J̦rg Haider
J̦rg Haider; drawing by David Levine


On Sunday December 17 two parliamentary elections were held in Europe. In Russia, the subcontinent’s largest country, the Communists and their allies were victorious, emulating similar successes by Communist and ex-Communist parties in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere in the former Eastern bloc. In Austria, one of Europe’s smallest states, nothing much happened: the governing majority was once again returned to office, fighting off a challenge from right-wing opponents. But the circumstances of the Austrian election may prove the better, and also the more disturbing, guide to the European situation in coming years.

On the face of it that proposition may seem unlikely. It has been a long time since Austria mattered much for anyone who doesn’t live there.1 Since the State Treaty of 1955, when Allied occupation forces withdrew, and Austria entered the UN and declared itself permanently neutral, the Alpine Republic (as it likes, somewhat misleadingly, to be known) has become a stable and prosperous country at the center of Europe. Its eight million people (a quarter of whom live in Vienna) derive their income in large measure from tourism, and employment in nationalized industries and the state bureaucracy, and have been governed since the first post-war elections by two political parties, normally in coalition. The People’s Party, heir to the Christian Social Party of the pre-war years, with close links to the Catholic Church, was the senior member of the governing alliance from 1945 to 1966 and then governed alone between 1966 and 1970. Since then the Socialists, formerly the junior coalition partner, have been the larger party and have governed in unbroken sequence either alone or supported in their turn, since 1986, by the People’s Party. Only briefly, from 1983 to 1986, has this “large coalition” been abandoned for a “small coalition” between the Socialists and the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party, of which more later.

This remarkable political continuity is further sustained by the social peace enforced through the system of “social partnership” set up in 1957. Just as the coalition partners distribute ministries, patronage appointments, and money according to their respective electoral strength—a system known as Proporz—so unions, chambers of commerce, and representatives of industry have for forty years discussed and ironed out social and economic disagreements under a de facto corporatist system in which conflicts between capital and labor are muted. Political and economic strategies are decided in a complex series of formal and informal meetings, of which parliament itself is perhaps the least significant, serving only to rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere and brought to it by the leaders of the governing parties, after consulting with union and company officials. In a country whose earlier history was marked by geographical amputation, economic collapse, civil war, occupation, and defeat, Austrians were on the whole pleased with the stabilizing benefits of these conventions.

But in 1994 the foundations of Austria’s post-war system began to crumble. In the parliamentary elections of that year the two ruling parties between them lost 12 percent of their vote, much of it going to the Freedom Party under its new leader Jörg Haider. The People’s Party especially did badly: its share of the vote, in steady decline since 1970, fell to 27 percent, just five points ahead of Haider’s party. The Socialists remained the leading party, but with 35 percent of the vote (compared to 51 percent at their peak in 1979) they, too, were losing ground. The coalition government survived, its majority much reduced.

But the new leader of the People’s Party, Wolfgang Schüssel, interpreted the results as a warning: his party’s longstanding alliance with the Socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky was costing it votes and the time had come to make a break. Now that Austria had entered the European Union the country was under pressure to reduce its budget deficit in line with the requirements for adopting a single currency. Schüssel seized the occasion to charge the Socialists with economic mismanagement and took his party out of the government. The People’s Party would fight the resulting election on a program of economic reform, offering Thatcherite proposals for sound money and reduced public spending.

As an election issue this was unconvincing. Austria’s budget deficits are small by European standards and neither of the major parties would risk serious cuts in the complex and impressive system of public services and social security that benefit all their constituents. Austrians, for example, can count on excellent, inexpensive public transport, unusually comprehensive children’s benefits, and generous old-age pensions. The real dilemma is that since the Sixties the social bases of Austria’s two-party system have changed, while the political parties themselves have failed to reflect this. The Socialists can no longer look to secure blocs of votes from industrial labor, government employees, and “Red” Vienna, whose citizens have a long tradition of backing Socialist candidates. The People’s Party, with its strength in the rural, Catholic regions to the south and west of the capital, has been undermined by urbanization and secularization. As the longtime junior partner in government the People’s Party is vulnerable to criticism for tax-and-spend policies over which it has limited control. And having been (like the Christian Democrat parties elsewhere in Western Europe) in the forefront of the move to join the European Union, it bears the brunt of popular disappointment with the European Union’s accomplishments and fears over the costs of membership. The People’s Party, in short, needed to get out of government. But if it were to come back into office without the Socialists it could only realistically hope to do so through a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party, something Schüssel refused to exclude—“a change,” he remarked, “will do our country good.” And the implications of this strategy became the true issue of the 1995 election.


