Shadows on the Danube

The Struggle for a Democratic Austria: Bruno Kreisky on Peace and Social Justice

edited by Matthew Paul Berg, in collaboration with Jill Lewis and Oliver Rathkolb; translated from the German by Helen Atkins and Matthew Paul Berg; with a preface by John Kenneth Galbraith
Berghahn, 565 pp., $69.95

Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere [Light and Shadows of a Career]

Christa Zöchling
Vienna: Molden Verlag, 222 pp., ÖS298


Last summer, the European Court of Human Rights convened a special three-man panel led by Martti Ahtisaari, Finland’s former president, and the chief negotiator of the United Nations cease-fire in Kosovo. The panel’s expressed purpose was to travel to Austria and report on the “government’s commitment to the common European Values” and on “the evolution of the political nature of the FPÖ,” or Freedom Party, Austria’s controversial right-wing party and, since February 2000, the junior coalition partner in the Austrian federal government. Before the new government could be sworn in, the members of the European Union responded by imposing bilateral sanctions against Austria, a member of the EU since 1995.

In practice, the sanctions were little more than a prolonged official snub; but the organized snubbing of a member state turned out to be socially awkward (group photos were avoided at conferences, hands went unshaken), and legally questionable. The real if unexpressed purpose of the panel (which Austrians immediately, and even officially, referred to as “the three wise men”) was to allow the European Union to justify the sanctions, or to justify getting rid of them.1

In their final report, issued in September, the three wise men got to have their torte and eat it too. Austria’s new government was, in their view, indeed “committed to the common European values” (which were vehemently invoked after being loosely defined); but the panel also condemned the Freedom Party—personified, in world and Austrian opinion, by Jörg Haider, its former longtime leader—for having “exploited and enforced xenophobic sentiments.” The report singled out for criticism the Freedom Party’s justice minister, a Roy Cohn– like character named Dieter Böhmdorfer, Haider’s personal lawyer, who is best known in Austria for representing Haider in his countless defamation suits.2

Haider has spent nearly twenty years coming up with outrageous defenses of or equivocations about the crimes of the Third Reich—he has, for example, praised what he calls Hitler’s “proper employment policy,” insisted on calling a convicted war criminal “Austria’s last prisoner of war,” and substituted the term “punishment camp” for extermination camp—but he is ready to sue anyone who claims he has been sympathetic to the Nazi regime. In May, at a special press conference, with Böhmdorfer at his side, Haider went a step further and called for the prosecution of “disloyal” politicians, in particular the Socialist opposition leader, Alfred Gusenbauer, and the Austrian head of state, President Thomas Klestil, who were accused of not upholding national interests while discussing the Austrian crisis with other EU leaders; or, as Haider put it, of “drinking champagne with Austria’s enemies.” Böhmdorfer let it be known that Haider’s proposal was “worth following up.”

The EU panel’s report called for, and directly led to, the lifting of sanctions (which the panel also praised for having “heightened awareness of the importance of the common European Values”); and it condemned Böhmdorfer’s attempts to intimidate political opponents, among other tactics, as being out of line with “the constitutional structure of the European Union.” Indeed the report was noticeably harsher in its treatment of Böhmdorfer than of Haider, who gave up the party leadership a matter of weeks after the coalition was formed, but is still assumed to be calling the shots from the southern province of Ca-rinthia, where he is two years into his second term as governor. (Haider served a previous term some ten years ago, but was forced to step down after his initial remarks about the accomplishments of the Nazis’ “employment policy,” which he went on to defend, on several occasions, as “historical fact.” In fact, Hitler eventually solved the unemployment problem in Germany, in large part, by preparing German society for war; and, of course, he replaced Germany’s workforce with slave labor.)

The three wise men suggested, in all but words, that Böhmdorfer resign; but their report was greeted as a vindication by the Austrian government. Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel—leader of the conservative People’s Party, and the architect of the coalition that gave his party the chancellorship for the first time in thirty years—took party leaders on a pilgrimage to the old Habsburg shrine of Mariazell, where they thanked the Virgin Mary for ending the sanctions. (The last party pilgrimage was in 1950, to thank the Virgin for ending World War II.)

A few weeks later, in early October, a scandal broke when a Freedom Party functionary named Josef Kleindienst published a book claiming that the FPÖ has for years been illegally acquiring information about political opponents, real and imagined, from a network of paid police informers. The Austrian press delved into the matter—dubbed “the informer affair”—and were able to largely substantiate Kleindienst’s version of events.

