Foreign Policy

Summer 2000, Foreign Policy

Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere

Jörg Haider's biography

Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere
Haider: Light and Shadows of a Career

By Christa Zöchling
222 pages, Vienna: Molden Verlag (In German)

In his early writings the right-wing Austrin politician Jörg Haider observed that demagogues have their greatest chances within a democracy since there is “nothing comparable in terms of its instability and susceptibility to misuse.” That assessment, penned some 30 years ago while Haider was still in law school and cited in Christa Zöchling’s biography, would seem to go a long way toward explaining Haider’s meteoric career.

Haider nowadays describes himself as a fox breaking into the European henhouse. Surely, he has ruffled more than a few feathers since he took the helm of the Freedom Party in 1986 amid shouts of “Sieg Heil!” The party’s entry into government last February after gaining 27 percent of the vote in the 1999 parliamentary elections brought ringing condemnation from the European Union, Israel, and the United States — and Haider’s resignation one month later as party chairman did little to mollify his critics. While some defend the controversial politician as a misunderstood modernizer seeking to infuse his static Alpine republic with a free-market spirit, others fear that a new variant of the fascism is on the rise in the land of Hitler’s birth. Which interpretation is closer to the truth? Zöchling, a journalist for the Austrian newsweekly Profil, attempts to answer the question in the first full-fledged Haider biography, based on interviews with family members, school friends, and former political allies.

Born in 1950 as the child of former Nazi Party activists who endured penury and humiliation at the end of World War II, Haider was raised in the town of Bad Goisern near Salzburg, living in a neighborhood where fascism had been so fervid that the locals dubbed it “Berlin.” Zöchling presents a plausible case that Haider’s lifelong bid to reach the pinnacle of Austrian power is in part a means of redressing his parents’ downfall. Haider imbibed their view of history and, having grown up singing songs about the glories of the Third Reich, never questioned it. While still in high school, he joined a fraternity that stressed Austria’s Teutonic heritage. There he trained for bloody initiation duels using as a prop a straw puppet emblazoned with the name of the noted Austrian Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Haider’s mother, a former member of the Nazi League of German Maidens, is adamant that she knew nothing about Nazi atrocities until the end of the war. “We were stamped as criminals, simply because we did our duty,” Dorothea Haider told the author. Haider’s father signed up for the Hitler Youth in 1929 when it was still illegal in Austria and entered the SA storm troopers eight years before the country’s forced annexation. “I regret nothing,” he is quoted as having said, adding “I would serve the cause again.”

A star pupil, Haider considered taking up acting after shining in school productions of 19th century plays satirizing the bourgeois Viennese society of the Biedermeier era. But while Haider did not become a star like his countryman Klaus Maria Brandauer, he did develop a healthy appetite for fame and provocation, as well as an uncanny ability to gauge what an audience wants to hear — in Zöchling’s words to “take it prisoner” with jocular rhetoric and belligerent asides.

Haider spent his twenties studying law in Vienna. While his contemporaries took to the streets of the former imperial capital against the Shah of Iran, the Greek military dictatorship, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, these protests only reinforced Haider’s visceral hatred of the left. Zöchling unearthed this sentiment — along with scant respect for democracy — in his early writings for a Freedom Party youth newspaper he founded. She quotes Haider as observing that no one should be surprised when “among critical young people doubts arise about the intellectual substance of Western democratic systems.”

Zöchling’s findings about Haider’s adult years contradict the optimism voiced by Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel that Haider is capable of maturing into a reliable international partner. Haider may still be conspicuously prone to bungee jumping, marathon races, and whitewater rafting, but at 50 he is no longer the fresh-faced crusader whose gaffes and incalculability can be excused as those of a naïf. His swagger and much remarked upon devotion to his wardrobe is thrown into sharp focus with an anecdote about the day the author observed Haider sit through a parliamentary debate totally absorbed in a men’s fashion magazine. “No self-respecting conservative politician would dare do that in the upper house, the temple of seriousness and gray suits,” she asserts.

More substantively, Zöchling demonstrates that Haider lacks credibility as a self-proclaimed reformer. Although he has publicly called for uprooting pervasive political patronage, she documents how Haider has himself exploited it to benefit his own cronies. His championing of entrepreneurialism against current Austrian constraints has less to do with his faith in the individual spirit than with his predilection toward social Darwinism. Zöchling deems Haider a heartless narcissist with a knack for finding weaknesses in others. The teenager who she found to have taunted a classmate about his brother’s suicide became the adult who delights in publicly humiliating his party colleagues.

Several of these colleagues have become exasperated with Haider’s frequent exploitation of xenophobia for political gain. Heide Schmidt, who quit the Freedom Party in 1993 to co-found the Liberal Forum, was particularly incensed when Haider backed a measure that would have required schools to segregate students on the basis of their country of origin and native tongue without consideration of their knowledge of German. Haider justified the proposal as a means of preserving Austrian identity.

Zöchling writes that Haider is “hard to pin down because at some point every popular opinion finds a home with him. He’s an outlaw who stands up to the establishment. He likes to see himself as a victim of circumstance who at one time or another has felt he has been treated like a Kurd, a Palestinian, or even a Jew.” Rather than see Haider as a neo-Nazi ideologue or as having any kind of coherent agenda, she concludes that he is a power-hungry opportunist who wields envy, dissatisfaction, and frustration to advance himself. At the same time, he is never far removed from the terrain that nourished fascism. “He has a talent to create modern variants out of the old strands” of popular sentiment and national chauvinism that gave birth to the Third Reich, Zöchling says.

The biography was well reviewed in Austria, where the popular daily newspaper Kurier praised its “craftsmanly precision, intellectual passion and linguistic sensitivity.” Yet, published on the eve of last autumn’s elections, its findings appear to have had little impact on Haider’s ability to steadily enlarge his electoral base. And, although the book is compelling, it falls short of being a definitive work. While Zöchling managed to probe relatives about Haider’s youth, his adult family life proved harder to penetrate, leaving something of a gap in the narrative. But the book offers important clues to understanding the Freedom Party’s rise, making it clear that although Haider is not a purely local phenomenon, he has uniquely Austrian roots. If Europeans who oppose Haider fail to devise an adequate response to his vote-getting approach, other biographers in different countries may soon be following in Zöchling’s tracks.