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Austria’s Hollow Center?

Timothy Snyder
In Austria’s presidential campaign this spring, a basic question underlying democratic politics in postwar Europe was made startlingly explicit: is recognition of the historical reality of the gas chambers a precondition for becoming head of state?
Cheering crowds greeting German troops as they arrive in Vienna, March, 1938 (German Federal Archive)

This spring, Austrians experienced one of the most bizarre presidential campaigns in postwar Europe: on the one side was Heinz Fischer, the sitting president, a decent man regarded by many as a worthy representative of the Austrian state; on the other, Barbara Rosenkranz, a woman with no discernible program and dubious views about Austria’s history during the Third Reich. A basic question underlying democratic politics in postwar Europe was made startlingly explicit: is recognition of the historical reality of the gas chambers a precondition for becoming head of state? This was a test for Austria, one that it clearly passed—if not exactly with flying colors—on April 25 when Fischer won with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

A former member of the Social Democratic Party, Heinz Fischer is a figure of moderation and has exercised the (limited) functions of the Austrian presidency with tact, dignity, and even a certain charm. He is respected abroad. The conservatives of the People’s Party knew that they had no one who could beat him. So they fielded no candidate at all. Then the problems began.

With no candidate from the center-right, the field was open to the far right Freedom Party. Traditionally centrist, the Freedom Party was remade during the 1980s into a right-wing, populist force by the charismatic Jörg Haider. Best known abroad for his laudatory words about the valor of the Waffen-SS and the soundness of Hitler’s employment policy, Haider was a major figure in Austrian politics for twenty years. When he died in 2008 driving home drunk from a gay night club, leadership of the Austrian far right fell to Hans-Christian Strache, a photogenic dental technician. He chose Rosenkranz to run as the Freedom Party’s candidate for president.

The far right in Austria has been edging towards extremism. Strache is to the right of Haider, and Rosenkranz is to the right of Strache. Married to a man who was an activist in a political party banned for its resemblance to National Socialism, she gave their ten children non-Christian Germanic names (among them Alwine, Hildrun, Horst, Sonnhild, and Wolf). With Rosenkranz, the far right ran a campaign that might have amused Freud: they concocted for the public a fantasy of taking orders from a “strong woman” who defined her profession as “housewife.” Posters emphasized motherhood and courage (which in German both begin with the same infantile sound, “mut.”) An example of Rosenkranz’s courage? Her willingness to speak about closing Austria’s borders to immigrants (by which is meant, before all, Muslims). One of Strache’s posters in an earlier campaign read “Vienna must not become Istanbul.”

Barbara Rosenkranz giving a campaign speech in St. Poelten, Austria, April 9, 2010 (AP Images)

Rosenkranz was backed by the Kronen-Zeitung, a popular tabloid and curious Austrian institution. Its 89-year-old publisher and half-owner, Hans Dichand, who writes undistinguished poetry under the pseudonym “Cato,” was delighted when Strache chose Rosenkranz. Then he expressed his ostensible dismay to learn that she had never clearly distanced herself from National Socialism. This lead to an absurd scene: on March 8 Rosenkranz appeared at the Kronen-Zeitung offices in Vienna to sign a statement in which she expressed her opposition to the crimes and ideology of Nazi Germany. But she did not specify in writing just what these crimes were. In a previous interview, Rosenkranz would not confirm that gas chambers were used to asphyxiate Jews during World War II—a fact that might seem essential knowledge for Austrian politicians.

Historical discussions in Austria raise with particular sharpness a problem found in almost all contemporary discussions of wartime memory: does some form of national victimhood cancel documented and very numerous cases of individual guilt among members of that nation? Since Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Austrians often present their country as a victim of Nazi aggression. The notion of Austria’s victimhood was important to Allied propaganda during the war, since the Americans, British, and Soviets agreed that Austria should be detached from Germany at war’s end. It is hardly surprising that many Austrians internalized this idea during the dozen years of postwar occupation by those same powers.

The claim to victimhood, when pressed too far, or advanced in bad faith, can occlude the rather prominent Austrian participation in German killing policies. The participation of individual Austrians in the murderous policies of the Reich was so extensive that it is obtuse to exclude the Holocaust and other German war crimes from Austrian history. The mastermind of Operation Reinhard, the 1942 program for the gassing of Polish Jews, was the Austrian Odilo Globocnik. The first commander of the death facility at Treblinka was the Austrian doctor Irmfried Eberl, and the first commander of Sobibór was the Austrian police officer Franz Stangl. Like Germany, Austria bans National Socialist political parties, and treats the denial of the Holocaust as a criminal offense, a law Rosenkranz derided for years.


The last chance for a broad public discussion of the Nazi period in Austria came during the 1986 presidential election, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite having written misleadingly in his biography about his service as a Wehrmacht officer. Then, Waldheim gained popularity at home when he was attacked by the foreign press and investigated by an international committee of historians. This time around, a repeat of the “Waldheim Affair” seemed to be Rosenkranz’s only hope. Unlike Waldheim, a former U.N Secretary General, however, she had no international standing; foreign commentators found it hard to take her candidacy too seriously. While Fischer ran a very restrained campaign and generally avoided attacking Rosenkranz personally, he identified himself unambiguously with an Austria aware of the country’s history.

The center-right People’s Party, once the coalition partner of the Freedom Party, and today the coalition partner of the Social Democrats, missed an opportunity for moral clarity. Having fielded no candidate of its own, the People’s Party might have endorsed Fischer once it became clear that Rosenkranz was his only major opponent. Some politicians of the People’s Party, as guardians of bourgeois respectability, did indeed defend the proposition that no decent politician can deny the gas chambers. Yet by refusing to endorse Fischer and by suggesting that their electorate might best stay home, they took less from the moment than they might have. Without a candidate the People’s Party could win no political victory; nevertheless a chance for a moral victory was squandered. Presumably, the conservatives wished to avoid alienating future voters recruited from the far right.

As it turned out, the political costs of a principled stand against Rosenkranz would have been little to none. Judging by the exit polls, very few People’s Party voters cast their ballots for Rosenkranz anyway. So there was not much potential electorate to be courted with ambiguity. But thanks in part to the mixed messages of the People’s Party, half of the electorate stayed home, which is unusual in Austria. Thus Fischer’s victory carries less weight than it might. Still, he won by an enormous margin. The Kronen Zeitung, much read in Austria and thus much feared among the Austrian political elite, took a hit: its readers were only slightly more likely than others to back Rosenkranz. The obvious loser is Strache and his Freedom Party. This might just be the last time that a major Austrian party seeks the particular constituents for which Rosenkranz has appeal. She took 15 percent of the vote, less than half of what Strache had predicted.

All in all, Austrians chose and fared well in this contest. But the absence of a center-right candidate in a major election provided an unsettling glimpse of a possible European future. The momentary hollowness of the People’s Party, which boasts a number of very gifted politicians and which is probably the strongest political force in Austria, was also disconcerting. As the preoccupations of far right parties in Europe shift from Jews and the war to Muslims and the EU, the strength and comportment of center right parties remain crucial to the preservation of healthy democracies.

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