The Washington Post

December 27, 1991, The Washington Post

Duking It Out in Austria

Jörg Haider, would-be chancellor, is young, handsome and a little bit scary

KLAGENFURT, Austria – Dueling scars mar the cheeks of many of his political allies, but Joerg Haider passed through the increasingly obscure Teutonic rite of manhood without a blemish. “I was a good swordsman,” boasts the leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, cockily displaying his profile.

Haider is proud to have belonged to one of Austria’s fraternities known as Burschenschaften, whose members are fiercely proud of their Germanic heritage and still wage bloody initiation duels.

“Until now I have remained unscathed,” he says, with a suggestive grin that leaves little doubt he is thinking of his larger battle against the Austrian political establishment.

The 41-year-old Haider, often accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, wants to be Austria’s next chancellor. “It cannot fail,” he said in an interview. Some Austrians fear his ascent could presage the return of fascism to Hitler’s birthplace, but his backers say Haider is a true democrat seeking to infuse the small Alpine republic with a much-needed political renewal. Whoever or whatever Joerg Haider is, his drive for power has transfixed this country.

Haider survived a fleeting eclipse last June for publicly lauding Nazi labor policies, saying during a debate that the Nazis’ “orderly” employment program was superior to that of modern-day Austria. The remark cost him his job as governor of the southern province of Carinthia. Three subsequent regional electoral victories have indicated, however, that voters are willing to overlook his habitual nods to aging Nazis and more youthful extremists. “Who Will Stop Joerg Haider?” queries the recurrent headline in Austrian newspapers.

His sporty good looks, his ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich and his appeal to xenophobic voters invite comparisons with Louisiana presidential aspirant David Duke. A leading Viennese daily ran paired photographs of the two men, captioned “Brothers in Spirit” and pointing out their obvious physical resemblance.

In the way Duke used the bayou as his springboard, Haider has built up a power base in highly conservative Carinthia. Undeterred by his demotion to second deputy governor last summer, Haider urges a voting-booth revolt against the cozy monopoly of the two coalition parties that have governed Austria for nearly half a century.

A lawyer who spent nine years in the national parliament before becoming governor in 1989, Haider paints himself as champion of the little man whose job and welfare are threatened by immigrants. Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Haider has denounced many new arrivals as “profiteers,” warning that Austria must guard against “social parasites.”

Haider’s own economic future looks secure. He is perhaps the country’s wealthiest politician, living with his wife and daughters on an inherited 3,800-acre estate once owned by Jews who were forced to sell the prime timberland after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938.

Haider displays a populist knack that unsettles his opponents, and his respectful appearances before veterans of the Waffen SS are as triumphal as his presence among sprightlier voters in packed discos. Dressed in folkloric Alpine garb, he speaks out against those he accuses of presumptuously demanding penance from Austria’s wartime generation, then dons a flashy chartreuse business suit to tell budding entrepreneurs of his commitment to unshackling the state-dominated economy. One day he poses bare-chested for a women’s magazine, the next he appears in an advertisement for an apparel set billed as the “Joerg Tennis-Kollektion.”

The frequent costume changes led impresario Andre Heller, a prominent Viennese cultural figure, to call Haider “a young Nazi disguised as a male model from the provinces.” The Freedom Party leader, who repeatedly affirms his allegiance to democratic government, sued for slander. Austria’s relatively broad laws on criminal defamation enabled him to win damages. The judgment is under appeal.

Haider sued again when war crimes investigator Simon Wiesenthal told a Slovene newspaper, “The National Socialists are a dying breed. But people like Haider see to it that the old have their young, and that the idea of National Socialism – in this or another form – will not die out with the older generation.” Haider now says he is willing to reach an out-of-court settlement with Wiesenthal to “spare him a lengthy historical and judicial confrontation.”

“The people today know I am no Nazi,” he said in the interview, charging that opponents were out to ruin him with a defamatory campaign. He likened criticism of him to that of President Kurt Waldheim, who was found in 1986 to have hidden his service in a German army unit involved in wartime atrocities. “The citizens have a feeling. They have a feel for whether someone is honest or whether he is a charlatan.”

Voter endorsement of Haider’s policies came most recently when the Freedom Party almost tripled its mandate, becoming the second strongest force in last month’s Vienna city council elections. Haider personally led a call for a total stop to immigration. Though not himself a candidate for office, his domination of the campaign boosted the party to its 13th straight win in local and national elections since he took the helm in 1986.

At that time, the Freedom Party had less than 5 percent of the national vote. An opinion poll taken this month showed it would win more than 20 percent of the vote if nationwide elections, scheduled to be held by 1994, took place now. This is well short of a clear majority but potentially enough to create havoc for the formation of future coalitions. Referring to Haider’s most recent gains, Social Democratic Chancellor Franz Vranitzky has vowed not to allow “a beer hall atmosphere to spread over all of Austria” and said the Freedom Party is off limits as a coalition partner as long as Haider is its leader.