Haider and other FPÖ candidates were using the information to try to discredit a range of public fig-ures and to liven up their campaign speeches with anecdotes about the criminal records of foreigners. Some of the stolen information was even offered by Böhmdorfer as evidence in Haider’s defamation suits. As the three wise men had implied, the FPÖ’s rhetoric was not only a way of getting votes, but the propaganda of a political organization drawn to using anti-democratic methods. A special commission was set up, overseen by the interior minister, People’s Party member Ernst Strasser (or “Judas,” as the FPÖ began to call him). By November Haider and many of the leading members of his party were under investigation for abuse of office and other crimes.

In February Austrian state prosecutors announced that Haider would not be indicted. Damaging evidence—including an incident in 1995, when Haider made a speech in parliament in which he bragged about possessing the police files of three foreigners—turned out to be inadmissible. (The statute of limitations on the charges had been exceeded.) But the scandal is by no means over. In the middle of March, as I write, it still seems likely that the Freedom Party’s Vienna chief, Hilmar Kabas, and party secretary Michael Kreissl will be indicted. Meanwhile, Kleindienst and Austrian publications have been the target of several defamation suits regarding the informer affair; and Haider and other FPÖ members have yet to win one.

Böhmdorfer has had to recuse himself from the investigations, and, for a while, was thought to be under investigation himself. It still seems possible that, for appearance’s sake, he might have to step down either for his part in the informer affair or, as was recently documented, for funneling illegal cash contributions to the FPÖ through his law office. (Numerous Austrian lawyers and judges have spoken out against him.) If he resigns, he would be the fourth FPÖ minister, and the second FPÖ justice minister, to do so during the last year.

Michael Krüger, Böhmdorfer’s predecessor, who once defended Haider’s use of the phrase “punishment camp” (Straflager) by reading dictionary entries into the parliamentary record, was forced out after only a few weeks in office. The official reason for his resignation, according to Susanne Riess-Passer, the vice-chancellor and sports minister, and Haider’s chosen successor as party leader, was a nervous breakdown. The unofficial reason was that he wasn’t up to the job, like the recently departed, dramatically underqualified social affairs minister, Elizabeth Sickl, who went through five press secretaries in eight months, and responded to critics with remarks like “God grants abilities to those who pray to him.” She has been replaced, ridiculously, by a veterinarian named Herbert Haupt, who as social affairs minister also holds the women’s affairs portfolio, making him Austria’s first Herr Frauenminister. The state secretary in charge of tourism, Marris Rossman, made a fool of herself on national television when she insisted that Austria’s new notoriety was actually helpful because in the future tourists wouldn’t confuse Austria with Australia. Months before the informer affair broke, the Freedom Party had already turned into something of a national joke.

Haider led his party from barely 5 percent of the vote in 1986, when he assumed the leadership, to over 27 percent in elections in October 1999, just ahead of the People’s Party, and only a few percentage points behind the Socialists, who have been winning national elections since 1970. For a while in the winter of 2000, the FPÖ was the most popular party in the country. A decisive number of voters were more attracted to Haider’s promise to break the hold of the two main parties than to his extremist rantings; but after less than a year in power the FPÖ has lost nearly a third of its onetime support. Indeed, at the height of the informer affair, most Austrians were ready to see Haider—whose motley party is proving less dangerous to the European democratic order than to itself—leave politics for good.3


While waiting for the three wise men to make up their minds, Austrians indulged in some nostalgia last summer by commemorating the tenth anniversary of the death of Bruno Kreisky, the supreme political figure and voice of Austrian democracy. Kreisky, one of postwar Europe’s leading statesmen, served as chancellor between 1970 and 1983; and after he retired from politics he published three lively volumes of memoirs.4 The first two of these volumes, ending with his election as chancellor, have been abridged and published as a single, well-translated volume, called The Struggle for a Democratic Austria. The book can be read as a firsthand account of twentieth-century Europe, taking us from the funeral of Franz Joseph in 1916, when Kreisky was five (“The funeral procession came at last…; it was like a demonstration of all-enveloping blackness”), to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev. The English-language edition is superbly annotated, and will also help readers unfamiliar with Austria to understand how the country got into its present predicament.

