About the Situation in Austria
By Karl Pfeifer
Published in Searchlight,
The last year
put Austria more firmly on the international map than ever before
when its European Union (EU) partners downgraded diplomatic ties in
protest at the right-wing extremist Freedom Party's (FPÖ) entry into
government with the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP).
France and Belgium were especially concerned that the accession of an extreme
right-wing party to office in Austria might encourage similar movements in the
However, the EU's very mild measures gave the Wolfgang Schüssel's coalition
government a chance to portray itself as a victim of a "socialist inspired
international conspiracy" against Austria. With the help of state-owned TV and
the mass daily Neue Kronenzeitung, an emotional atmosphere was whipped up
rendering reasonable discussion almost impossible.
Haider's electoral success would certainly not have been so impressive but for
the support he garnered from Neue Kronenzeitung, which, in terms of its
potential readership, is the most widely read newspaper in the world.
In 1986, the tabloid Neue Kronen Zeitung acted as a kind of pro-Kurt Waldheim
journalistic hit-squad and was instrumental in helping promote what amounted to
an international Jewish conspiracy theory to defend Waldheim against his
Since Haider became leader of the FPÖ in the same year, the paper has
consistently endorsed Haider's views on the "foreigner problem," supported his
anti-immigration policies and has even outbid him in trivializing Nazi policies
and the crimes of the Wehrmacht and the SS.
The fact, that every second adult Austrian reads this rag speaks louder than all
the declarations of government about Austrians being the "first victims of
Nazism". The fear this paper inspires - and not just among government
politicians - helps to explain, but not excuse, the approach to the so-called
"foreigner" problem and the higher tolerance of ethnic and racist stereotyping
among Austrian voters.
When the EU's measures were announced, an incandescent Haider branded French
President Chirac a "pocket Napoleon" and accused the Socialist Party and
conservative President Thomas Klestil of not doing enough to defend the country.
The FPÖ's Vienna boss, Hilmar Kabas, berated Klestil for behaving like "a rogue"
and Karl Schnell, the FPÖ's chief in Salzburg repeated this when he attacked the
President in November and said the expression "rogue" was inadequate to describe
Klestil's "un-Austrian" behaviour when the coalition government was sworn into
All this and evidence that the FPÖ had been delving into police files to filch
damaging information about opponents did little to win the government any
support and two regional elections last year brought setbacks for the Haider
Later in the year, when the EU realised that its "sanctions" were being used as
a way of distracting Austrians from domestic problems, it sought a way out by
appointing the so-called "Three Wise Men" to report on the politics of the
Austrian Government and the "nature of the Freedom Party".
In September the Wise Men's report was duly released, recommending an end to
"sanctions" but adding scathing criticism of the FPÖ as a "right-wing populist
party with radical elements". The report said that policies of the Austrian
Government met the standards of European values and that the rights of
minorities in Austria were, to some extent, higher than in other EU countries,
although its asylum policy was not so good.
Justice Minister Dieter Böhmdorfer, Haider's former lawyer, was heavily
reproached. The EU's three observers said he did not "conform to the idea of the
duties one would expect" of a member of government.
The EU's decision to withdraw its measures was not universally welcomed abroad
and was lashed by Israel. It took another two months before Schüssel made his
first bilateral working visit to another EU country…it will take years for
Austria's image to be restored in the eyes of the democratic world.
Haider is doing his utmost to ensure this does not happen. Until recently,
Haider favoured foreign destination was the USA, where he took a course at
Harvard University. Nowadays, he is spending more and more time in Italy,
especially in the north.
It is interesting that Umberto Bossi's separatist Liga Nord is most successful
in those parts of Italy which were once under Austrian rule. Here "diligent" and
"decent" Italians, who feel themselves threatened by "lazy parasites", "Brussels
bureaucrats" and "foreigners" believe that everything was better under the
Austrian rule and lapse into "Austro-nostalgia".
This is Haider's audience in the region. When Italians compare Bossi and Haider,
they see in Bossi a clown and in Haider a successful politician who has
succeeded in getting his party into government.These days, Bossi is not very
happy with Haider, whom he accuses of "doing the left's business." Haider, of
course, is in business for himself, but his frequent visits in Italy have been
helpful for the left.
After all, he provokes discussion in Italy about racism and xenophobia. This can
only help the Italian left provided it does not copy the Austrian Social
Democrats who tried taking the Neue Kronenzeitung's advice to "take out the
winds" of Haider's sails by adopting his policies.
Judging by the coalition agreement signed by Schüssel and Haider, the new
Austrian government represents a significant shift to the right of the current
European norm. Yet the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition has also created a new, and quite
large, parliamentary opposition comprising the Social Democratic and Green
parties, and has, at long last, shaken anti-Haider political forces in Austria
out of their passivity.
Together with more combative trade unions, which are vehemently opposed to the
government's social and economic policies, these forces could exert serious
pressure on the government both inside and outside parliament. It is too early
to predict whether the opposition will be successful enough to win over the
majority of voters.
What is clear is that the cosy old coalition between arrangement between "reds"
and "blacks" is extinct. Thus, it looks like Austria will become bipolar, with
either a right-extreme right or a centre-left (Socialists and Greens)
Austrian President Thomas Klestil, who only reluctantly agreed to approve the
present government, is in a strong position to restrain any extreme measures
that might be dreamt up or enacted. Klestil it was who required both Schüssel
and Haider to sign the declaration "Responsibility for Austria - A Future in the
Heart of Europe".
