A boon to Aus­tria’s far-right

Don’t cel­e­brate: Jorg Haider’s death may ac­tu­ally strengthen Aus­tria’s ex­trem­ists

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - DANIELLA PELED

WHAT A way to go. Like Grace Kelly, Isadora Dun­can and Princess Di be­fore him, Jorg Haider met his death last week in a high-speed car crash. It was a fit­tingly dra­matic exit for the hand­some poster-boy of Aus­trian prej­u­dice who, with his perma-tan and gelled hair, had brought a touch of glam­our back to the far-right.

In­deed, com­ing just two weeks af­ter his po­lit­i­cal come­back — when the far-right won nearly a third of the vote in the Aus­trian elec­tions — his death has a bio-pic qual­ity that has cap­tured the imagination of the Aus­trian pub­lic.

Even the coun­try’s So­cial Demo­crat pres­i­dent, Heinz Fis­cher, said he felt “deeply af­fected” by Haider’s sud­den death at 58, call­ing him a “politi­cian of great tal­ent”.

No such half-mea­sures for those closer po­lit­i­cally to Haider, who led the Al­liance for Aus­tria’s Fu­ture at the time of his death. “The sun has fallen from the sky,” sobbed Ger­hard Dör­fler, Haider’s deputy as gov­er­nor of the prov­ince of Carinthia. “For us, this is the end of the world,” said Ste­fan Pet­zner, the party’s sec­re­tary gen­eral — again, a slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion, since within 24 hours he had re­placed his late boss as head of the party.

Haider cer­tainly stirred strong feel­ings dur­ing his life, as a re­sult of his pop­ulist, anti-es­tab­lish­ment mes­sage, heav­ily flavoured as it was with an­ti­im­mi­grant and anti-Euro­pean Union sen­ti­ment, not to men­tion a heavy dose of Nazi apol­o­gism.

Whether prais­ing the em­ploy­ment poli­cies of the Third Re­ich, de­scrib­ing SS vet­er­ans as “de­cent peo­ple of good char­ac­ter” or dis­miss­ing con­cen­tra­tion camps as mere “pu­n­ish­ment camps”, his views ap­par­ently res­onated with an ever in­creas­ing mi­nor­ity of his fel­low Aus­tri­ans.

It does not seem to be one of those coun­tries which has pro­cessed its past his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence into the na­tional con­scious­ness. In­deed, it has some­times ex­celled in self-de­cep­tion, as in the case of for­mer pres­i­dent Kurt Wald­heim, who con­ven- iently for­got to men­tion cer­tain de­tails of his Wehrma­cht past.

Aus­tri­ans some­times seem to view them­selves as the first vic­tims of Na­tional So­cial­ism. Haider him­self — the son of par­ents who were both en­thu­si­as­tic Nazis and who lived on an es­tate pre­vi­ously owned by Aus­trian Jews who fled the Nazis — seemed to ar­tic­u­late this odd vic­tim­hood par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tively. But it would be un­fair to cast Aus­tria as a coun­try of ex­treme racists and xeno­phobes.

The as­ton­ish­ing re­sults of last month’s elec­tion had more com­plex ori­gins, in part a protest vote against the in­ep­ti­tude of the two main­stream par­ties. The suf­fo­cat­ing, bu­reau­cratic al­liance be­tween the con­ser­va­tive, Catholic Peo­ple’s Party and the cen­tre-left So­cial Demo­cratic Party has dom­i­nated Aus­trian pol­i­tics since 1945, yet failed even to man­age to form a func­tion­ing gov­ern­ment, the pre­vi­ous coali­tion hav­ing col­lapsed in June.

When, in 1999, Haider’s Free­dom Party won 28 per cent of the vote, they were in­vited to join a gov­ern­ment coali­tion, a de­ci­sion which led to global out­rage and de facto sanc­tions from the Euro­pean Union, with Is­rael with­draw­ing its am­bas­sador from Vi­enna.

His new party was in part an at­tempt to re­po­si­tion him in a more moderate po­si­tion. But the 2005 split was also down to per­sonal ri­valry with HeinzChris­tian Stra­che, his suc­ces­sor as Free­dom Party leader.

That is where his sud­den death could have po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences. It was per­sonal en­mity rather than any great ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences that made an al­liance be­tween the two far-right fac­tions un­likely. A pact be­tween the two right-wing par­ties would make them the sec­ond strong­est force in Aus­trian pol­i­tics, whether within gov­ern­ment or op­po­si­tion.

It re­mains to be seen whether Haider’s 27-year-old suc­ces­sor, or the even more vir­u­lently anti-im­mi­gra­tion Stra­che, have the charisma and po­lit­i­cal nous to con­sol­i­date their po­si­tion. But it seems the groundswell of sup­port for the pol­i­tics of xeno­pho­bia is there. All it needs to re­alise it is an­other film-star fas­cist to re­place Haider af­ter his high-speed exit. Daniella Peled is the JC’s for­eign ed­i­tor. This page ap­pears ev­ery two weeks.

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