Austria has what must be called an antidemocratic tradition—upheld, in many cases, by its democratically elected officials. After the revolutions of 1848, the Habsburgs were restored to absolute rule, until the 1860s, when parliaments were set up in the two halves of the new Dual Monarchy; in the Austrian half, a confident but fragile liberal order disappeared in a generation. Constitutional democracy was never really feasible in the empire, where Italians, Czechs, and other subjugated minorities were not inclined to distinguish between having a measure of participation in government and gaining outright separation from the monarchy. By World War I, Vienna’s parliament had degenerated into a mock-parliament in which debate, not to mention the passing of laws, had become impossible. In one of the more famous acts of obstruction, Czech nationalists took to filibustering with musical instruments.5

The ruling German-speaking minority was divided by its own kind of ethnic politics, represented by three mass political groupings that are still recognizable today. The Christian Social Party was a Church-affiliated movement founded by Vienna’s turn-of-the-century mayor, Karl Lueger, who combined a bullying charisma with anti-Semitism and sponsorship of a series of public works projects. The Pan-German nationalists were organized and, for a time, led by Georg von Schönerer, who was anti-Habsburg, anticapitalist, anticlerical, and above all anti-Semitic. The Jewish-led Social Democratic Party was dominated by revisionist Marxists, many of whom, while remaining internationally minded, gave up the prospect of violent revolution, and became, by default, custodians of what Carl Schorske calls the “rationalist” rhetoric of Austrian liberalism.

After the collapse of the empire, the Christian Social Party became the voice of Austria’s rural Catholic majority and of clerical and monarchist resentment. Vienna, swelling with refugees and cut off from the empire’s industrial and agricultural heartland, was the stronghold of the Social Democrats, who tried to turn “Red Vienna” into a kind of municipal Soviet Republic. The Pan-Germanists began drifting over to the latest German import, National Socialism (itself a onetime import from German-speaking Bohemia). Parties maintained private militias. The first Austrian Republic sank back into an almost pre-modern economic condition, and was more or less ungovernable.

By the late 1920s, the Austrian Christian Social chancellor, the prelate Ignaz Seipel, talked about a “correctly conceived” democracy, by which he seemed to mean an ecclesiastical dictatorship. In 1933, another Christian Social chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, simply abolished Austria’s constitution and set up an openly fascist “estates state” administered through a series of consultative “chambers.” Dollfuss, who renamed his party the Vaterland Front, gave Austria a swastikalike emblem (the Krückenkreuz), a motto (“Austria Awake!”), and outlawed opposition (in 1934 his troops murderously occupied the Karl-Marx-Hof, a Socialist showpiece of worker housing, which had become a workers’ fortress). The regime set up detention centers in which both Marxists and Austrian Nazis were imprisoned until the spring of 1938 when the Nazis marched in and threw the clerical fascists into prison with the Marxists.

Bruno Kreisky, a young Social Democratic activist and law student (he had given up studying medicine after Otto Bauer, the house intellectual of Austro-Marxism, told him “the Party needs good lawyers”), was arrested in 1936 and convicted of high treason. Prison would transform Kreisky into an astute politician, and an inspired democrat. He writes, in a remarkable, if typically self-regarding, passage:

If I can now claim to have a better understanding of the history of Austria in the 1920s and 1930s than some other people, this is not only because I had ample time to read in prison, but more particularly because through many of my fellow-inmates I was able to learn first hand about people and their circumstances and motives. No amount of reading could have taught me as much. First, Communists, Social Democrats, and Nazis arrested by the clerico-fascist regime, then Communists, Social Democrats, and clerico-fascists arrested by the Nazis; in no other country in the world would, I imagine, have such contrasting political groups been imprisoned at the same time and for years on end.

As a result, I had ample opportunity to see things through the eyes of my political opponents and to gain an understanding of their mentality. Prominent figures and insignificant fellow-travelers, fanatics, and people who had very little idea why they had been locked up, reprehensible Communists and likable Nazis—I talked to them all, and what interested me in every case was the same question: what had led them into politics? What did they think of us, the Social Democrats? What were the hopes that motivated them?

The Nazis let Kreisky out of prison on the condition that he leave the country. He went to Sweden, where he was impressed by the achievements of Swedish social democracy and became a friend of his fellow exile Willy Brandt and of Olof Palme, whom he praises as the genius of the Swedish left. After the war, Kreisky returned home and became Austria’s most influential diplomat. By the 1960s, he was the undisputed leader of Austria’s postwar social democratic Socialist Party, and the vigorous advocate of a new, prosperous, neutral Austria, which hoped to remind the world of Sweden or Switzerland, rather than of Germany and Hungary.

In 1945, most Austrians had been either Nazis or Vaterland Front supporters, or both; and there was a small, influential Communist Party. Kreisky, stubbornly optimistic, believed that “people, grown wiser through experience, will find their way to democracy.” He was amiable toward, yet skeptical of, the postwar People’s Party, whose leadership was made up of Vaterland Front officials. Like many other Austrian Socialists, Kreisky blamed the Dollfuss regime for the subsequent popularity of the Nazi regime: once the constitution had been abrogated, the argument went, anything was possible. He ended up by recruiting former rank-and-file Nazis, whom he viewed as new democrats and incipient Socialists.

