The Blog

Austria Ostracized

From the February 28, 2000 issue: Jorg Haider presaged Le Pen. One reporter saw it coming.

12:00 AM, Apr 23, 2002 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
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WE ARE ALREADY more than a week into Europe's boycott of the Austrian government, but the Sturm und Drang show no sign of blowing over.

For one, all 14 of the European Union members who have frozen high-level bilateral contacts with Austria now face a whole series of deeply traumatic protocol crises. Is the Austrian ambassador to be invited to the meeting, not invited to the meeting, or invited to the meeting but not to drinks afterwards? Can the Austrian minister be received at the level of department chief, at the level of deputy minister, or should he not be received at all? Nor has public interest flagged. Press coverage, television debates, and anxious dinner party chat continues, even in London, where events on the continent rarely raise eyebrows, let alone interest.

And no wonder: In its swift action against Jorg Haider and his Freedom party, now a partner in Austria's new coalition government, Europe has acted with more unanimity than it has shown in years. This, after all, is the same European Union that behaved chaotically in Bosnia, was deeply divided by Kosovo, and has always been unhappy about the denunciation of military dictators anywhere in the world.

Collectively, the EU has never been known to condemn Polish and Russian, or even French and Italian, Communists--people who actively participated in or openly supported totalitarian regimes, as opposed to expressing heavily camouflaged sympathy for them. Nor did it ever dare to ostracize Francois Mitterrand, an actual member of the Vichy government. Yet in the past two weeks, EU members have found themselves able to agree, vehemently, about Haider. "I am used to reading communiques condemning events in Indonesia, Africa, or Chechnya," admitted one EU diplomat, speaking of the union's letter to the Austrian president, "but this took me aback: The language was in a different league." So different is the language, in fact, that it is a touch suspect.

For those who can't quite believe that all of this diplomatic handwringing was really about what it claimed to be about, a quick glance at the website of Jorg Haider's Freedom party is an educational experience. Immediately, one is stopped short: There aren't any swastikas. There aren't any Nazi slogans. There aren't even any little buttons you can click to see a film of the Nuremberg rally. There are, rather prominently displayed, quotations from leading Austrian Jews, testifying to the fact that neither Haider nor his party has ever said or done anything that could be construed as anti-Semitic.

Admittedly, some of these comments are a bit foreshortened. Simon Wiesenthal is (correctly) quoted saying, "Haider never said anything against Israel and has never said anything anti-Semitic." The rest of this quote, not mentioned on the Freedom party website, goes like this:

"His parents were out-and-out Nazis. Haider was educated by them. Much of what he says that is so uncontrolled he heard as a child at home. His party is a Fuhrer party, and he is a dictator in democratic disguise."

That omission aside, much of the website is otherwise void of sensation, being dedicated not to discussions of Austria's past, but rather to Austria's future, and in particular to Haider's 20-point "Contract With Austria." The points include cutting Austria's national debt ("every newborn child comes into the world with debts amounting to the cost of a medium-range car"), reducing the immense bureaucracy, ending state television and radio monopolies by granting private licenses, cutting taxes, fighting crime, and increasing home ownership at the expense of state-run housing associations.

He doesn't, of course, leave out his two best-known policies: fighting immigration and preventing Austria from "losing more of its rights" to the European Union, not surprising since he fought against accession to the EU in 1995. Yet it is striking that most of his agenda, including immigration restrictions, would sit comfortably in the center of the American Republican party, especially its Pete Wilson wing, or even of the British Labour party, particularly its Tony Blair wing, which has itself been publicly toying with the idea of forcing all people entering Great Britain from the Indian subcontinent to pay a deposit of L 10,000 to be forfeited if they fail to return home.

But on the rest of the European continent, Haider's rhetoric--and I'm not talking about the nods and winks to Wehrmacht veterans--is indeed new, radical, and deeply upsetting to the entrenched political elite.