On the political situation in Austria

In February 2000, Austria's new government, a right wing coalition between Christian Democrats and the (so-called) Freedom Party had led the country into a tempest of national and international criticism and worldwide isolation. This had a particular impact on the scientific comunity, whose work is based on international exchange and cultural openmindendness. This is why, after those events, I included my personal considerations on Austrian politics in my scientific homepage. Subsequently, even after the situation had calmed down somewhat, I decided to leave the original text unchanged, only adding every now and then a few new remarks.

In the meantime, Austria has disappeared from most international news, and there have been only few news flashes reporting that after only two and a half years, and a full year before the end of its term, the government has collapsed because of a major crisis within the Freedom Party.


Post-war Austria

In 1943, the allies postulated that Austria had been the first victim of Hitler's agressive expansion policy, and that the Austrian republic should be restored in its boundaries previous to the Anschluss of 1938. Austria's politicians and people happily took up this comfortable interpretation of history, the subsequent outbreak of cold war made it easy to maintain this self-deception (-lie). Thus, there was no serious learning of recent history after 1945, and during the busy period of reconstruction and Wirtschaftswunder, hardly any questions were asked loudly until 1965, when in a big demonstration students demanded the dismission of Economy professor Taras Borodajkewycz for his nazi and antisemitic words and past. Questions and disputes regarding the Nazi past have been present ever since the late 1960ies. However, for many of us younger Austrians it has been extremely difficult to discuss these things and ask questions within our families: even more amazing than the degree of unawareness (I do not mean present unawareness but unawareness during the Nazi period of what was going on) is the lasting efficiency of Nazi propaganda on those who were young at that time, even when they are proud christian or social democrats. For better understanding them, I want to add one observation: in their personal experience, the lasting impression of their own suffering (bombing, hunger, expulsion form their homes, violations) prevails over the much more "abstract" perception of the fact that much, much worse suffering had been inflicted in their name by the Nazi regime to other peoples.

Nevertheless, we have developped a visible democratic culture, and I would be offended to hear that Austria on the whole has remained a Nazi country. This is simply not true.

The political parties

Ever since 1945, Austrian politics have been dominated by two big parties, the People's party ÖVP (christian democrats) and the social democrats SPÖ. Due to our electoral system, for most of the time the power did not "flip" back and forth between the two, but they formed the government jointly in the grosse Koalition (big coalition). This was so from 1945 to 1964 (in the first few years after 1945, the comunists took also part; today they are almost extinct) and again from 1986 to 2000. (From 66 to 70 the government was ÖVP-only, and from 70 to 83 SPÖ-only; from 83 to 86 we had a coalition SPÖ - FPÖ, the freedom party, which was small and different at the time). The effect was that the sharing of power of ÖVP-SPÖ penetrated many, many parts of society, which had some positive effects (political and social peace) but also various negative ones. Immagine that most public employees in medium and higher positions needed (still need) to be member of one of the two parties to get their job - of course not officially, but in practice everybody knows this. In particular, this is true for school teachers (!), but fortunately this has not been so bad in universities. [There are exceptions, though. A colleague of mine was proposed for a Styrian prize for scientific achievements. It turned out that this prize seems to "flip" on a yearly basis between SPÖ and ÖVP, and at some point, there were inoffical and unprovable enquiries whether he or some member of his family was an SPÖ member. He did not win the prize, but a much more prestigious one on a less politicized level shortly after. He also would not have received the Styrian prize in the subsequent year.] I am telling these facts in order to illustrate why many Austrians have become tired of this type of governemnt, even though the governments were not bad at all on the whole: apart from all the criticism that I have [to make things clear: I am a voter of the green party, die Grünen, ever since it has been founded], one must admit that they provided a rather successful economic policy, political and economic peace, and a relatively stable social system. Besides the above mentioned mild pressures of the Proporzsystem, there has been no general political oppression or similar. However, the last years gave many of us a clear feeling of stagnation.