The Austrian Freedom Party was founded in 1956, heir to the League of Independents. The League, formed in 1949, was the directed descendant of the faction that promoted pan-German nationalism for Austria both under the Habsburgs and in the years following World War I. Since the major political goal of the German nationalists in Austria had been union (Anschluss) with Germany, and since Anschluss is expressly forbidden in Article 4 of the State Treaty, the League and the Freedom Party had long lacked a defined political program. Their supporters consisted of ex-Nazis, monarchists, and others nostalgic for a forbidden past, together with conservatives whose anti-clericalism kept them hostile to the People’s Party and small businessmen, retired professionals, and others resentful of the large, cozy, state-protected sector from which they felt excluded.

Initially reluctant to welcome the terms of Austrian independence, especially the neutrality clause, the Freedom Party chose instead to take a pro-European position as a substitute for identification with Germany. Because there was no other political group espousing free-market, pro-(Western) Europe and even libertarian views in Austria, the Freedom Party also eventually came to include a liberal wing resembling the Free Democrats of the Federal Republic of Germany. But the two tendencies were always uneasy with each other, since the party’s origins were never wholly abandoned: its first two leaders were respectively a former member of Chancellor Arthur Seyss-Inquart’s post-Anschluss Nazi cabinet of 1938 and an ex-SS officer.

Until recently the Freedom Party was a marginal part of Austrian public life. Its predecessor, the League of independents, scored around 10 percent in the elections of 1949 and 1953; thereafter the FP received between 4 percent and 7 percent of the national vote, though it did better in the southern province of Carinthia, where, ever since the 1920 referendum that attached the region to Austria, German nationalists have made political capital out of local animosity toward the Slovene minority and fears of Yugoslav irredentism. But in 1986 the Freedom Party obtained 9.7 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, in 1990 16.6 percent, and in 1994 nearly one in four Austrian electors voted for it. This was all the more striking because in 1993 the liberal wing of the party, unable any longer to tolerate the sharp rightward direction of the party’s leadership, particularly the racial overtones of its attacks on immigrants, had broken away to form a new group, the Liberal Forum. The panic that overtook many Austrians in 1995, when Schüssel and his party broke with their Socialist partners, was induced by the vision of public life and politics being placed at the mercy of the rising radical party of the right, and in particular at the prospect of the growing influence of its young leader.

Jörg Haider was born in Upper Austria in January 1950, and thus had what he calls “die Gnade der späten Geburt“—the good fortune of a late birth; in other words, he cannot be tarred with the brush of Nazism and isn’t responsible for Austria’s past. But he comes from a good Nazi family—both his parents were active party members and he speaks often of the need to put an end to the “criminalizing of personal histories.” His rise through the ranks of the Freedom Party has been rapid: he took over the party organization in Carinthia in 1983 and has been head of the national party since 1986. He is good-looking in the manner of the host of a sleazy game show, and does well on television, benefiting from the growing importance of electronic showmanship in Austrian politics.2 His election posters emphasize that he is not responsible for the promises of past governments—“He has not lied to you”—and play upon the theme of honesty and directness, contrasting Haider’s character with that of the establishment politicians—“Simply honorable, simply Jörg.”

Direct he unquestionably is. Under Haider the Freedom Party has just three themes, upon which its leader plays with studied insistence. The first is Austrian nationalism, a theme which retains the substance of German-national nostalgia while updating its form. Thus the FP used to identify with “Europe,” but Haider is now against membership in the EU and has made it the main tenet of his polemic against the government. The time has come, he says, to put “Austria first,” to end immigration, withdraw from the European Human Rights Convention, tighten the laws against foreigners and repatriate those already in the country. In his base in Carinthia he attacks the laws according language and cultural rights to the tiny Slovene-speaking minority and warns—with surreal implausibility—of Austria becoming a “multi-cultural society.” In fact, foreigners make up less than 9 percent of the population, and fewer than three in one hundred foreigners receive Austrian citizenship each year. The number of foreigners (or dark-skinned people, since Haider has nothing against Western tourists) has risen sharply with the temporary influx of Bosnian and Croatian refugees—in 1990, non-citizens were only 5.3 percent of the total population. Austria has few Gypsies, most of them concentrated in Vienna and the Hungarian frontier region. It is a country in which it is notoriously difficult for non-citizens to get a work permit; the requirements are more stringent than anywhere in Europe outside Switzerland, and non-citizens have fewer political rights than in any other member-state of the European Union. Many Austrians fear a coming wave of eastern and southeastern European migrants, but this has not yet happened.