Kreisky’s optimism was also based on a calculation. For the first few decades after the war, the People’s Party was Austria’s dominant party; its leaders controlled the chancellery, first in a coalition, then briefly in an outright majority. There had been over a half-million Austrian Nazis, and even in the 1970s Kreisky couldn’t have come to power without them. Kreisky, who was Jewish and had lost many of his relatives in the camps, managed to put aside thinking about the question of Nazi crimes. Looking back, he wrote, more dismissively than hopefully: “Coming to terms with the past can only become a reality for the descendants, for the next generation.”

In 1945 the Socialists and the People’s Party vowed to work together in a “grand coalition”; and they turned Austria’s republic into what political scientists call a “corporative” state, in which the two main political parties were practically indistinguishable from the government itself. The old Vaterland Front chambers were remade into party-controlled agencies that determined the content and course of legislation; in turn, the Austrian parliament made a practice of passing bills unanimously. Control of government ministries and the state broadcasting company was divided between the two parties and recalibrated according to the results of the last election. Austrian society itself was also quickly divided up by party affiliation. There were Socialist banks and People’s Party banks, each lending money to their counterparts in the mostly state-run industries. Newspapers served as party organs. (For nearly thirty years, the Austrian Chamber of Commerce, which is closely linked to the People’s Party, had a controlling interest in Die Presse, Austria’s would-be paper of record.) Even janitors, or so the joke goes, needed a party card to get a job.

The two main parties looked back on the 1930s as a time of civil war; and their cooperative, if also collusive, relationship was a way to forgo violent conflicts of ideology. The Proporz, as Austrians generally call this arrangement for sharing power, provided the country almost immediately with political and economic security. In his brief, appreciative introduction to The Struggle for a Democratic Austria, John Kenneth Galbraith calls Austria’s “Social Market Policy”—with its combination of social services, union power, and selective market competition—“the most successful of all postwar economic designs.”

But the system also created frustration and lethargy among the voters, who were living in a society that was comparatively democratic but still seemed to lack political choices, with the two parties continuing to dole out jobs, privileges, and payoffs. Another source of unease was the widespread but silent integration into public life of former Nazi Party members, who officially were being excluded. Austria had a higher rate of Nazi Party membership than Germany, and Austrians had a major part in carrying out the Final Solution. But the country was largely absolved from responsibility, or so it seemed, by a 1943 Allied declaration that called Austria the “first victim” of Nazi aggression. Postwar denazification was a highly selective and cynical exercise; in practice Nazis were given new identities along with their new party cards. Unlike West Germany, Austria has never developed a way to think about, or until quite recently, even to discuss, its Nazi past.6

To its critics, the postwar era in Austria was marked by political cronyism, and by the fact that, before the end of World War II, a large part of the country’s financial and intellectual elite had been driven out or murdered. A small group of Austrian writers and artists seized upon the hypocrisy and mediocrity of the period and attacked their society with a vengeance that bordered on madness. It is now fashionable to refer to the ingenious, black-on-black world of Thomas Bernhard or to the Viennese “Actionists” (pioneers of performance art, who created deranged multimedia depictions of tyranny and torture) as dispatches from the real postwar Austria. Kreisky’s book has a very different tone; he reminds us of Austria’s accomplishments in the 1950s and 1960s, when the country had to start from scratch and, within a generation, gave its citizens a stable society for the first time in living memory. Kreisky understood that Austrian democracy has had a “slow, laborious development,” and, even in the 1980s, he described it as a “process of political education [that] is still not complete.”

Bruno Kreisky readily cultivated good relations with his onetime enemies, but not with people like himself. He came from the now mythic world of upper-middle-class Viennese Jews (his mother, a member of the Felix family, could be described as a pickle heiress), who were still viewed as outsiders, no matter how hard they tried to assimilate, and no matter what they actually achieved. Viennese history is top-heavy with expressions of Jewish ambivalence, if not outright self-hatred; and Kreisky contributed more than his share. He blithely claims that “in the course of my life I have had very few friends who were of the Jewish faith.” And he can come up with an acrobatic statement like: “Those people who constantly speak of my ‘Jewish self-hatred’ forget that I very deliberately acknowledge my Jewish descent and regard it as a significant part of the structure of my personality.” Kreisky thought of himself as an “agnostic,” and an “anti-Zionist.” (Kreisky and Golda Meir apparently couldn’t stand each other; and in one of the book’s many helpful and critical notes, the editors use competing memoir excerpts to let the two duel over Meir’s charge that during a state meeting in Vienna Kreisky refused to offer her a glass of water.) These anti-Zionist credentials made Kreisky the West’s leading representative in the Arab world. As chancellor, Kreisky maintained strong and certainly diplomatically useful relations with Egypt, and with the then-outlawed Palestine Liberation Organization; indeed he met, clandestinely, with Yasser Arafat as early as 1974. He used his subsequent standing as a statesman to remake Vienna from a graceful backwater into a hub of international diplomacy, and to help hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews pass through Austria on their way to Israel.