The freedom party and Jörg Haider

The (so-called) freedom party FPÖ has never been a liberal party, although the German "freiheitlich" seems to indicate this. When it was founded in the 50ies, it was in good part a reservoir of former national socialists who did not want to arrange themselves with SPÖ and/or ÖVP (who both offered membership to lower rank ex-nazis then, in part with educational intentions, but in part just for gaining votes). The FPÖ has always been the preferred party of the right wing Studenverbindungen (student unions, but one remains member for lifetime), a phenomenum that has its roots in German history of the 19th century and is hard to explain to non-Austrians/non-Germans; for understanding read Heinrich Mann's novel "der Untertan". In its pre-Haider period (78-86), some of the leading figures at the time tried half-heartedly to transform the FPÖ towards a more liberal direction, leading the party into a coalition with the SPÖ. In elections before 1988, they usually gained 5 - 7% of the votes.

In 1986, Jörg Haider took the lead of the party in a Putschlike election. Before that he had already become known as a leading political figure in the region of Carinthia (where he had dethroned his own mentor within his party without pity) using a very sloppy diction regarding the nazi past. It is noteworthy that in his earlier days, Haider had been considered a left wing exponent of his party. He turned right "publicly" only when he started to build up his political carreer in Carinthia (whose population is considered to have the highest xenophobic and nationalist percentage within Austria, which has its roots partly in the Yugoslav attempt to annect southern Carinthia after World War I).

Now, many of you will have read or heard that Haider is a nazi or fascist. I'm afraid that this is a wrong simplification. It is true that Haider's parents were national socalists, but be careful not to base your judgement on this fact. My personal analysis is that this is a pure populist - of the worst kind, in my opinion - wo bases his success upon appealing to the low instincts of the people. Let me quote his own words, a key line from an interview that was published by the Austrian weekly Profil in the week when the new government took the power:

"Die Political Correctness ist nicht wesentlich. Es gibt nur einen demokratischen Masstab: Und das ist die Wahl".

Translated: "Political correctness is not essential. There is only one democratic standard: and that is the election". I.e., translated to myself: one is allowed to say one thing on one day and the opposite on the other, one may turn around the word in the mouth of one's political opponent, one has no ideological responsibility or educational responsibility towards the people, as long as one gains a maximum of votes. To my feeling, this is even worse than the nazi tag, which is a simplified classification as an evil that is well known throughout the world. I think that it is unessential even for Haider himself whether he believes the words that he has said some years ago about national socialist occupation policy, concentration camps or SS-comrades - this was just part of the game of maximizing votes. As a matter of fact, fewer and fewer "historical" nazis are still alive, and one can observe that this type of game has more or less disappeared from Haider's diction. And one should add that he does not use any kind of explicit antisemitic vocabulary. However, a populism that appeals to the low instincts needs a "public enemy". This has become the Ausländer (foreigner), by which so far are not meant foreigners coming from "Civilized Western Nations" (ironifying quotation marks by myself), but from former Yugoslavia, Africa, or Asia including Turkey. Now, we all know that the increasing pressure of immigration from poor countries has lead to increasing xenophoby in almost all CWNs. (As a testimony from the other side of the Atlantic, read T. C. Boyles "Tortilla Curtain". By the way, speaking of the US: in my opinion it is also cheap populism that replaces educational responsibilities, when all presidential candidates in the US proudly stick to the death penalty...) In the least 15 years or so, Austria's population has increased by immigration from slightly more that 7 million to approx. 8 million. While it is rather easy for us middle and upper class intellectuals to promote the multicultural society, this concept is not so easily understood by lower class workers or unemployed who have hardly any knowledge of the world beyond the frontiers. It is easy to persuade them that its the immigrants who take away their jobs, take overproportional advantage of the social system, and so on. This is one of the main themes in the policy of Haider and his party, who in this way have gained many fomer social democrat voters. (And, unfortunately, in the past years the frightened SPÖ has reacted to this menace by executing many of the things that Haider had demanded. Also note at this point that the German minister of the interior, Schily, social democrat and a former member of the German Green party, has proposed asylum rules that are even stricter than those that the FPÖ here in Austria has been demanding and/or the SPÖ has been executing.) Let me add here that post war Austria has offered help quite open-mindedly to refugees, in particular after the Hungarian uprise in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Also, Austria was the first station in the West of many Jews who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to Israel or the USA. It is true that there was less enthusiasm in welcoming refugees during the recent wars in Bosnia and the Kosovo, but in relation to the total population, the number of refugees from Bosnia that found asylum in Austria was much higher than in most other countries.