Still, there is no doubt that Haider can call on considerable popular backing for such views: one third of all those polled in 1995 believe that guest-workers and other foreigners in Austria have too many benefits and privileges. There has been a series of letter bombs and deadly booby traps aimed at Gypsies and other minorities and at public figures known for their work with Bosnian and other refugees. When one of the Austrian victims, the refugee advocate Maria Loley, was being given first aid following a bombing in October 1995, neighbors in her village of Poysdorf were heard to comment that she had it coming. She had gone too far and “broken the rules.” One woman remarked that “she doesn’t realize what she is doing to us. One day these foreigners will be marrying our children.”3

Haider’s second theme is a populist attack on the beneficiaries of Austria’s system of social benefits. In Haider’s world the country is rotting from within, burdened with the cost of supporting Sozialschmarotzern—social-parasites, among whom he includes not only government employees and pensioners but also the cultural “swine” (Schuft) in Vienna who take subsidies from the state for musical, artistic, and theatrical productions, sell the country short in their criticisms of Austria’s conservative tendencies and its murky past, and lack national feeling. Here Haider plays on suspicion of Vienna and claims to count on a “quiet understanding” among the ordinary “decent” people. Austria is a small country but quite a long one—it is some seven hundred kilometers from east to west—and the Viennese traditions of social-democratic administration and cultural cosmopolitanism are still as deeply distrusted in the little towns of the remote countryside today as they have been since the late nineteenth century. Haider benefits, too, from the support of the Neue Kronen-Zeitung, Austria’s biggest-selling daily, with 41 percent of the national readership, an unpleasant tabloid rag that has played up Haider’s claim that Austria’s system of corporate government and subsidized culture is destroying individual responsibility and leading the land to moral decadence.4

Haider’s third theme concerns Austria’s past. On its far right wing the Freedom Party has always had supporters who were linked with neo-Nazi violence and nostalgia, but hitherto its main spokesmen have tended to avoid identifying too closely with Austria’s Nazi past. Under Haider this has changed. The most notorious instance came just before the recent elections, when German television showed a video of Haider addressing a recent gathering of Waffen-SS veterans in a southern Austrian town. The film was not shown on Austrian television before the vote, but it is doubtful whether it would have made a marked difference to the outcome. At the meeting Haider addressed his audience as his “dear friends,” describing them as “decent men” of “spiritually superior” character. He contrasted them favorably with the “work-shy trash” and others who receive government support, and praised them for remaining true to their convictions in the face of opposition.

But Haider’s views have never been a secret. Ten years ago he told a similar meeting of former SS men that their sacrifices saved Western Europe. Our times, he said, need men like you, for whom Homeland (Heimat) still means something.5 In that same year he praised Walter Reder, the Austrian SS officer responsible for the wartime murder of civilians in the Italian town of Marzabotto, as a soldier who “did his duty.” On June 13, 1991, he told the Carinthian regional assembly, whose leader he then was, that Nazi employment policies had been “sound,” unlike those of the present-day government in Austria. This outburst cost him the support of the local People’s Party, and thus his regional office, but he was unchastened, describing himself instead as a “near-victim” of the Verbotgesetz, the Austrian law forbidding support for Nazism and Nazi policies.

If Haider and his party have done increasingly well in Austrian elections in recent years it is probably not because of his manifest sympathies for former Nazis but in spite of them. A large minority of Austrians may well be drawn to Haider’s views of the Nazi past, but he gets their votes for a different reason.6 Some of his criticisms of the state ring true, notably his attacks on corruption, which has steadily increased, perhaps inevitably so in a system where a single party or a coalition of parties has been in power for decades. Some aspects of Austrian patronage procedures closely resemble the practices of Italian public life, except that they are more efficient. (Building companies may exploit party connections to get state contracts, but the projects are solidly constructed and on time.) Haider’s offer of a “Contract with Austria” (blatantly borrowed from Newt Gingrich) appeals to those voters who believe they are being taxed to pay for benefits and privileges from which they are excluded, and who fear that economic changes, and particularly pressures from the European Union, may threaten Austria’s cozy isolation. In a situation where the two mainstream parties have together monopolized public office and the perquisites of patronage, the mantle of protest and opposition inevitably falls upon the only available candidate.

