Dij` vu all over again

Christopher Hitchens returns to the country that nurtured two world wars -- and wonders whether the land of snow-covered mountains and little green hats could start the process all over again

By Christopher Hitchens

Published November 11, 1996 11:59AM (EST)


The First World War began with the slaying of an Austrian archduke and a former Austrian corporal launched the Second World War, so it's probably a mistake for us to leave Austria on the periphery of our vision.

To casual observers, Austria is one of the most tame and predictable countries in Europe, safely and prosperously nestled in the European Community. Its governments alternate reassuringly between center-left and center-right coalitions, and its politicians — apart from that unpleasantness over the wartime record of former chancellor and U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim — have always seemed safe and respectable.

All the more shocking, then, were the results of last month's European Parliament and municipal elections, in which the relatively new, and very right-wing, Austrian Freedom Party took just under 30 percent of the vote.

The Freedom Party is led by Jorg Haider. His father was a leading member of the Austrian Nazi Party. Haider himself had to resign a few years ago as governor of the province of Carthinia after a speech in which he praised Adolf Hitler's policy of full employment. He speaks at reunions of "old comrades" from the war years, telling them at one reunion that not all members of the SS were dishonorable men. At 47, he also has every chance of becoming Chancellor of Austria in the not-too-distant future.

How worried should we be? Quite a bit, says Bruno Aigner, whose Socialist Party has just lost its majority on the Vienna city council for the first time since the war and has seen its popular vote decline from 51.4 percent in 1979 to 29.4 percent today. In Austria, as in much of the rest of Europe, right-wing populists are "playing on the piano of social anxiety" — over immigration, unemployment, and resentment against an over-centralized bureaucracy in Brussells. Wages in the neighboring Czech Republic are about one-eighth of those paid in Austria, and here, as elsewhere, business has a tendency to move where labor is cheaper.

In addition, says Aigner, who is his party's leading intellectual, the old parties, including the Socialists, had become soft and complacent. Austrians have a term — proporz — for the sharing-out of salaried public-sector jobs, even headmasterships in public schools, between the Socialist and Conservative parties. Undoubtedly, Herr Haider profited from resentment against such cozy arrangements. Worse still was the failure of the old parties to provide any vision of the future. And yes, even though these questions were not confined to Austria, the fact remained, says Aigner, that the country did have "a certain history."

It certainly does. Outside the old and abandoned Jewish cemetery in uptown Vienna, I came across a sticker which inveighed against Austrian membership in the European Union. Anschluss II, it read. EU Verrat an Osterreich — "The Second Anchluss. The European Union Betrays Austria." This turned out to be a slogan put out not by the Freedom Party, but by the minuscule and still-Stalinist Austrian Communist Party. It reminded me of the inter-war lament that, in this country, the patriots were not democrats and the democrats were not patriots.

Interviewing Jorg Haider, I was reminded more of British Labor leader Tony Blair than of some lederhosen-clad nostalgic. Lean and fit, Haider skis and hikes and ran recently in the New York Marathon. His answers to all my questions were deft and polished. No, he was not against Europe, only against the bureaucratic aspects of the Maastricht Treaty. He was not against immigrants, only against uncontrolled immigration. He refers to Austria's Nazi experience as "the black period," and says that all schoolchildren should be taught how bad it was. And he points out (correctly) that both of Austria's major parties have had their share of ex-Nazis in the leadership.

Only in a couple of his answers did I feel an uneasy echo of the past. His call for "A Europe of Fatherlands" does not have quite the same progressive ring as Charles de Gaulle's "L'Europe des Patries," even though it means roughly the same in translation. And when I asked him if he regretted his remarks about Hitler's employment schemes and the honor of the SS, he replied that of course he did, "because you make it complicated for yourself personally if you say something that may be mistaken." This seemed to fall somewhat short of a full statement of contrition.

Yes, well, says Peter Sichrovsky, those remarks may be deplorable, but they don't alter the fact that Haider and the Freedom Party represent a future of reform. I quote Sichrovsky partly because he is one of the brighter Euro-Parliament members elected on the Freedom Party ticket, and also because he is a leading member of Vienna's Jewish community.

A well-known journalist in Austria, Sichrovsky was a ghost-writer of the memoirs of Ignatz Bubis, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. His parents were Communists who fled Austria during the Hitler years. His father, who wore a British uniform throughout World War II, displays a distinct lack of enthusiasm for his son's newfound notoriety. It's a price Sichrovsky says he is willing to pay for daring to be free of old taboos and challenging the played-out consensus that has ruled Austria for so long. He knew almost nothing of Judaism while growing up, he says, and even less of Zionism. Still, he now counts himself as an observant Jew with a relatively "hard line" on Israeli security.

This modern, yuppified and somewhat ecumenical version of the Euro-Right is no aberration: it fits with developments in neighboring Italy and Croatia, where populist and nationalist forces have been able to re-emerge in respectable colors and either take power or come close to doing so. Bruno Aigner is not the only traditional politician in Europe who worries that, in the face of such a challenge, the parties of the post-war consensus have been left with little to offer and little to say.

Quote of the day


"The silent white rows of crosses that surround us mark the final
resting place of men and women of all services, all ranks, all races, all
religions. They stand as stunning evidence that our Founders were right. We are all equal in
the eyes of God. That is something we must continue to practice until we get it

— President Clinton, in a Veterans' Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, reported Monday by Cable News Network)

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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