Jewish-owned works of art. These are noteworthy achievements.

Even the agitations of the Freedom party must strike an impartial observer as notably less violent than those of most radical-Right or populist-nationalist movements in Europe, including especially the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, with whom Haider is often compared. Not only are there no fascist militias in the streets of Vienna, or Nazi troglodytes emerging from their Alpine hiding places to take the Hofburg by storm, at the level of street agitation it is currently the Left that is far more vociferous in Austria than the Right. Already in early February, riot police and water cannons were required to deal with the thousands of jeering protestors, some of them carrying portraits of Che Guevara, shouting “shame, shame” and “resist, resist” upon the formation of the new Austrian government; so ugly was the mood of the crowd that the new cabinet chose not to walk the thirty yards from the president’s office to the chancellery but took a tunnel to avoid the missiles and taunts. Since then, in addition to the mass demonstration of 200,000 Austrians on February 19, protests have become an almost daily occurrence in Vienna.

This, too—the mindless sloganeering of an infantile Left that is eternally replaying the Spanish civil war or other mythic scenarios of “antifascist” resistance—is another sign of the vacuum of values in contemporary Europe, and in its own way as laden with troubling portent as is the resurgent psychology of nationalist resentment on which Haider and others like him thrive. It would be hard to conceive a more effective means of strengthening both these polarizing tendencies than the nakedly bullying tactics adopted by the European Union in instituting sanctions against Austria.

That country assuredly has its own unfinished work of self-examination to do, in which a certain degree of outside pressure can be helpful and even cathartic. But until Europe rethinks the balance between its globalist ambitions and the democratic choices of its member states, allows people the elementary right to be judged according to their deeds, and above all ceases its grim determination to stamp out national feeling of any kind, we are in for only more instances of the Haider phenomenon, and worse.


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