A Fascist In Waiting?: Haider's Austria
17 Feb 2000
Haider's Freedom Party engagement in the Austrian government has
suddenly tweaked the interest of people everywhere. Austria being a small
mountain Republic is usually ignored as far as the world's media is concerned.
Austria is consistently overshadowed by its large neighbor to the north,
Germany. This fact has in some ways benefited and hurt Austria. Benefited in the
way that they could slither out of any responsibility for WWII while no one
seemed to notice and harmful in that they never benefited from learning their
lesson in the first place. And those that don't learn their lesson, often have
their lesson repeated until they do.
Nevertheless, the picture that foreign countries have of Austria is
mistaken. This is in part because Austria is so infrequently in the press except
for the blunders with Fascism, past or present. Austria, while a small country,
is nevertheless complex. It has not only failed to come to grips with its Nazi
past, but it has failed to shed itself of the memories of grandeur from the
great Austro- Hungarian Empire. Consequently, it often situates itself in a far
more self-important light than that which its current economic status indicates.
But delusions of grandeur caused by its glorious past are not the only
feature that make Austria complex. Its people are well-educated and talented but
due to a reluctance to change, inbred conservatism and a stifling old-world
bureaucracy its talented people are often not allowed to blossom. Hence, you
will find the strange occurrence that despite its wealth Austrians make their
fame, success or money in foreign lands. This is not only true with bodybuilders
turned actors but with professors, scientists, doctors, artists and architects.
Since the Socialists came to power, it has become nearly impossible to starve.
And, there is another interesting phenomenon: it is nearly impossible for a poor
person to become rich and a rich person to become poor. If a rich Austrian
became poor, he's a genius or a bumbling idiot. Someone of normal intelligence
just can't achieve this feat.
You can imagine the difficulties this presents for the talented and
creative. They are in effect subordinated to those well-placed. Not a healthy
mixture for people who have talent. And that is why many of the talented have
left for "greener" pastures. Consequently, what has developed in Austria over
the years, and despite its well-educated and talented core of citizens, is
mediocritization of its economy. Naturally, politicians will deny this but they
are, up to now at least, the beneficiaries of such mediocrity. Politics like any
other high level activity in Austria is a contact sport (the contact being "you
scratch my back I scratch yours" combined with elbow rubbing of all sorts). All
countries have the phrase, "it's not what you know but who you know." However,
nowhere is this more extreme than in small picturesque Austria.
0.1 Too Much Stability Is A Bad Thing
All of the above explanations do not lead directly to the door of Mr.
Haider. But what one must understand in Austria is that for the last 30 years
the Socialists have ruled the country (except for a short phase in the 80s
whereupon the Conservatives successfully ran themselves out of power in no time
at all). And a good deal of that time they did so with the help of a coalition
with the conservative and catholic People's Party. What's more, due to the
insecurity of their past and a lack of confidence in democracy they have often
sought a broad consensus and stable government in place of rational and
intelligent disagreements with an active opposition party. More often than not
this has resulted in a "Grand Coalition" where the two parties could bully their
programs over the opposition and to their people. The idea of a "minority" being
protected was just not practiced. Naturally, in such a small country where there
are no outside power influences that could represent another form of opposition,
blatant abuse of power was bound to present itself.
Austria, to its credit, is not corrupt. However, they do have another
method which is a more sophisticated but less dangerous form of corruption and
referred to as "Proporz". This is the idea that those in power hand out the top
jobs, grants, licenses and what-have-you to those well connected. In a way it
stems from the Kaiser's prerogative to give jobs to whom and where he wanted.
The problem of course is that Austria is a democracy which not only implies
equality but also granting position on the basis of merit. Compounding this bad
habit is the fact that the Socialists and the Conservatives went on their merry
way without a tinge of guilt in doling out the lucrative contracts. This
culminated in its most ugly form when the Socialists did a "one-upmanship" on
the Conservatives by "privatising" the Credit-Anstalt (a bank that was thought
to be in the hands of the People's Party) and "sold" it to Bank Austria
(Socialist Party's bank and owned by the city of Vienna). The Socialists bullied
their way through the fiasco. The People's Party was embarrassed and tired of
being on the losing end of the "Proporz" game 1 and this
ultimately led to bad blood. If it did not look good in the People's Party eyes
it looked a bit fishy as well to the normal "Hans" on the street. "Ah, the old
Proporz game." It looks like the People's Party sought revenge and got it.