Kreisky may not have seen himself as Jewish but just about everyone else did. With his contradictions and obfuscations and refined tastes, he sometimes seemed the last of a species, the Jewish Grossbürger. His book conveys the erudite charm for which he was well known. “Recently I have taken to quoting some lines of Heine,” he tells us, “to characterize the way in which the Western Industrial countries chase after orders from Libya while simultaneously refusing to receive Gaddafi.” He gave Austrians a confident national identity, in part by embodying the neglected legacy of Austria’s sophisticated Jews.

Last summer, during the tenth anniversary of Kreisky’s death, the Austrian journalist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, a descendant of the Habsburg aristocracy, wrote:

The most important thing about the Kreisky era for me and many of my generation was that it provided us with a new image of Austria. When Kreisky said “Austrian,” Musil and Schnitzler came to mind.

Yet Kreisky’s propensity for anti-Jewish rhetoric (“If Jews exist then they are a wretched people,” “I am still allergic to the label ‘Jew’”) and his spurious, demonizing attacks on Simon Wiesenthal (who was given to publicizing the Nazi credentials of some of Kreisky’s political allies) coarsened public life, prefiguring a further coarsening during the Waldheim affair and the even more flagrant coarsening of the Haider era.

Austrians widely consider Kreisky their greatest chancellor, but his legacy is a mixed one. He modernized the Austrian economy, and with it Austrian society; but his Keynesian policies have proven, as in Sweden, impossible to sustain, leaving Austria with Northern Europe’s largest percapita national debt. As a politician, Kreisky was too successful for his own, and Austria’s, good. The parliamentary majority he won for his party in the 1970s pulled the country out of the torpor of coalition politics; but he stayed on too long, and his personal popularity turned his party into a dynasty. Looking back on his resigna-tion in 1983, he wrote, “After a certain length of time there must be a change, not of party but of personalities.” This is wrongheadead and unconvincing. He had become the emperor of his hard-won democracy; and his absence, like his presence, was overwhelming. In Kreisky postwar Austrians got their lone larger-than-life figure, and no one could come out from under his shadow. Indeed, until Jörg Haider, no one even tried.


Under Haider, the FPÖ has been in the odd but unmistakable position of serving both as Austria’s reform party, running, in election after election, against the established privileges of the two main parties, and as the local version of a European far-right party, rehabilitating and revising pre-1945 anti-Semitic rhetoric to complain about postcolonial immigration from poor countries. In their successful 1999 national campaign, FPÖ posters carried the Goebbels slogan STOP DER ÜBERFREMDUNG!, which literally means “stop the overwhelming by foreign elements,” but which also meant, in effect, STOP THE PROPORZ!7

There is a critical—and, outside Austria, a rarely mentioned—difference between the Freedom Party and, say, France’s Front National or Belgium’s Vlaams Blok. The Freedom Party is a concerted attempt to reassemble a historic constituency (rather than create a largely new one, as in France, or radicalize an old one, as in Belgium). The Pan-German nationalist “camp” (as Austrians say) corresponds to an Austro-German political identity, which predated, was subsumed by, and has survived the Nazi Party, and which is now fairly indistinguishable from the FPÖ. The leading members of the Freedom Party come largely from what are called, politely, deutschnational families; and while the party has won working-class support away from the Socialists, its core voters come from those regions—Carinthia, parts of Upper Austria and Styria, Vienna’s outer suburbs—that were were strongholds of Pan-Germanist parties and later of the Nazis. “Not liberal, not clerical, but national,” was a slogan coined by the Pan-German leader Georg von Schönerer in the 1870s; with some slight adjustments, it could have been a slogan of Hitler’s, and of Haider’s.

The Freedom Party traces its direct origins back to 1948, when Austrian Nazis, whom the Allies had disenfranchised after the war, were about to vote in their first postwar national election. A party calling itself the League of Independents was founded in order to grant a political identity to former Nazis unwilling, or unable, to convert themselves into Socialists or Catholic conservatives. In 1956, the league regrouped and renamed itself the Freedom Party, under the leadership of Anton Reithaller, who had been the agriculture minister in Austria’s 1938 Anschluss cabinet.