The other main theme of Haider has been to attack the "old parties" SPÖ and ÖVP and their privileges - and unfortuantely, the "old parties" have offered him many, many opportunities that justified these attacks. In my opinion, the difference is that SPÖ and ÖVP, in spite of all their stagnation and the hidden corruption, privileges or how you want to call it (the typical effects of having had the power for too many years) have maintained a nucleus of responsability for the country and the people that is not subdued to the greed for power.

And of course, the FPÖ has a negative attitude towards most modern artists and non-conservative intellectuals - something that is also easy to "sell" in a demagogic policy. One less publicized, but rather alarming fact is that Haider as the governor of the region of Carinthia has started to fire higher rank public employees who have expressed some criticism towards himself or his party, using questionable juridical pretexts. (Of course these persons are typically members of one of the other parties and may have obtained their position with some help from "above". But one of the reasons why public servants have tenure is just because they should not be exposed to the risk of being fired every time the politics change.) As a matter of fact, although on a much much smaller scale, this is one of the points that do remind me vaguely another historical Machtergreifung (seizure of power).

In conclusion, I think that the policy of the FPÖ and the actions and speeches of their leader Haider are in contrast with the moral standards of democracy. However, none of it is in formal contrast with the constitution, or can be in formal contrast with any democratic constitution: no law can ban or give a precise description of "populism which is based upon appealing to low instincts", it is only the voters who can wake up and say no.

The international reactions

The international reactions have left many Austrians surprised and frightened. In particular, many Austrian scientists are anxious because on one side they have the anti-intellectual policy of the FPÖ and on the other side the reactions of colleagues from other countries who have started to cancel visits, collaboration, or participation in conferences and congresses that are to take place in Austria. 28% of the Austrians have voted for Haider's party in October 1999, but now all the others are punished too, and even doubly - by having the FPÖ in the government and by an international isolation that goes far beyond a punishment of the "guilty". This sounds like medieval Sippenhaft, taking to prison the whole family when one of its members has done something wrong.

I can understand, and to a large extent appreciate the position of the other EU governments, who have frozen the bilateral diplomatic relations with Austria. The EU is now a family of 15 countries, and it is correct that the other members of the family undertake certain steps to bring one of them back to normal behaviour. And the bilateral diplomatic relations are the correct level to make the Austrian government understand that its is unwanted. I can also understand that Israel has a specific sensitivity here. But on the whole, regarding non EU-governments, it may appear somewhat hypocritical to isolate an - after all, democratic - small country like Austria while eagerly maintaing all possible relations with Russia (in spite of the massacres in Chechnya) or China (in spite of all human rights' violations in Tibet, Tienamen and elsewhere).

And I must say many reactions that go beyond the freezing of diplomatic relations are completely beyond measure: the Belgian foreign minister saying that one should not go skiing in Austria (he has withdrawn this in the meantime); a Belgian sports organization excluding an Austrian under 23 team from a cycle race; Bruxelles taxi drivers refusing to carry Austrian passengers (they have stopped this in the meantime); the city of Grenoble cancelling partnership with Innsbruck, apparently because the maire of Innsbruck (an ÖVP member) refused to state that Haider and his party are outside the range of the Austrian constitution (see my comment above); the University of Lyon which seems to have cancelled all projects and collaborations with Austrian scientists; French parents who cancel participation in a French-Austrian exchange programme of school children (do they believe that the FPÖ has organized SA-like squads who arrest and torture foreigners ? Note that typically, Austrian parents who want their children to participate in such programs will not be FPÖ voters); a leading Argentinian newspaper which titled "Nazis take power of Austria"; the Teatro alla Scala in Milan (Italy) which announces an "antiracist New Year's concert" as opposed to the New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Italian minister of culture giving her joyful consent: what in hell does this mean, that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra consists of racists, or that they have all voted for Haider's party (I doubt, in view of the fact that they are used to travel all across the world), or that Austrian music has now become racist, or that "political correctness" now requires not to listen to it ? I am sorry, but this is madness. It has the opposed effect to what it should have, and will drive more voters into the arms of Haider.

