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 games.

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.

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 Austrians.

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?


1. A 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.

2. 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.

4. 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.

7. Henry 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 his job!

Gustav Mayer is a pseudonym for a writer living in Austria.