Reithaller was succeeded in 1959 by Friedrich Peter, another former Nazi. Peter never denied having served in the Waffen SS. But the truth about his war record only came out near the end of his tenure as party leader, in the mid-1970s, when Simon Wiesenthal revealed that Peter had been a decorated troop commander in a notorious SS infantry brigade responsible for over 20,000 civilian deaths on the eastern front, including organized mass shootings of Jews.8

By the time of the controversy, Peter had developed a reputation as something of a moderate. He tried to deemphasize the FPÖ’s so-called nationalist elements in favor of liberal ones. Peter eventually became a protégé of Kreisky’s. In 1983, the Socialists lost their absolute majority; Kreisky stepped down, and the FPÖ was formally brought into the government. In 1986, the young and handsome Jörg Haider, sponsored by the most extreme members of the Freedom Party (among them the Carinthian psychiatrist and wartime racial ideologist Otto Scrinzi, who had passed his parliament seat on to Haider in 1979), took over the FPÖ in what was known simply as a putsch, and began to purge it of Friedrich Peter’s influences. On his way to the leadership, Haider called attention to himself with remarks like “The FPÖ is not a successor organization of the National Socialist Party. If it were, it would have an absolute majority.”9

In response, the Socialists were forced back into a postwar-style coalition with the People’s Party, marked, this time, by a lack of cooperation between the two, and an inability to address problems inherent in reforming Austria’s aging welfare state. The coalition was meant to isolate Haider, but its main result was to increase his popularity.

Haider’s public performances have saddened, outraged, exhausted, and (I use the word advisedly) amused Austrians. Haiderisms range from the demagogic (“There are 300,000 unemployed Austrians and 300,000 legal foreigners in Austria”) to the disgusting (he described the two main parties as “red and black body lice that should be combated with cyanide”). Sometimes he is merely, and perhaps knowingly, absurd. For example, when claiming that Turkish parents object to crucifixes in Austrian classrooms, Haider invoked the Ottoman sieges of Vienna, insisting, “We didn’t fight the Turkish wars for this.” He can also make seemingly contrite statements. Last fall, he told The Washington Post: “I know I have hurt a lot of feelings of people who have passed or had family members pass through that experience.” (He meant the Holocaust.) “I have hurt the feelings of these people. I regret, and I apologize for that.” A few days before, an Austrian interviewer asked him if he would consider apologizing for his previous remarks; “I will never apologize,” he answered.

In Joseph Roth’s novel The Emperor’s Tomb, a Polish aristocrat says ruefully that in Imperial Austria “only the obvious is considered strange.” The remark’s logic is still useful. For many Austrians, Haider is obviously a Nazi; for most others, he is obvi-ously everything but. Bruno Kreisky himself had no doubts. In 1988, he said, “There are real Nazis who are dangerous, and there always will be. Among them I would count Jörg Haider.”

This fall, a new book called Hai-der: Schatten über Europa10 (“Haider: Shadow over Europe”), made headlines in Austria by demonstrating, in case after case, how Haider has adapted Nazi slogans and sentiments to suit his purposes. The authors also dug up Dieter Böhmdorfer’s briefs in Haider’s defamation suits and found some fairly outrageous remarks by Böhmdorfer in defense of Haider. The Waffen SS was “not a criminal organization” (as the tribunal at Nuremberg decided) but a “noble military organization”; the Nazis’ war of extermination against the Jews was an “honest war.” The book led to new calls for Böhmdorfer’s resignation, and to serious discussion about whether the briefs themselves violated Austria’s strict laws against Nazi revisionism. (In 1995, the editor of an intellectual monthly called Aula, at the time the most important lay publication associated with the FPÖ, was convicted for publishing less provocative statements.)

In their report, the three wise men called the FPÖ a “right-wing populist party with radical elements.” That’s close to the impression we get from another recent book, Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere (“Haider: Light and Shadows of a Career”), by Christa Zöchling, the Viennese journalist. Zöchling has written about Haider for Profil, the Austrian newsweekly that published much of the investigative reporting about Kurt Waldheim. There are many other books on Jörg Haider and his party; Zöchling’s gives us an especially full account of Haider’s early years, which form the basis of many interpretations of his political career.11

Haider was born in 1950, in the small Upper Austrian town of Bad Goisern. Both of his parents had been low-level officials in Austria’s Nazi administration. Indeed, Haider’s father had been a storm trooper in the early 1930s, and he was implicated in the murder of a policeman in 1934, when Austrian Nazis staged a rebellion against the Dollfuss regime, in which Dollfuss himself was assassinated; he fled to Hitler’s Germany and returned to Austria with the Anschluss. (“I regret nothing,” he said in a 1995 interview, talking about the Nazi era. “I would serve the thing again.”) Low-level officials bore the brunt of Austrian denazification, and Haider’s parents had a difficult time during the first few years after the war. They remained true to the cause however and were early members of the League of Independents, and then of the Freedom Party, whose leader in Upper Austria, Friedrich Peter, was a friend of the family.