Remembering the Waldheim period

In some respects, this reminds me of the sad Waldheim period. However, the similarity is only superficial. At that time many more members of the war generation were still alive, and it was them who were at the base of the wave of defiance of foreign reactions that carried Waldheim to presidency. Today, many of them have died, and the mass of Haider fans is not only younger but completely different in most respects. Although I would never even have dreamt of giving Waldheim my vote, after his election I found myself often in the strange situation of having to explain to foreign friends why he had been elected. Let me try once again.-

For me, there was a single event that explains the Austrian mass psychology that lead to the election of Waldheim. It was the front page of one of the cheaper and low-quality US East coast dailies that was reproduced in most Austrian journals. The head line said: "Documents prove: Waldheim was SS-butcher". Left to it, there was a photograph of Waldheim in his Wehrmacht uniform (as a lieutenant, I believe) together with a German and an Italian General (or Colonel), both in their respective army uniforms. (Waldheim had served as a translator, this took place somewhere on the Balkans.)

Now, whoever followed the Waldheim affair closely enough will have understood that he had never been a member of the SS, and that there had only been a dubious association with an SA-horse-riding-company at a time when the SA had lost most of their power. Also, as clarified later by an international committee of historians, it is most unlikely that Waldheim himself had participated in any kind of atrocities on the Balkans. This committee also stated very clearly (and was attacked for this by Waldheim and his ÖVP friends) that he must have known about various of these atrocities (killing of civilians as a revenge of partisan attacks, the deportation of the Jewish comunity from Thessaloniki, ...). So, in the end, one might consider Waldheim as a coward (because he did not speak up against these atrocities at the time) and a liar (because when asked questions during the election campaign in 1986, he denied to have had knowledge of any of these facts), but not as a war criminal. [This is by far enough in order not to give him my vote.]

So what was the message of the above headline + photograph to an older Austrian who had had to serve in the Wehrmacht: "(1) These stupid Americans/foreigners/... are unable to tell an ordinary Wehrmacht uniform from an SS-uniform, and (2) they take a photograph of someone in a Wehrmacht uniform as a proof that he was an SS-butcher". Now, most Austrian men at the time had to serve in the Wehrmacht and had to wear its uniform, most of them were not as heroic as to refuse military service on the whole or ordinary military orders in particular (are you sure that you and I would behave differently in the same situation ?), and most of them did not participate in atrocities. Recation: "So they consider all of us who had to wear the army uniform as 'SS-butchers' ? Then to hell with them, and we vote Waldheim !".

I certainly do not appreciate this reaction, but I can understand its origin. Today's situation is not the same, but there are similarities.

In conclusion: help us to isolate those who deserve to be isolated, but please do not isolate us all !

So far the original text.

Update of JUNE 2000

The above text was written in February. Now several months have passed, and some additional remarks are due. I have received critical remarks from fellow Austrians concerning two points.

One is the phrase about our former president: "one might consider Waldheim as a coward (because he did not speak up against these atrocities at the time)". The objection was that hardly anybody had the courage to speak up against the Nazi atrocities at the time, and whoever dared to do this ran very serious risks. I have to agree with this objection and withdraw these words.

The other criticism regards my phrase that I "to a large extent appreciate the position of the other EU governments, who have frozen the bilateral diplomatic relations with Austria". That is, my negative opinion about our government should not lead me to appreciating sanctions against my country. Now, here I have more difficulties in finding a reply, and there are various, seemingly contradictory viewpoints running through my head.

(1) The government is running a conservative policy that I personally do not appreciate in many respects, but that has not been particularly racist or xenophobic (certainly no more than in other EU countries, even comparing with those governed by social democrats), and certainly not fascistic. I.e., it is within the frame of the constitution and the question whether one likes it or not is ordinary demorcratic dialectics.

(2) On the other hand, Haider and other leading figures of the FPÖ (who do not take part in the government, though) have made several very startling statements in the last months.