Naturally, to the detriment of the nation. But that is how it goes in power
While the Austrians have put up with this scenario for a ridiculously
long time, some things have changed to spur them into a rebellious mood. First,
the EU. Moving into the EU has helped Austria enormously. It has forced Austria
to be more open, more competitive and more "western" looking. The change that
has taken place over the last few years in Austria is in light-speed compared to
the glacial speed of change that Austria usually exercises. But it has also
caused the voter to be more demanding and more aware of how other countries
govern. These events, while a good thing in themselves, have led to enormous
dissatisfaction with the government. Suddenly, Austrians are no longer thinking
"Ah, but everyone does it this way" but "why do we always play these complicated
games in a time of global competition?".
Thus, the time was ripe for a change.
0.2 But Why Him?
But "Why," you ask, "did they vote for Haider's party?"
This is a complicated question. The answer is not the simple one that
roughly 30% of Austrians are fascist or right radical leaning racists. The
answer is for more complicated (as is everything in Austria) but certainly not
terribly flattering either.
First, we know that the Socialists and the Peoples' party must carry
much of the blame. As in many other European countries the Socialists have had a
hard time justifying their existence when so many say that "capitalism has won".
The Socialists have effectively abandoned their platform without finding any
strong or long-lasting principles to replace them. While most Socialist parties
in Europe have gone through a difficult phase, Austria is predictably a bit
late. In fact, the Socialists remarked that they had no such problems due to
their outstanding leadership.
How dangerous self-praise is!
The fact is that the Socialists have gradually abandoned their
Socialist principles and attempted to become an "all things to all people"
party. Naturally, this is impossible. It started when a former Bank Director -
Mr. Vranitzky - become Chancellor (any true blooded socialist would cringe at
such a connection), and culminated with the promotion of Viktor Klima (a
socialist by name but a populist by action). With a leadership lacking any
principles, Mr. Klima embarked on a populist program. And as a populist who
should you fear most? Well Mr. Haider of course. Mr. Klima's internal slogan
must have been "well if you can't beat him, join him."
"Whoosssh", that's the sound of Mr. Einem, who tried unsuccessfully to
reform the police, being ushered out.
"Ouch", that's the sound of every civil rights proponent in Austria
reacting to the action of the new Minister of the Interior, Mr. Schloegl.
Together, Mr. Klima and Mr. Schloegl, not in words but in action, effectively
endorsed many of Mr. Haider's suggestions.
Let's look at a few of these actions and you be the judge if they stem
from a "European Social Democratic Party" or a radical right reactionary party.
- Asylum seeking was virtually stopped after being one of the most liberal
- The tacit acknowledgment that there are too many foreigners in Austria by
a total change in immigration policy through quotas and drastic restrictions
- The inhuman and at times sadly laughable (if it did not make you cry
first) acts of deportation and separation of family members due to nit-picking
interpretations of the law by the bureaucracy.
- More police power especially as it concerns surveillance in the private
sphere controlled by a judicial system that sides 99 times out of 100 with the
- Defending police brutality until an outcry of public protest forces public
- The death of an asylum seeker due to approved brutal methods of constraint
- Constant prejudice and discrimination of the police against people of
- The assumption by most of the police force that all African looking people
are drug dealers (which has lead to some embarrassing arrests and brutality by
police against academic guests but, unfortunately, the world's media was not
- The instruction to junior police officers by at least one superior ranking
trainer that the way to handle Afro-European suspects is to beat them first
and question them later. Eventually, the superior was investigated and
reproached but his behavior was not viewed as symptomatic of its police force
but only "stupid". As if that excuses it.
- The open approval of Mr. Schloegl by Mr. Haider, calling Mr. Schloegl, "my
best man in the cabinet."
Too often we have undervalued the worth of leadership based on
well-defined party principles and over-valued the effectiveness of "populism."