In Vienna, where he studied law, Haider was active in FPÖ youth organizations and in extreme right-wing student dueling societies (or Burschenschaften), some of which retained “Aryan” membership provisions until the 1970s. In 1976, Haider moved to Carinthia, where his mother’s family owned a large estate called the Bear Valley; Haider’s great-uncle, then a Nazi official, acquired the property after the Anschluss, as part of the so-called “de-Jewification” program. Haider inherited the Bear Valley in 1986; and its profitable lumber business has turned him into one of the richest men in Austria.

Haider’s background was especially useful in Carinthia, where a longstanding anticlerical tradition, including a strong (at times, violent) distrust of the local Slovenian minority, and a lack of arable land have created an almost unquenchable longing to be part of a greater German culture, at just the point where Germanness falls off the map. Haider’s local mentor was a woman called Kriemhild Trattnig, the FPÖ speaker of the Carinthian legislature, and recent promulgator of conspiracy theories involving “the world’s high finance” and “Freemasons.” By the middle Nineties, Haider began to dilute these ideas with his own apolitical glamour. He recruited young men for his Freiheitliche movement, Zöchling writes, in discos and gyms, and he distinguished himself as Austria’s best-dressed politician.

Haider’s campaign promises have been hopelessly contradictory. In the last election, the FPÖ’s platform included a libertarian flat tax and a welfare state–style “children’s check” meant to subsidize the “Austrian family,” both of which were set aside even before the posters came down. He has designed his own brand of politics in which he invokes the names of major political figures and then claims to be practicing what they preach. Over the years, Haider has compared himself to Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair, and to Bruno Kreisky; indeed he goes so far as to say that, in a deathbed scene that is pure invention, Kreisky “anointed” him as his political heir. In Zöchling’s book, we sense that Haider comes from a radical right-wing background but that he himself has no clear identity, and no serious beliefs. His defense of Nazism is a defense of his parents, whose generation, Zöchling writes, is Haider’s “blind spot”; otherwise it seems a mere costume, like the Lederhosen and Loden jackets he wears to a Carinthian Volksfest.

Zöchling makes much of the fact that Haider wanted to be an actor when he was young; like many of Haider’s Austrian critics, she is impressed by Haider’s ability to change, or to seem to change, his politics as often as he changes his clothes. In her book Haider comes across as near-tragic, or near-comic, slipping or running back to the smallness and meanness of his origins.

A century ago, populist politics destroyed Austrian society; or, as Musil suggests, society’s destruction was mirrored in its populist politics. (In The Man Without Qualities, Christian Moosbrugger, a condemned sex murderer and “pathological comedian,” serves as the book’s resident populist who, like Schönerer and Lueger, enthralls the Viennese with his paranoia.) Contemporary Austria is clearly not on the road to destruction; and its latest populist may be playing his final scene. A Haider comeback is not impossible—the FPÖ remains dominant in Carinthia, where Haider is still well regarded. And the FPÖ acted as though he had come back as party leader this spring, when the party put up Haider posters during Vienna’s regional election campaign, which was marked by Haider’s slanderous—and desperate—attack on the leader of Vienna’s Jewish community. Still, a year of national politics and international scrutiny, and a year of being associated with the coalition’s Thatcherite policies, has cost Haider his momentum, and his appeal. The FPÖ has shown itself to be a group of amateurs, cynics, and worse; and in recent regional elections, FPÖ voters have been deserting in droves. Some have defected to the People’s Party (which remains remarkably untainted by the FPÖ’s performance, and which has been leading in national opinion polls for the first time since Kreisky’s 1970 election triumph). But more chose to stay at home. It is far from clear what party they might support in the future.

Haider’s rise complicates our current, rather Panglossian, notion that democracy has triumphed when stable, prosperous societies hold free elections. He reminds us that democracy is an instrument of human nature; and that human nature does not always follow Bruno Kreisky’s instruction to “grow wiser with experience.” But sometimes it does, and Austrians will presently have a chance to prove Kreisky right.