But Haider’s promised “Third Republic” (replacing the Second, which was established after the war) did not come about in the December 17 election. Schüssel’s gamble failed—the fear of economic instability brought voters back to Vranitzky’s Socialists, while the People’s Party and the Freedom Party stayed at about their previous levels.7 The new government will inevitably be a coalition of the two big parties (since neither has anything close to an absolute majority), with the Socialists even more dominant than before. The “Haider-panic” is apparently over, and the irresistible rise of Austria’s “yuppie-fascist” has been at least temporarily halted. Why, then, does the Austrian election matter, and what does it mean?

In Austria itself the election and the rise of Haider mark the end of the comfortable post-war consensus. As many commentators have noted, postwar Austria was constructed on a mendacious myth rooted in ambiguity. In November 1943 the Allies declared Austria to have been Hitler’s “first victim,” although in fact Austrians had been eager collaborators with Hitler and no less criminal in their treatment of Jews. The announcement conferred on Austria a bogus legitimacy, even though it was followed after the war by a ten-year occupation implicitly acknowledging that Austria, with Germany, was a defeated enemy. But thanks to Austria’s ambiguous status, and perhaps also to the Western Allies’ obsession with the “Prussian” origins of Nazi rule, Austrian de-Nazification was even milder than that undertaken in Germany. The result was that until the Waldheim affair in 1986 there was no national discussion of Austria’s Nazi past. Because the quasi-fascist regime headed by Kurt Schussnigg between 1934 and 1938 had been overthrown by Hitler, it, too, was subjected to little retrospective scrutiny, and the Christian-Social and Social Democratic camps, violently antagonistic between the wars, constructed between them an amnesiac post-war republic shorn of any usable past. It took the revelations that Waldheim had lied about his wartime military service under the Nazis to shake Austria’s political class out of its comfortable lethargy and into an uncomfortable process of self-questioning.8

The country was also disturbed by the collapse of Communism in 1989. Post-war Austria was consciously conceived, notably by Bruno Kreisky, the Socialist chancellor from 1970 to 1983, as a country whose identity would henceforth derive from its geographical situation between east and west, its neutrality during the cold war, and its role as intermediary between first and third worlds (Austria under Kreisky had a particular sympathy for nationalist and anti-colonial movements in the Middle East and Africa). This sat oddly with Austria’s past, but of what else could “Austria” consist? There had never been an “Austrian” nation—alone of the many regions of the former Habsburg Empire it harbored no nationalist aspirations. After the Imperial monarchy collapsed in 1918, union with the rest of German-speaking Europe was the logical and sentimental goal of nearly all Austrian politicians, even Socialists. Only in 1933 did the Socialist Party remove from its program the demand for Anschluss with Germany, and as late as 1937 Otto Bauer, the Party’s leading thinker, dismissed the idea of an Austrian nation as grotesque; in Austrian nationalism he saw only the specter of a union of the Catholic Church, Habsburg tradition, and feudal Baroque culture.9

After 1989, with the disappearance of Communist Eastern Europe and the end of the cold war, Austria’s newfound identity effectively disappeared, and its future lay inexorably in the European Union, as an autonomous appendix to a united Germany. The only distinctive meaning attaching to “Austria” now had to be found somewhere in the layers of its checkered history. A creation of the post-World War II settlement, Austria is a victim of the collapse of that settlement, and one characteristically “Austrian” sentiment today is thus indeed the one expressed by Haider—resentment and fear at the rapid transformations taking place in Europe, a confused sense that these will bring change to Austria, and a natural resort to defensive pride in what has been lost.10 (Haider himself may demand all manner of changes, but change, of course, is just what his voters fear most.)

This makes Austria very different from Germany. Unlike Austria (whose present constitution is that of 1920, as revised in 1929), the Federal Republic of Germany started afresh in 1949, with a Basic Law whose prime function is to emphasize and guarantee the break with the past. Austrians no longer seek an Anschluss—indeed, many of them fear absorption into a German-dominated Europe—but Germany is always on their minds, whereas Austria is a topic of almost no sustained interest in Germany itself. It probably never has been—Anschluss was primarily an Austrian demand, after all, not a German one. And the rise of Haider is a reminder of just how different the situation of the two countries has become; his politics of ressentiment, of fear of the future, and of ambivalence over the Nazi past lack the popular appeal in Germany that they now have in its southern neighbor. It is very difficult to imagine someone with Haider’s opinions and policies scoring nearly 23 percent in a German national election.