While Haider’s success stems to a large degree from his rightist policies, it also owes much to his effective highlighting of cronyism and corruption within the two governing parties, membership of which has long been a key to professional advancement in Austria. Many jobs, from bank directorships to teaching posts are divided up between the Social Democrats and the People’s Party. Haider is sworn to end this stifling patronage.

“Someone must bring order to the thicket of Austrian corruption, bureaucracy and social state injustice,” Haider said. “We are now confronted with a government that has no power to solve problems. The conception of reform is not at hand, and with time, unease is building up among the citizenry. A point will be reached where this will no longer be accepted and there is a revolution.”

Haider said the number of foreigners in Austria had reached an “intolerable level.” If they persist in arriving, he warned, they could encounter the violence commonplace in united Germany. He brushes aside allegations that he stirs xenophobia or racism.

“I believe,” he said, “that the multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work.”

Haider made his first foray into politics at age 16 when he won an oratory contest with a speech on the theme “Why We Austrians Are German.” Such a stance was nothing unusual for a teenager whose father joined the Hitler Youth in 1929 and then entered the Nazi SA storm troops eight years before Austria’s forced anschluss with the Third Reich. Haider’s mother belonged to the party’s League of German Maidens.

Haider is reluctant to challenge his parents’ past, addressing it in typically ambiguous fashion:

“In retrospect one is always wiser,” he said. “As a descendant, one should not be so arrogant as to say, `I would have known better.’ ”

Insisting that this Central European state consists largely of ethnic Germans rather than a separate Austrian people, Haider terms Austria an “ideological deformation.” He asserts that artificial postwar efforts were made to forge a particular Austrian ethnic identity and these have failed. Haider stops short of questioning Austria’s statehood, or suggesting it become part of Germany again. “There is no doubt over the sovereignty, the independence of Austria.”

Government leaders may reject his blurring of distinctions between Austrians and Germans, nonetheless they have been unable to prevent Haider from pushing the explosive immigration issue to the top of the national agenda, as unemployment slowly rises and housing shortages persist. Soon after the Freedom Party gains on the Viennese city council, parliament tightened conditions for political asylum to a degree that was sharply condemned by several international human rights groups.

The government has been put on the defensive in several other areas, although only a few months ago ministers had hoped Haider’s expression of support for Nazi employment tactics would put an end to his career. For the time being at least, official censure of his remarks and an attempt to exclude Haider from the political process have backfired.

“This way of portraying Haider as a neo-Nazi aids him a great deal because he simply is not that,” said Peter Gerlich, director of the University of Vienna’s Institute of Political Science. “He has this aspect and he comes out of this orientation, but it is not so simple. When he is falsely portrayed and then the people realize that he is no neo-Nazi but merely a populist, that helps him because the voters say, `Aha, he is the more honest one.’ ”

Another political scientist, Anton Pelinka, said, “Haider is not a Nazi by personal conviction, but rather an entirely cynical opportunist. He plays with the pieces of this facade. It is a very dangerous game.” Pelinka said his anxieties that Haider could imperil Austrian democracy were eased somewhat in view of the country’s international context and prosperity. The Vienna government hopes to join the European Community by 1994.

“The difference with the 1930s is that Europe at present, at least the part of Europe to which Austria belongs, has a high degree of stability,” said the University of Innsbruck professor. “I would worry if instabilities in Yugoslavia or in the Soviet Union were to spill over into Austria.”

Several other analysts and politicians generally shared this assessment of Haider while pointing out that he has well-honed political skills that should not be underestimated. Like no other Austrian politician, Haider knows how to sell himself to the voter.

The image and lifestyle are assiduously cultivated. His Klagenfurt office is filled with evidence of physical exploits more modern than dueling. Cross-country skis lean against one wall; photographs of Haider parachuting hang opposite them. A videotape stands ready to display film of the opposition leader leaping off a 315-foot-high bridge, body strapped to rubber ropes in a daredevil feat called bungee jumping.

Sitting at ease amid mementos of all this swashbuckling exertion, Haider seems to relish the political uncertainty he engenders. “When you analyze the commentaries and see characteristics ascribed to me, sometimes I’m the great ideologue preparing something horrible, then I’m the ideology-free opportunist, next I’m the yuppie, then I am the old Nazi, then I’m the Gadhafi of Carinthia, then the Austrian {David} Duke. Stereotypes do not suit me,” he said. “I have to live with the fact that one always tries to compare me to somebody else, but I believe I am an Austrian original.”