Who's Afraid of Jorg Haider?
by Jan Fossgard

What does Haider-hysteria say about us?


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Jorg Haider is the most talked-about Austrian since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Waldheim. This is not a good start: Arnie was the product of Nazi superman' experiments while Kurt Waldheim's role as a lieutenant in Hitler's Wehrmacht apparently went somewhat beyond the call of duty.

Add to this the fact that Haider is a fitness fanatic (he claims to have run the New York marathon in 3 hours 52 minutes, sponsored by Reebok), that he believes that artists are wasters and that school classes shouldn't contain too many (33%) foreigners, and the scene is set for European hysteria.

Most of the media and European politicians decided in February that Haider was a dangerous Nazi. The EU froze bilateral contacts with the new government, Israel and the United States recalled their ambassadors, while Supreme Commander of Nato, Wesley Clark, cancelled a visit to Vienna.

Since Jorg Haider's resignation at the beginning of March, the media have responded predictably. They say he is a cunning shape-shifter who is intentionally moving into the background only to emerge stronger when the time is right. They say it is a strategic move to avoid the government's potentially unpopular tax reforms. They say that the acquital of Nazi doctor Heinrich Gross by an Austrian court is indicative of Austria's rightist political stance.

It is easy for them to say these things. It is less easy for Austria to deal with continued international condemnation and isolation. The Austrian government, historically one of the most pro-European EU members, recently pleaded with the European Commission to resume normal relations with Austria. The plea fell on deaf ears, because the Freedom Party remains in power.

Yet the allegations levelled against the Freedom Party are all but empty. The Heinrich Gross case was thrown out in much the same way that the Pinochet case was in the UK. The difference was, the decision not to try him was made a lot more efficiently, without the loss of large sums of taxpayers' money. As for emerging as Austria's chancellor in the next election, Haider probably doesn't stand a chance, unless he is swept in on an anger vote', a reaction by Austrians against the continued EU stance.

Many are glad that the EU has at least done something, for once, but has Europe gone into hysteria overdrive? Allow us to separate the fact from the fiction:

Fiction: Haider now rules Austria
Fact: Since 1 March, Jorg Haider is no longer leader of the Freedom Party. He has no federal powers. He is governor of his home province of Carinthia. He is not a member of the Cabinet, and claims to have no intentions of entering the government in Vienna.

Fiction: The government is dominated by Nazis
Fact: Susanne Riess-Passer, the chancellor, shares the same birthplace as Adolf Hitler: Braunau. Other members of the cabinet include the founding member of the Austrian United Greens, Elisabeth Sicki and Karl-Heinz Grasser, who left the Freedom Party in 1998 after disputes with Haider.

Fiction: Haider has links with extremist organisations.
Fact: A cleverly falsified web-page, purporting to be the official site of the Freedom Party, did indeed have hyperlinks to the French National Front, the American Ku-Klux-Klan and neo-Nazi groups. The Freedom Party condemned as cyberterrorists' those responsible for the falsified pages and said they had been put there to damage the reputation of the Party'.

Fiction: Haider rose to power on a massive wave of popular support
Fact: The inconclusive general election of 3 October last reflects disillusion with the traditional political parties (the Christian Democrats of the VP and the Social Democrats of the SP) rather than support for the Freedom Party: the Coalition lost 570,000 votes, while the Freedom Party gained a further 130,000.

Fiction: Haider hates Jews
Fact: Simon Wiesenthal, the celebrated Nazi hunter, says: Haider has never said anything against Israel, and has never said anything anti-Semitic'. A Rabbi writes in favour of Jorg Haider and the Freedom Party on the official party homepage, against the pro-Palestinian socialist governments of the EU.

Turning to what Haider said for himself, the four-and-a-half page 100-Day Programme of Candidate Governor Jorg Haider' was brief, blunt, but remarkably uncontroversial given the hype. Female protesters at the swearing-in ceremony claimed that Haider wanted to tie them to the kitchen sink, but the statement had no such suggestion: Every mother should receive ATS 5,700 per month until her child is 6 years old. This will be a decisive contribution to improving the financial situation of families and gives women a choice.' Furthermore, he promised a programme for the employment of women and mothers (flexible working hours, retraining measures, expansion of day care facilities etc.).' Some of Haider's comments would be welcome in Britain. Take his criticism of spin-doctoring: Members of the government should make decisions instead of hiding behind expensive expert opinions.'

But towards the end he promised an immediate programme for music schools (1,600 children without teachers) instead of subsidies for faecal art'. This was understood by artists and the cultural elite, in Austria and abroad, as a suggestion that Art, freedom of expression in a more general sense, and they themselves, are under threat. Ioen Holender, director of Vienna's state opera, amongst others, warned last month that he might resign, while threats of an intellectual exodus came thick and fast. Most of the fears seem to have been groundless.

As for immigration (of which nothing is mentioned in the above document), a tightening of laws was always on the cards. Austria is a signatory to the EU's immigration laws (to which Britain is not, incidentally, a signatory) and will act accordingly. The Freedom Party, with or without Jorg Haider, seems unlikely to do anything the former administration would not have done, and it will almost certainly be less ruthless in its application of EU laws than other member states. Germany's Minister of the Interior, Otto Schily, permitted Customs agents to gag rejected asylum agents to stifle their cries during deportation and is now one of Haider's most vociferous critics.

Germany was sharp to condemn the Freedom Party's place in Austria's government, but why should Austria listen? Austria is not Germany's little brother, or is it? Herein the Freedom Party has a winning ticket, because it suffices to hint patiently that Austria has come of age (thank you very much), and to point out hypocrisy on immigration, democracy and socialist party slush fund conspiracies. And the same goes for European exclusion, which still runs the risk of playing straight into the Freedom Party's hands. Such speculation still demands an answer to the question: will the Freedom Party choose to play the game at all? If some of his pronouncements have been unsavoury (praise of Waffen SS and calling concentration camps penal camps'), it remains to be seen how far the party will put their rightist position into practice. German political commentator, Peter Back, told Hackwriters, To compare the FP's political positions with those of German parties, they are clearly situated to the political left relative to the Bavarian Christian Democrats. I challenge all those who condemn Haider as a fascist to present evidence in favour of that slur.'

How are we to interpret the knee-jerk reaction of the EU? Many praise it for responding at all, and especially for doing so with such speed and decision. There are high words for Europe: that it is asking us to view it not as a grouping of nations held together only with the glue of mutual economic interest, but as an organisation united with the same fundamental beliefs, by which it is prepared to stand. Article six of the Treaty on European Union states that the EU is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.' Article seven says a member state breaching these principles may be barred from voting.

These are high words indeed. But Austria hasn't broken any of the principles, and it isn't about to, so it's high time to leave her alone. The real reason we object to Haider is surely because he is an unpleasant wake-up call to make our own position clear on a range of tricky issues, such as our policy on immigration and our stance on the holocaust. Let's be honest: even now, and certainly in the future, it is we who are in the dock, not Austria.


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