Another comparison may be more revealing. During the last weeks of the Austrian election the strikes in France against measures to limit pensions and reform the welfare budget were on everyone’s mind. The social costs of economic reform—the price of fiscal tightening as a prelude to carrying out “Maastricht 2,” the next stage of the European Union agreement, were just what Vranitzky warned against in posters promising “We won’t let them take away pensions, nor women’s rights,” among other guarantees. Haider in his last election advertisement was even blunter—“Austria mustn’t go the way of France!”11 The two politicians meant slightly different things, of course; Vranitzky’s Socialists want to preserve the welfare state, the état providence whose defense brought the French onto the streets in December. Haider—who regards the état providence as inimical to the national spirit—was warning against the internal turmoil that Austria’s integration into Europe would bring. But the common message was clear—Austria has social peace—“Austria is too precious for experiments” as the Socialist posters put it—and France does not. And France is our future if we are not careful.

France, moreover, is the only other European country in which the charismatic leader of the far right has captured a significant portion of the voters—though if Jean-Marie Le Pen were ever to do as well as Haider he would be leading the second political party in the country. In France, as in Austria, the past has become a source of national unease and controversy, and for rather similar reasons. Le Pen’s deputy, Bruno Mégret, shares Haider’s view that the time has come to break with post-war taboos on those who collaborated with Vichy and the Nazis; for their own reasons both men want to “liberate” a right-wing national past that has been buried under the heap of prosperous post-war self-congratulation.12 Of course Haider lacks Le Pen’s credentials as a student streetfighter and French Algerian extremist, but that, as he half admits, is just a matter of age. And in France as in Austria it is fear and hatred of immigrants (in France from the south, in Austria from the east, in both cases from lands over which they once ruled) that has replaced overt anti-Semitism as the emotion that binds the far right.13

The French, moreover, have been deeply disturbed by the end of the agreeable post-war arrangement whereby France pretended to be the leading European nation and Germany pretended to believe it. But if the French share the ensuing mood of self-questioning with Austrians, the sentiment is also widespread in Europe as a whole. The promise of an ever broader, ever deeper, ever more prosperous Europe may still hold charms for Eastern Europeans—though it is highly doubtful whether they will ever get to benefit from it in its present form. But in much of Western Europe that promise has now come down to the chimeric prospect of a single currency accompanied by the all-too-real expectation of deep cuts in government spending, cuts that threaten the social services and welfare systems that have been a part of the European dream since the onset of post-war prosperity. Such cuts are now seen as necessary to avoid the inflation in national economies that would undermine a single currency.

If the recent events in France, then, are a warning shot across the bows of a European vessel steaming into the unknown, Austria is a metaphor for Europe in the waning days of its happy post-war slumber. For Austria is a shrunken land with a confused identity, overshadowed by its heritage and fearful for its future, reluctant to abandon real social gains but convinced it can no longer afford them, happy at the end of the division of Europe but worried by the loss of its role in that division. But is this not also in varying measure the condition not just of France, but also of Italy, of Britain and other countries besides? Is it just a coincidence not only that Haider and Le Pen have emerged during the Eighties and Nineties but also a new generation of Flemish nationalists as well as separatists and re-programmed ex-neo-fascists in Italy?

All of these stand to profit from the disappointments and fears that will flow from the effort to unite Europe along the fiscal principles of the German central bank, in which low inflation, tight money, and reduced deficits are a prerequisite; and all can be relied on to invoke national sentiments and antagonisms, past and present, real and imagined, in their rhetoric and their programs. Even the laudable attempt to make it easier for goods and people to cross frontiers within the European Union, the so-called Schengen program, carries the corollary of ever higher fences at Europe’s perimeter to keep out unwanted migrants. The Schengen program has the unintended effect of helping to legitimize the theme of national xenophobia at the heart of right-wing rhetoric.14 Here, too, the Austrian elections have something to teach Europe.

It is tempting, and some Austrian commentators have indulged the thought, to see in Jörg Haider and his party some kind of renascent fascism or even a sort of para-Nazism. But that is actually too reassuring, since it is easy to demonstrate why Haider (or Le Pen, or Gianfranco Fini in Italy) do not simply represent a return to the bad old days, an echo of the ghosts of Europe past. They are not totalitarian ideologues. If they were, we could probably ignore them—and anyway they would not be the successful populist politicians they now are. But just because an opportunist like Haider lacks principles, it does not follow that he has no deeply held and widely shared prejudices. As the European Union fiddles with “Maastricht 2” while its margins burn, Haider and his like stand for something far more serious: they are the ghost of Europes yet to come.

January 18, 1996

This Issue

February 15, 1996