One very bad thing was Mr. Haider's suggestion that members of parliament should loose their immunity and be prosecuted if they act "against Austria", and he made clear that he meant "Austrian politicians who speak badly about our country while drinking champaign with well known enemies of Austria" (this is not a word-by-word translation). What he meant were opposition leaders who visited political leaders in other EU coutries (the latter are the alleged "enemies of Austria" !!!) in order to discuss the sanctions. He forgets that following this idea, he himself should have been prosecuted when only about 10 years ago he had said that the Austrian "Nation" was a Missgeburt (freak).

Also very startling were the words that the newly elected secretary of the FPÖ in the region of Lower Austria used recently to greet a group of his party comrades: Unsere Ehre heisst Treue (Our honour is called loyalty). Afterwards he claimed not to have known that this was an SS salute, because he was born after the war and did not know much history.

So I am asking myself if we are not getting somewhat dull an do need some awareness that is forced upon us from outside.

(3) But in any case, the bilateral sanctions of the other EU countries against the Austrian government have clearly proven to be completley counterproductive. They help the actual government, which has succeeded in presenting them to the public opinion as sanctions of the EU against all of Austria. It seems that it would be best for our government if these sanctions remained in force for three more years until a few months before the next elections.

(4) And there is still another viewpoint that I share: would there be analogous reactions against a big EU country ? More concretely, within a year you will see that in Italy the trio Berlusconi - Fini - Bossi will return to power. In my opinion, each of the three of them alone is worse than Mr. Haider (with the only possible exception of the former neofascist Fini, whose political opinions I do not share, but who at least is running a policy that merits this word). So will the other EU countries decide for bilateral sanctions against the forthcoming Italian government ?

Update of FEBRUARY 2001

It is now a year since I wrote the above text, and a few things can be added. I have to repeat that our government is certainly within the frame of the constitution in every formal respect. Second, during a recent visit to Italy I was very astonished to learn that even colleagues who certainly do not sympathize with their forhtcoming right wing government believe that Haider is 10 times worse than Berlusconi, Fini and Bossi - which is a severe mistake. Mr. Haider's political attitudes are not at all those of a German Nazi, but rather are a perfect combination of the unlimited populism of Mr. Berlusconi and the lust of provocation of Mr. Bossi. And, even though I am well aware that obvious historical reasons require Germans and Austrians to be extremely cautious in any criticism of Israeli politics, I believe that the election of someone like Mr. Sharon as the new prime minister of Israel is as alarming as the participation of the Freedom Party in the Austrian government and is putting a question mark to the moral right of withdrawing the Israeli ambassador from Vienna.

This does not mean that one should not worry about the political situation in Austria. The things that preoccupy me most are
- the apparent "the winner takes it all" mentality of the Freedom Party, that seems to ignore completely the need of a dialectic balance between the right to decide of the majority and the right to be protected of the minorities,
- the intolerant attitude towards artists who rely on public subventions and still "dare" to criticize the government, attitude that is reflected by Mr. Haider's statement "man beisst nicht die Hand die einen füttert" (you must not bite the hand that is feeding you),
- and the introduction of a war-like vocabulary by expontents of the Freedom party, such as the statement by Mr. Haider reported above regarding the "enemies of Austria", similar statements by the leader of the FPÖ or by the minister of transport (same party) who called "traitors" those who considered the usefulness of a railway line project leading partly through Hungary.

Update of SEPTEMBER 2002

While foreign newpapers were full of (negative) stories about Austria a the time of the installation of the right wing government, only few newspaper lines abroad have reported the fact that this government has broken down a year before the end of its term. The reason for this breakdown was an open war between leading figures of the FPÖ, during which also an astonishing incapability of Mr. Haider to handle the situation became apparent. In a few sentences: while the FPÖ-vice chancellor and formal party leader togehter with at least some of her ministers and the christian democrat allies took "unpopular" decisions after the inondations that had caused heavy damages in August 2002, Mr. Haider (who formally had remained a "simple party member" for the last years) continued to demand a major tax reduction before the next elections (with obvious populistic motivation) and mobilized a large part of the FPÖ's party basis against their own ministers. When the vice-chancellor and two of the ministers decided to step down, everything went out of control within the FPÖ. At present, the previsions for the forthcoming elections (November 2002) are desastrous for the freedom party.