Although charismatic, Mr. Klima is no match for Mr. Haider. His party should
have stuck with someone who could represent the principles of Social Democracy.
Mr. Einem or Mr. Fischer are the only two public faces in the Socialist Party
that I see carrying such a torch. However, in the political atmosphere of "all
things to all people", these two officials were relegated to the background for
fear of upsetting the populace and having even more voters move to Mr. Haider.
To me this decision was catastrophic for both Austria and the Socialists. In
short, Klima and co. acknowledged to voters through his government's actions
that a minority of Austrians were correct in their xenophobic fears and latent
racism, that, in effect, Mr. Haider had been telling the truth all along.
But for the voter who, for some time now, was sick and tired of the
Grand Coalition, this was a nicely wrapped invitation to just say the hell with
it and vote Freedom Party.
0.3 A Long List Of Blame
However, this does not account for all the votes that Mr. Haider
received. A good 20-30% of his votes were definitely protest votes. Before the
election, both ruling parties indicated that they would form another coalition,
excluding Haider. This presented the golden opportunity for many voters to vent
their anger without worrying about letting the wolf into the chicken coop (more,
later, on the wolf and chicken coop).
It doesn't say much for Austria that its protest votes resulted in a
vote for Mr. Haider. Austrians have two other good and responsible alternatives,
the eloquent and intelligent Mr. Van der Bellen of the Green Party, and the
confrontational but no less intelligent Ms. Heide Schmidt of the Liberal Forum
Party. However, Austria never participated in or shared the tradition of
"liberalism," being protected from such radical perils by the dominating
influence of Metternich. Consequently, the liberalism expounded by Ms. Schmidt
is, in a strange sense, too radical a change for Austria. True, socialism in
Austria could be said to be far more radical in scope than what liberalism
espouses. However socialism, by its very nature, is patriarchal and Austrians
have clung to such fatherly security since losing their Monarchy. As for the
Greens, through Mr. Van der Bellen's leadership they have enjoyed a
well-deserved surge in popularity, but they are new to the scene and viewed as
too "morally-tolerant" (for lack of a better word) for many of the conservative
The President, Mr. Thomas Klestil, must also share responsibility for
this fiasco. While it needs to be said that Mr. Klestil is dead-set against such
a coalition he feels he is left with no choice. He has failed to call for new
elections to settle the matter once and for all. It seems that Mr. Klestil does
not have confidence in his fellow citizens to reject the Haider program. He
looks to the polls and sees that during the long drawn out and pre-ordained
failed coalition negotiations between the Socialists and the Conservatives the
Freedom Party gained even further in popularity. But this is a typical knee-jerk
reaction from the Austrians, venting their anger and frustration with politics
as usual without thinking about the consequences. One can be fairly confident
that after an election campaign most of these protest voters would change their
mind to a more intelligent choice. A case in point was the EU referendum. The
polls said it was neck and neck. However, when the clock struck midnight and
Austrians had to decide whether they wanted to be part of Europe or be turned
into a pumpkin they voted a resounding "yes" for Europe. With such large issues
on the table, I find it sad that Mr. Klestil does not trust his fellow citizens.
Hollow rings the Austrian government's claim of a stable democracy.
Certainly, calling such an election would have had its risks.
Theoretically, it could have strengthened Mr. Haider's party. But at the very
least it would have clearly defined the issues. Mr. Haider would have either
suffered an embarrassing defeat or a shocking victory 3. The
Socialists during the election would have had to distance themselves from
Haider's policies and, thereby, perhaps with a bit of luck, discover themselves
again. The Conservative Party would have received its comeuppance for its
willingness to sleep with the devil. And it would have given the Austrians a
chance to see the Greens and Liberals in a different role.
0.4 Apples, Oranges, and Kiwis
However, all of this should be put in perspective. The Greens,
receiving 14% of the vote, would be labeled in conservative parts of America as
"immoral, radical and ex-Berkeley academics" with their platform. And the
original socialist platform is even too "liberal" for most Americans to handle
4. We should
also not forget that the Socialists were still the "winning" party in the
election with over 30% of the vote.
