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Tale from the Vienna Woods

On February 4, the day Austria’s controversial new government was sworn in, a spokesman for the Portuguese government was interviewed on BBCRadio. What, he was asked, is the purpose of sanctions imposed on Austria by its EUpartners? To express our displeasure at the presence in government of Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party, he replied. “So you are seeking a change in government in Vienna?” pursued the interviewer. Oh no, came the reply, that is an internal Austrian affair. “Has the Austrian government proposed actions of which the other EUstates disapprove?” he was asked. No, he responded, but we are keeping a vigilant watch on their behavior. At what point, asked the interviewer, will you be reassured and feel it appropriate to relax the sanctions? Citing the words of Portuguese Premier Antonio Gutteres the previous day, his spokesman concluded the interview by stating that “we shall maintain measures as long as the situation continues.”

The confused and unprecedented scene in Europe today is nicely captured in this exchange. On behalf of Austria’s fourteen partners in the Union, Portugal (in the revolving chair of the EU for the first half of this year) announced on January 31 that the presence in government of Haider’s party would set off immediate sanctions: the suspension of normal country-to-country links with Austria, the reduction of contact with Austria’s ambassadors to a minimum, and the withholding of support for Austrian candidates to international posts. No one knows when or why the sanctions will be lifted; presumably when Haider’s party leaves office, but this cannot be stated publicly since it would constitute direct interference in another country’s domestic affairs.

Meanwhile mere good intentions will not suffice. In Brussels on February 14, Benita Ferrero-Waldner—Austria’s foreign minister and a member of the conservative People’s Party—pleaded for a less rigid approach and emphasized her government’s democratic credentials and its many statements of humanitarian intent. The Portuguese foreign minister waved her aside; the statements emanating from Vienna constituted “overbidding,” he declared. If the Austrians say nothing about minority rights and European values, they arouse suspicion. If they say too much, they are “overbidding.” Heads we win, tails you lose.

Because Austria has broken no EU rules, sanctions are “bilateral”: that is to say that even though all the member states apply them, the Union itself has no formal quarrel with Vienna and will continue to function normally while its individual members penalize Austria in their separate dealings with her. Not every country is happy about this Alice-in-Wonderland situation. France, Belgium, and Portugal have been in the forefront of the effort to isolate Austria. But others, notably Denmark and the UK, have grumbled about being “bounced” into a collective position without any discussion or procedures. Italy, too, has been more circumspect; and when Gerhard Schroeder, the German chancellor, warned Italy in an interview on February 17 in Corriere della Sera that it might incur similar ostracism should the neofascist National Alliance (AN) enter a government, the Italian prime minister Massimo D’Alema (leader of the former Communist Party and no friend of the far right) instructed his embassy in Berlin to “make diplomatic representations” to the German chancellery.

There is more than a hint of hypocrisy in the overreaction to developments in Vienna. Predictably, there have been petitions in Paris, signed by well-known writers and artists who have proudly announced their refusal to benefit in the future from state-sponsored cultural largesse in Vienna. The frisson of risk-free excitement aroused by the opportunity to score moral points off foreign “fascists” has proven irresistible. Few have stopped to note that the public declaration that Austrian President Thomas Klestil had the new government sign contains some interesting points—notably the assumption of Austrian collective responsibility for “the monstrous crimes of the national-socialist regime” and “for the past actions of all Austrians, good and bad alike.” Until Jacques Chirac put out a similar statement about Vichy in 1995, French governments had resolutely refused any such responsibility for past crimes—François Mitterrand, the Socialist president of France for fourteen years, and a former Vichy official, made a particular point of denying it again and again.

It was the same Mitterrand who manipulated the French electoral system to engineer the parliamentary success (and thus national visibility) of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, with the goal of dividing and weakening France’s mainstream conservative parties. Thus when François Hollande, a spokesman for the French Socialists, expresses the “très vive émotion” of his party at the rise of Jörg Haider, it is hard to take his distress very seriously. And as French and other commentators fall over one another to castigate Austria as a nasty little amnesiac Alpine redoubt full of unreconstructed neo-Nazi xenophobes, they sometimes forget that from the Hungarian revolution of 1956 to the Balkan wars of today, Austria has had a better record of welcoming and succoring refugees than most of those Western democracies now casting her into the outer darkness. Moreover, it wasn’t an Austrian chancellor who conducted an American president on a tour of SSgraves in May 1985.