—March 14, 2001

  1. 1

    In an essay published in these pages last winter (“Tale from the Vienna Woods,” The New York Review, March 23, 2000), Tony Judt exposed the self-serving motives and hypocrisy of individual EU member states and made a strong argument against the wisdom and timing of sanctions. (See also Ian Buruma, The New York Times, Op-Ed page, February 7, 2000.) A convincing case for sanctions was made, to my mind, by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. (See, for example, an interview with Fischer in Profil, February 7, 2000.) Fischer compared Heider to Slobodan Milosevic in his attempt to reintroduce a pre-war brand of nationalism into European politics.

  2. 2

    Along with Martti Ahtisaari, the other authors of the report were Jochen Frowein, Director of the Max-Planck-Institute for Comparative Law and International Law (Heidelberg) and former vice-president of the European Commission of Human Rights; and Marcelino Oreja, Spain’s former minister of foreign affairs and a former secretary-general of the Council of Europe. The full text of the report in English is available from the Web site of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs: (click on “Government Policy” link, September 8, 2000).

  3. 3

    For an analysis of the Austrian electorate’s larger response to immigration as a political issue, including a thorough breakdown by party affiliation, see Migration und Fremdenfeinlichkeit (Vienna: Institut für Demographie, 1999).

  4. 4

    The three volumes were originally released separately under the titles Zwischen den Zeiten (1986), Im Strom der Politik (1988), and Der Mensch im Mittelpunkt (1996). They were reissued in the summer of 2000 in a special boxed edition, with more than 250 photographs, by Kremayr & Scheriau, and supervised by Oliver Rathkolb.

  5. 5

    For a general history of the monarchy and its transition away from absolutism, see Robert Kann, A History of the Habsburg Empire (University of California Press, 1974; reissued 1980). For an excellent and highly readable account of late Imperial Vienna, including an account of the circuslike atmosphere of the Austrian parliament, see Brigitte Hamann, Hitler’s Vienna (Oxford University Press, 1999), reviewed by Gordon Craig in The New York Review, March 18, 1999.

  6. 6

    Several recent books take up the role of Austria, and Austrians, in the Third Reich. In Hitler’s Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era, 1938–1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), Evan Bukey examines, by social class, the Nazi movement’s widespread popularity among Austrians, a phenomenon he traces back to Austria’s “anti-Semitic consensus.” Austrians were only 8 percent of the population in Hitler’s greater Reich, but by Bukey’s estimation, made up around 40 percent of those who participated in the Final Solution. Gitta Sereny’s The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938–2000 (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2000), to be published in the US under the title The Healing Wound (Norton, Fall 2001), is a compilation of essays, interviews, and memoirlike passages; the book is strange and fragmentary, and makes a strong impression. Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider (Tauris, 2000) by Hella Pick, the former diplomatic editor of The Guardian, is useful for its accounts of Kreisky’s extraordinary battle with Simon Wiesenthal.

  7. 7

    The Proporz led to an arrangement called “the Social Partnership,” through which the two parties together administer, both directly and indirectly, the Austrian economy. In an excellent single-volume introduction to postwar Austria, Austria: Out of the Shadow of the Past (Westview, 1998), Anton Pelinka, his country’s preeminent political scientist, presents a remarkably thorough analysis, and at times a defense, of Austria’s Second Republic. For Pelinka, “Austro-corporatism is a very decent, very civilized way of…replacing class war with class cooperation.”

  8. 8

    For extensive documentation of Friedrich Peter’s war record, see Peters Fall, Informations und Pressedienst der österreichischen Widerstandsbewegung (OWIP) Nr 5/1975. Available through the Dokumentationsarchiv des österreichischen Widerstandes (Vienna).

  9. 9

    For a recent collection of Haider’s speeches, interviews, and assorted remarks, see Wofür ich mich meinetwegen entschuldige: Haider, beim Wort genommen (“What I Have to Excuse Myself For: Haider, Taken at His Word”; Vienna: Czernin, 2000).

  10. 10

    Hans-Henning Scharsach and Kurt Kuch, Haider: Schatten über Europa (Cologne: Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 2000).

  11. 11

    See also The Haider Phenomenon, a 1997 monograph by the British political scientist Melanie Sully (East European Monographs/Columbia University Press, 1997). Sully’s book is certainly useful for English-language readers. She presents a detailed insider history of Haider’s movement, along with significant and well-translated excerpts of key FPÖ documents and Haider’s speeches. Sully does not always defend Haider directly, but she is certainly intent on dignifying his activities, often by comparing him to more acceptable conservative figures, such as Newt Gingrich. Sully, who lives in Vienna, has contributed to official FPÖ publications, something not mentioned in the book.