This document, which became the preamble to the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition agreement,
expressed the coalition partners' "commitment to the intellectual and moral
values that are the common heritage of the peoples of Europe." In keeping with
this heritage, the government pledged itself to strive for "an Austria in which
xenophobia, antisemitism and racism have no place."
Of course, in the weekly Zur Zeit which is close to the coalition, and in the
FPÖ, xenophobia, antisemitism and racism occupy an important place. Traditional
hate figures are regularly invoked as agents of the "world conspiracy", above
all "the Jew" and "the reds". FPÖ politicians also bang on about "international
speculators", repeating the old argument of Nazi economist Gottfried Feder who
made a difference between "rapacious" and "creative" capital.
The Austrian government, desperate to be accepted abroad, promised to work "for
fair solutions to the questions of all persons compelled to perform forced
labour during the Second World War, Austrian prisoners of war and the
German-speaking populations expelled to Austria as a result of the Benes decrees
and the Avnoj regulations."
The refusal to differentiate between the victims of Nazism and the Austrian POWs
and Germans expelled after 1945 highlights the common revisionist basis of both
coalition parties. Foreigners who were brought to Austria during the war to be
exploited as forced labour have not yet received a penny while Austrians who
served in the Wehrmacht or SS and were prisoners in Eastern Europe were marked
up for a higher pension from 1 January .
Schüssel's administration has nominated Socialist diplomat Ernst Sucharipa to
negotiate with the representatives of Austrian Jews about compensation for the
daylight robbery committed by so many Austrians after the 1938 Anschluss with
In a statement delivered in January, Sucharipa said there is a 50% chance that
an agreement can be reached before the Bush Government takes over in the USA.
The Austrian government's promise of "coming to terms with the Nazi past" should
be seen for what is: a public relation exercise in which declarations are not
followed by deeds.
A recently published book about Schüssel contains very interesting details about
Schüssel's father who was a journalist and a member of the Nazi party. After the
war, the Austrian Journalists' Union did not accept him until 1950 as a member.
In one of his letters, protesting against the decision of the union, Schüssel's
father wrote, "he didn't once 'Aryanise' a flat".
Events at two public discussions well illustrate the atmosphere in Vienna at the
end of 2000. In October, Eric R. Kandel, Professor of Columbia University
received the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Kandel was born in Vienna and had to flee
Austria in April 1938. Part of the Austrian media hastened to present Kandel as
an Austrian but Kandel replied saying: "I am not an Austrian, I am a Vienna Jew,
who was driven out of Austria."
A few weeks later. the ÖVP's political academy presented a book critical of
present day Austria. During the discussion, leading journalists for the state
broadcasting service, ORF, stood up and declared that Kandel had not been
telling the truth: "After all, in 1938 there was no Austria. So he was not
driven away. If Kandel's parents had not had the money, he could not have
In December, a public discussion took place about forthcoming local elections in
Vienna. Hilmar Kabas had his crowd well placed in the audience. When a liberal
politician complained about the bureaucracy of the city council and mentioned
that a buffet selling Spanish salami and French cheese is not allowed to sell
beer, one of the FPÖ rabble yelled "Austrians should buy Austrian products!"
Then, one of the ladies belonging to the same lot complained about "too many
foreigners in Vienna", a subject matter dear to the FPÖ. The woman went on to
tell the audience that she visited her dentist recently and a "foreigner child"
had the cheek to take her spectacles from her nose. Outraged, she demanded that
the dentist should have at least one day in the week, when only Austrians are
treated." Needless to say, she was applauded by the FPÖ supporters. Others
shouted "shame" and "apartheid."
Austrian journalists are currently speculating about what would happen if
leading FPÖ politicians are condemned because of the police computer files
affair or if the FPÖ slides again in the Vienna elections.
One should be cautious with speculation and predictions. Both coalition parties
promise utopian "normality", where every member of the "national community" can
feel secure and respected, a society from which all sources of friction are
being removed. To exist, this same "national community" has to drive "community
aliens" to the social margins. The search for scapegoats is an old tactic of
diverting attention from the real problems of society. This is a basic function
of Austrian nationalism.
In fact, as long as a majority of
Austrians votes for the coalition parties, no change of government can be
expected. The FPÖ and the mainly fundamentalist Catholic right-wing of the ÖVP
are - just like Hitler's Nazis - consistent in their rejection of the liberal
legacy of the French Revolution of 1789. Their preference is for a society with
modern technologies and institutions but drawing nothing from the ideas of equal
rights, emancipation, self-determination and common humanity.
The Austrian opposition must work hard to promote a society which cannot simply
be reduced to a modern market economy. Educated young Austrians with a better
education and who are interested in rational solutions to problems, familiar
with foreign languages and open to international cultural influences plainly no
longer feel that the xenophobic phraseology of FPÖ speaks for them or to them,
should be mobilised.
Even then, the question is posed: Will the majority realise where the present
Thatcherite policies and the inclusion of a far-right party in the government is
leading their country?
haGalil onLine 09-02-2001