But the Austrians do have a problem. The Freedom Party (or FPÖ) is now an equal partner in their government, thanks to the political ambitions of Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of the conservative People’s Party and head of the new government. And the Freedom Party is led by Jörg Haider. Haider’s prejudices are no secret and he has left a lengthy paper trail of provocative and despicable pronouncements. He and his party have been steadily increasing their support among Austrian voters for the past decade: the present crisis was foreseeable and long predicted.1 Most recently Haider has reminded German television viewers of his belief that if Jews receive reparations for their sufferings under Nazism, then Germans expelled from postwar Czechoslovakia and former Austrian prisoners of war in the Soviet Union should be similarly recompensed. As he has more than once insisted, they are all victims of comparable crimes. (They are not remotely comparable; but it is worth recalling for the record that it was Václav Havel who declared a few years ago that the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II entailed the vengeful and indefensible mistreatment of many thousands of “innocent people, especially including women and children.”)

Haider is not in the Austrian government (though he will be a member of a “coalition coordinating committee” that will meet once a month). But his language, his comparison of Churchill and Hitler as war criminals, his obsession with the Überfremdung (“over-foreignerization”) of Austria, and his erstwhile praise for the “honorable” veterans of the Waffen-SS all place him beyond the pale for many Austrians. He seems to believe what he is saying when he warns that the Austrian welfare state coddles immigrants and encourages them to have large families, leading to the “degeneration” of the Austrian nation.2 He is an echo and a spokesman for all that is amiss in the dark underside of Austrian political culture.

However, we are not in 1933; the Freedom Party is not a Nazi movement and Haider is not Hitler. He is not even Le Pen, a point he has chosen to emphasize—he prefers to identify with Tony Blair and plays up his image as a modernizer, a national-populist of the liberal, free-market persuasion. This may be disingenuous, but it is not wholly absurd. The Freedom Party is the leading party in Austria among people under thirty (and the FPÖ ministers are the youngest ever). In a country with a higher per-capita income than Germany or France, and the lowest youth unemployment in Europe (6.6 percent of those aged eighteen to twenty-five are without work, against a European average of 20 percent), Haider is an unhealthy byproduct not of crisis but of change. To understand why requires a glance at the curious and distinctive Austrian situation.

Austria has lived for forty years in a sort of time warp. It was for many years sheltered not only from its own troubled past but also from the transformations that have shaken up the rest of Western Europe. From the departure of the Allied occupation troops through the mid-1990s, Austria was neutral and unattached. It has only just joined the EU, aligned itself with NATO, and opened its frontiers and its economy to the winds of globalization. The rest of Western Europe has had four decades in which to learn how to look at its past and at the changing present. Austria is now catching up.

Thus Haider emphasizes his own youth—as he told Der Spiegel last month, “I am a child of postwar Austria. Why should I take upon myself the problems of the past?”—but his rhetoric and his appeal are curiously redolent of an earlier time. When Haider speaks of the “honorable men” of the Nazi armies who “did their duty” on the eastern front, we recoil today in disgust. But that is just how Konrad Adenauer spoke of those same men back in March 1946; and nothing that Haider says—and certainly not the equivalence he finds in the suffering of Jews and German expellees, or Wehrmacht prisoners of war—would have been unusual in public discussions of these subjects in Germany during the 1950s.

Moreover, Austria has dwelled in a limbo not just of time but of space. The country was politically free, thanks to a happy accident of cold war dynamics and timing; but in certain other respects it resembled the imprisoned nations to its east, with whom it shares a long history. For most of the postwar era Austria has been a “party-state,” where money, jobs, and power are apportioned from above in accordance with party affiliation. Of course this arrangement encompassed two parties—the Socialists and the People’s Party—and that makes a difference. But life in Austria—nationalized, state-directed, regulated, con-trolled, secure, conformist, and sometimes stifling—actually approximated the very ideal to which the “real, existing socialism” of the Communist bloc paid lip service.

The collapse of the Austrian party-state—as citizens abandon the ruling parties and vote for movements outside the old system, like the Greens or the Freedom Party—thus resembles in a curious way the unraveling of more authoritarian regimes to its east. And it is therefore not by chance that in his rhetoric and his appeal Haider sometimes echoes populist demagogues in Hungary—in the Justice and Life Party, for example, or even among the representatives of the Smallholders’ Party, currently in government. His paranoia, his nostalgia, and his promise to break liberal taboos and tell “the truth about the past” should also be familiar to students of Polish nationalism or contemporary national-populism in the Balkans.