So all is not lost in Austria. Many people here are not only dedicated
to democratic principles but are truly good citizens of Europe. While it is true
that you see blatant discrimination in Austria, you also find the opposite: true
color-blindness of many of its people 5. This is
something that is virtually impossible in America.
Furthermore, a good insight into its people is the value of friendship
which means something in this land. A friendship may take a while to form but
its bond lasts a lifetime. What is perhaps most heartening is that this type of
friendship is genuine. If a friend does something for you, he does so out of
kindness and not with the thought of getting anything in return. That can only
come from someone whose heart is good.
0.5 A Fascist In Waiting?
To be fair the jury is still out on Mr. Haider. You cannot judge a
person to be a fascist or a criminal unless they either confess beforehand,
openly stating their principles (Mr. Haider is no such beast),or prove it by
their actions. Mr. Haider hasn't been given the litmus test of action. I would
call him a "fascist in waiting." 6.
Mr. Haider is as cunning as a fox and as aggressive as a wolf. A
lethal combination. He is just too smart to be a neo-Nazi. Our media has made
the dangerous assumption that if fascism returned to Europe it would assume the
same political form as in the past. Tacit in this assumption are some dangerous
premises. First, that Nazis are stupid. Second, that they didn't learn anything
from the past. Third, that they are not capable of adjusting their program to
modern times. And yes, the Neo-Nazis are stupid.
But Mr. Haider isn't stupid, nor are any of his contemporaries. Why
shouldn't fascists learn from their mistakes and develop into something more
"refined" and "cultivated"? The threat to democracy will not come from the
outside, but from within. Mr. Haider is such a threat. He constantly 'praises'
democracy, without committing himself to engage in a democratic manner. He
realises that democracy is his ticket to power. However, the key to a democratic
society is also a guarantee of freedom for the minority. Somehow in many
"western" countries we have forgotten about this basic tenet. Without it, we
have the dictatorship of the majority. Mr. Haider has never given any indication
that he respects the rights of all. In fact, he seems to be enthralled with the
idea of a dictatorship through his manipulated followers. Watch him in a crowd
and see how he relishes the challenge of bringing his people to the emotional
level that he wants. If you observe him without any prejudice, you will at first
be amazed and then frightened. This is a man that can manipulate people and
loves doing so.
I find Mr. Grunwald's depiction of Mr. Haider most insightful:
Haider told me that he was not really a German nationalist but used that
rhetoric to satisfy the "old folks." 7
We have become accustomed to politicians who resort to the most banal
to attract a crowd. However, one must call into question the moral fibre of such
a person. Let's for instance give Mr. Haider the benefit of the doubt that he
does not believe in his own provocative and disgusting statements. What type of
beast do we have here that would nevertheless excite people with such overt
intolerance and racism?
Mr. Van der Bellen raised an interesting point the other day. He
called Mr. Haider on the carpet for his remark that the EU is over-reacting. Mr.
Haider said that the EU was yelling that the wolf is in the chicken coop when
the wolf isn't there. Mr. Van der Bellen found it insulting that Mr. Haider
referred to Europe as those in the chicken coop. However, I would go one step
further and suggest that Mr. Haider meant much more than that. First, Haider has
the clever way of phrasing such statements that if anyone takes issue with what
he says then it is the accuser that has read things into his words that just
weren't there. But he consistently talks in double speak. His words are a
double-edged sword. For those who like Mr. Haider because he is such a "nice
good young man", his defence that he didn't mean anything by such a reference is
good enough. For his radical followers the hidden inference is the necessary
fuel that adds fire to their cause. I find it interesting that Mr. Haider would
use such a reference in the first place. Is Mr. Haider the wolf that hasn't
entered the chicken coop just yet? That's an interesting insight isn't it? He is
staying in Carinthia, after all. Does he see himself as the wolf? The chicken
part of his analogy is also vintage Haider. Without calling the rest of the EU a
bunch of chickens he has made the link. If you constantly feel that you are the
victims of a united Europe and foreigner friendly laws, which Haider encourages
his party to feel, then the wolf analogy takes on a completely different hue for
his radical followers. He seems to enjoy this game. Is this double-speak a
signal to his followers that everything is running as planned? The wolf is
waiting for his moment to pounce. Far-fetched you say. Normally, I would agree.