I feel really relieved by the early end of this right wing "experiment".

In the final turmoil, some of the extreme right figures of the FPÖ publicly stated things that they had not been daring to say openly before. One of them, having the public charge of "Volksanwalt" (equivalent of the Scandinavian "Ombudsman"), stated at some occasion that the oppression under the Nazi regime was not worse than that under Russian occupation after the war !
Again, such a thing requires a comment addressed to non-Austrians: unfortuantely, statements as the above have a fertile ground because of an incomplete elaboration and learning of recent history. "Political correctness" requires from Austrian (and German) democrats not to speak about the alledged facts of the post war occupation period, while on the other hand, many families have stories, mostly regarding the Russian "Soldateska" after the end of the war, that tell primarily of massive raping, and also of stealing, killing or arbitrary imprisonment. (My aunt, British born and far from being a friend of the Nazis, lived in Berlin at the end of World War 2 and left a startling diary.)

Having lived in Italy from 1988 to 1999, and having closely watched both Austrian and Italian politics since that, once more I cannot refrain from drawing some comparisons. Abroad, the return to power of the trio Berlusconi - Fini - Bossi in Italy was criticized mainly because of the participation of the latter two (a former neofascist and a xenophobic populist). I think that this is a big mistake, because - like in the case of Austria - it is just a reaction to well known politics from the past having well known tags. The true danger is Mr. Berlusconi himself ! It is my belief that he decided to become a politician in order to be able to maintain and extend the wealth that he had been able to accumulate under the political protection of Mr. Craxi (or, more directly, in order to be able to maintain the previous level of corruption). Remember that Berlusconi entered the political scene within a year from Craxi's exit, when it had become apparent that juridical enquiries would not halt before big names. Becoming a politician made additional, strong tools of counterattack available. Strangely enough, Berlusconi himself seems to believe in his missonary vocation, but I think his "entourage" has different motivations. One of them, after the end of Berlusconi's first (9 months') government in the 90ies, said "next time we won't make prisoners". And that is what they are doing now: designing laws to their own benefit, while Berlusconi is able to hypnotize a whole nation by use of his three private nationwide TV channels as well as the three public ones on which he can now lay his hands in the position of prime minister.
In Austria, the public does at least have the fair chance to acceed to differentiated informations and consequently not to vote for the freedom party (or others) next time, but in Italy, this chance is not fair. I'm really astonished that this new type of danger is not well perceived abroad, just because it does not have a convenient tag from the past history. Or is it perhaps because political leaders in other coutries also dream of such a non-physical, TV-based power so that they can do what they want while keeping their people hypnotized ?

Looking back at the so-called "sanctions" against the Austrian government of the year 2000 leaves a bad aftertaste, in particular regarding the EU. I observe that there have been no sanctions at all regarding Italy's actual government, which to my opinion is much worse, and there was an event in a different vein, regarding the Maastricht (economic) criteria: early this year (=2002), Germany together with Portugal were at the point of receiving an official "blue letter" from the EU commission, a warning that they were coming too close to the limits set by the Maastricht treaty. German chancellor Schröder, a half year before new elections, managed to prevent being sent this letter, and thus also Portugal was spared at that time (while previously, Ireland had received such an official warning). The moral seems to be that public sanctions or warnings will only be directed against small member countries of the EU whose political and economic standing is not strong enough just because of their size.

In any case, returning to the scientific comunity: after all, there the "sanctions" ceased and the relations turned to normality within a few months, already in the year 2000.

September 2002, Wolfgang Woess

Statements and links concerning the political situation in Austria

1. Declaration of the University of Vienna on the political situation in Austria.

2. Statement of the Austrian Mathematical Society on the political situation.

3. Statement of the Erwin Schrödinger Institute for Mathematical Physics in Vienna.

4. Gemeinsame Erklärung der Rektoren und Senatsvorsitzenden der österreichischen Universitäten.

5. Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstandes.

Back to the homepage of Wolfgang Woess.

Last modified on September 19, 2002