But Austria is being transformed by the unraveling of the post-World War II settlement in Western Europe as well. And for that reason Western commentators might do well to study the beam in their own eye instead of being hypnotized by the mote in Jörg Haider’s mesmerizing glare. In most of the member states of the European Union a hard core ranging from 12 to 18 percent of the electorate harbors resentful, xenophobic sentiments, particularly against immigrants, that would translate into votes for a local version of Haider were one available. Where traditional conservatives have maintained their organizations and their legitimacy, or where the electoral system puts third parties at a disadvantage, these people pose no threat at present. But the classic political right is collapsing all over Western Europe, in Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Belgium as well as Austria. Following the demise of communism and the rise of post-ideological umbrella parties of the center-left, the European conservative parties have been undermined by corruption, clientelism, and a loss of self-confidence.

Anyone genuinely concerned with the rise of Austria’s Freedom Party should thus be looking rather harder at the broader European picture. That is why the strident international reaction to events in Vienna is so misdirected.3 To be sure, there is much to be said for building a new Europe around commonly held values and norms, and excoriating those who scorn them. It certainly beats constructing a continent around a currency. And the revolt against Haider has galvanized strong protests in Vienna itself—the first real sign of life in Austrian public affairs since the early Thirties. In Austria as in Eastern Europe, the idea of Europe and “European values” is still effective in modifying behavior and constraining extremism.

But the European Union has institutions and treaties designed to serve this purpose. If an Austrian government were to abuse its citizens or refuse to go along with plans to expand the Union to the east, Article 7 of the Treaty of Amsterdam could rapidly be invoked to expel it from the Union. The Council of Europe regularly assesses its members’ adherence to conventions on the protection of minority and other rights—conventions that Austria has signed and to which it has always conformed. The bilateral sanctions imposed on Austria imply not a strong and united European front against renascent fascism but rather a collective lack of confidence in the EU’s own mechanisms and rules of governance.

Meanwhile, the new Austrian government doesn’t even have a particularly radical program; 80 percent of its proposals, mostly concerning budget cuts and the loosening of employment regulations, had already been agreed on in the unsuccessful negotiations between Schüssel and the Socialists. It is being attacked in advance less for what it might do than for the rhetoric of one of its constituent parties. That rhetoric is ugly, but Haider and his acolytes have broken no laws (whether in Vienna or Brussels). His Austrian opponents must face Haider and deal with him. But it hardly seems prudent for the governments of Europe to be seen to penalize from afar what amounts to the expression of opinion.

For the European reaction fuels a longstanding charge by Haider and would-be Haiderites everywhere: that the idea of a united Europe is a standing threat to political autonomy and to the expression of dissenting opinion or national interest. There, they assert, the “democratic deficit” lies revealed: unelected officials in a far-flung bureaucracy are punishing citizens of another state for their freely expressed political choices, and imposing sanctions unless they conform to foreign requirements. Who, they ask, will protect you against “them” before it is too late? We shall be hearing more in this vein from Eastern Europe once the EUrequirements for the new applicants begin to bite.

Like most demagogues, Jörg Haider has no coherent program of his own, but depends upon his opponents to behave in ways which, judo-like, he can turn to advantage. He delights in presenting himself as a fox in the European henhouse; and the current fuss, replete with squawks of disapproval and the fluttering of offended sensibilities, admirably serves his ends. A little less moral grandstanding, and rather more attention to the collateral costs of building the new European House, would be a better response to the crisis in Vienna. Otherwise we shall be hearing more from Mr. Haider—and not just from him.

  1. 1

    See my “Austria and the Ghost of the New Europe,” The New York Review, February 15, 1996.

  2. 2

    With a birthrate of 1.3 children per woman, Austria—like much of Western Europe—would be facing a rapidly declining population and future labor force were it not for a much-needed infusion of immigrants, who typically do the low-paid and unpleasant work that Austrians would prefer to avoid.

  3. 3

    On February 16 Haider was refused entrance to the Holocaust Museum in Montreal. This defies understanding—in 1945 Eisenhower was forcing Germans to visit the liberated concentration camps. If Holocaust museums have any useful function it is surely to remind people like Haider of what they might rather forget—or never knew. Whatever his motives in being seen there, he should be welcomed in every Holocaust museum in the world.

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