Conspiracy theories are usually just plain silly. My judgment as to whether a
conspiracy theory holds water is first test it with incompetence. 99 times out
of 100 incompetence offers the better and simpler explanation. However, Mr.
Haider is not incompetent and he is a seasoned politician. Politicians know
better than anyone on how to prevent unwanted inferences. Mr. Haider seems to
have taken this art one step further. He makes 'wanted' inferences without being
held responsible for them.
Lastly, one of the greatest dangers to Austria and Europe is not what
will happen in the next few months or even years. The real danger is the
"normalization" of Haider and his party to the point where we think he has been
controlled or "tamed". It will be the insidious encroachment of rules that go
unnoticed but eventually add up to a sizeable loss of freedom. Mr. Haider is a
far-sighted politician. He has proven this by taking his party from near
hopeless obscurity to one of second if not top dog in Austria. He will surely
bode his time in Carinthia, taking credit when things work right, blaming
Klestil (the President restricted Haider's choice on Ministers) or the People's
Party for blundering it when things prove unpopular, until the time is right for
Austria to "need" his leadership. And his ministers in the cabinet are certainly
dispensable for the great cause.
Austria through its years of dominance of the Socialists and
Conservatives has not thought to put checks on its own power. This is evident in
their influence with the press 8, the
virtual control of radio and TV and to a lesser degree the judicial system.
Their argument was to create stability. The Socialists never dreamed that they
would be the odd one out.
In this scenario one last ominous question presents itself:
What happens when a "wolf" like Mr. Haider gets in the chicken coop with a
disarmed powerless farmer left to watch the destruction of 40 years hard work?
curious claim of the People's Party is to end the era of "Proporz" while
neglecting to admit their responsibility. Are they making a stand on principle?
Why, then, the sudden about face? It seems more likely that since they can't win
the game anymore, they don't want to play. At least not with the Socialists.
One such incident sheds light on the views of the Freedom Party, more
reminiscent of Stalinist times than a democracy. The case had to do with police
mercilessly beating up a black person in front of numerous witnesses.
Courageously, these witnesses made a complaint. Their actions were greeted by
the police union's attempt to sue the witnesses for going against the police!
The police union was at the time controlled by the Freedom Party.
3. Even if
Haider's party were to have won the predicted 32-34% that would not have
necessarily meant a Freedom Party led coalition. The Conservatives were
suffering badly in the polls. It could have been that the Freedom Party and the
People's Party would have been short the necessary 50% to control Parliament.
Guaranteed health insurance for all, a liberal unemployment benefit, 2 year
job-guaranteed leave for mothers with new-borns, family aid for all, 5-6 weeks
vacation, free university education are just a few of the items that would
frighten the U.S. Democratic Party into labelling this platform the agenda of
"fuzzy-eyed left-leaning liberals".
5. If you
find this hard to believe listen to statements from the recently deceased
black-American jazz musician, Art Farmer, stating that he found more freedom and
less discrimination living in Vienna than in America.
6. True to
form, Mr. Haider's and his Freedom Party statements of late concerning the EU
actions and demonstrations by many citizens bring to mind the fascist tactics of
the 1930s. According to the Freedom Party and Mr. Haider, the "left" in the form
of "foreign agitators" is to blame for coordinating both the actions of the
European Community as well as the spontaneous demonstrations in Vienna.
Grunwald, One Man's America. Anchor Books, 1997, p.602.
8. If any
one questions the influence of the political parties on the press one need not
look any further than a couple years back when the "Profil" put the Chancellor
on the cover. Mr. Vranitzky pictured naked with the implication of the "Emperor
without any clothes". An excellent political point and the cover was not the
least bit offensive. The naked body in question was a double, only the face was
of Mr. Vranitzky, and 9 out of 10 men would turn in their mothers for such a
body. However, Mr. Vranitzky did not think it so humorous and the editor
responsible lost his job. In most democracies such an obvious intrusion of a
political party into the freedom of the press would cause the Chancellor to lose
Gustav Mayer is a pseudonym for a writer living in Austria.
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