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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.

  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: www.bmaa.gv.at (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.

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