The New Republic

December 25, 1995, The New Republic

Spandau Spandex

Meet Austria's

When Europe marked the fiftieth anniversary of World War Two’s end last spring, most politicians treated the triumph over Nazism as, just that, a triumph. But the continent’s most successful far-right politician, Austria’s Jörg Haider, sounded a discordant note, proclaiming, “In 1945, there were very few people who had reason to rejoice.” Haider also drew a parallel between that time and ours, suggesting that the pillars of Austria’s government are tottering again. He offered the assessment with ill-concealed glee, for Haider himself is shaking the foundations of a state that has already endured two cataclysms this century. The far rightist is intent on becoming Austria’s next chancellor and building what he calls a Third Republic —and what some Europeans think sounds more like a new Third Reich. Haider first gained international notoriety in 1991, when he was ousted as governor or the southern Carinthia province for praising Nazi labor policies. Yet he is unrepentant. Taken to task again in February for calling concentration camps “penal camps,” he shot back, “I won’t give in to the terror of virtue. Such inflammatory remarks earned him the label ‘yuppie fascist’  in a European Parliament report on racism and xenophobia. “These people now wear Gucci shoes rather than jackboots, but the value they attach to democratic values is crystal clear,” leading Austria commentator Hans Rauscher writes of Haider’s associates. At the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Haider’s portrait hangs in a rogues— gallery alongside the French far rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen and Uganda’s ex-dictator Idi Amin. But Haider has demonstrated greater ability to attract mainstream voters than other European leaders of the far right. In nine years, Haider’s Freedom Party has enlarged its share of the national vote from 4 to 22.5 percent, capturing forty-two out of 183 parliamentary seats in 1994. Haider’s best shot at power would come if the ruling, center-right Austrian’s People’s Party swapped its alliance with the Social Democrats for a conservative bloc with him as government chief. The governing coalition’s collapse after its failure to adopt a deficit cutting budget in October may bring that goal within reach. Little more than a year after the last elections, voters will return to the ballot box on December 17. Polls suggest that Haider’s Freedom Party may win as much as 27 percent. People’s Party leader Wolfgang Schüssel has not ruled out a pact with the mercurial iconoclast. Sporty good looks and a pugnacious charisma have turned Haider into a pinup populist. Viennese magazines regularly depict him bare-chested, preening in a bikini bathing suit, scaling rocky mountain faces or white water rafting. His daredevil plunge from a 315-foot high bridge before thousands of cheering fans helped introduce bungee jumping to Central Europe. Amid all this exertion, Haider warned that Chancellor Franz Vranitzky had better start working out as well or “soon he won’t be able to fasten his trousers.” On another occasion he took aim at Polish President Lech Walesa’s girth, calling the Nobel laureate “as wide as he is tall.” So when Haider turns up for an interview wearing skin-tight Spandex shorts patterned in hot purple, red and orange, the body-hugging outfit is calculated proof that the man of the hour is in top form. Casting across the Atlantic for inspiration, he proposes a “Contract with Austria’ to drastically shrink the government. The rightward shift in Washington, he argues, puts him in a new light. “A trend is under way in America that benefits us,” he says, citing his journey to the California-Mexico frontier last spring to inspect U.S. immigration controls. “It’s certainly a bit shocking when one sees that an Iron Curtain is being built along the border of a free and open country.” Haider relishes parallels to his own call for an anti-immigrant crackdown. (He has campaigned on the slogan “Vienna Must Not Become Chicago.”) Some 365,000 foreigners live legally in Austria, with a total population of 7.3 million. Haider estimates that there are at least a quarter of a million more legal immigrants. The Interior Ministry casts doubt on this figure. “We have relatively few foreigners in comparison with other Western European countries,” says ministry spokesman Rudolf Gollia. “He exaggerates in order to ensure that the population sees problems where there are none.” Haider scoffs at suggestions that his party is a Führer-led movement repackaged for the postmodern era. “We are not Nazis,” he says, turquoise gleaming. Indeed, his success stems not so much from Austrian nostalgia for the Nazi era, a lingering if limited phenomenon with which he flirts dangerously, as from his cunning personification of anti-establishment attitudes. He blasts Austri’s government as a “mixture of the Kremlin and the Vatican,” likens its regulators to KGB agents and derides the National Bank as a modern-day “Sodom and Gomorrah.” This attention-getting blend of truths and distortions reaps support from resentful blue-collar workers and anxious retirees as well as entrepreneurs fed up with heavy state economic control. Soon after the war’s end, Austria nationalized key industries and imposed obligatory membership in unions and economic “chambers.” Membership in the two main parties gave access to a spoils system for jobs and housing. The system endures via constitutionally guaranteed party control of posts in state-held banks, insurance firms, schools and broadcast networks. There have been modifications, including some industry privatization. But, for the most part, the government has glossed over complaints about the system. As an advocate of democratization, Haider cuts a contentious figure. His own party originated in 1949 as a grouping that included thousands of ex-Nazis barred from the first election after Austria’s liberation. For years the Freedom Party was led by Friedrich Peter, a wartime member of the Nazi S.S. Einsatzkommando murder squad. Still it defied simplistic definition as a neo-fascist organization, and its German nationalist wing was balanced by an influential group of free-market liberals. Many have since quit in protest at Haider’s policies, or been forced out as he tightens his grip. Though Haider’s ambiguous remarks about the Third Reich have assured support from rightists, they have also alienated many Austrians who might otherwise back his calls for government reform. Recently, Haider has begun formally distancing himself from violence, anti-Semitism and racial hatred, even staging a visit to Washington’s Holocaust Museum. Still, he seems unlikely to secure the broad respectability he craves. Not for lack of trying. When I visited him at party headquarters near the Vienna State Opera, Haider exchanged flamboyant Spandex for statesmanly gray flannel. And he stressed that the Freedom Party is striving for a more moderate stance and discarding its commitment to Austria’s German ethnic identity. “We Austrians have now developed such a strong self-identity that we should not expose ourselves to misinterpretation,” Haider told me.  “I know very well what burden of conscience the Austrians and Germans have to bear due to the proceedings in the concentration camps. I am the last one who wants to whitewash or trivializ” But the old Haider continues to show through. His reference to concentration camp “proceedings” seems an odd euphemism for torture and genocide. Then there is the essay in the 1995 year-book of his party’s Political Academy suggesting that Jews instigated World War Two. When I ask him about it, Haider responds, “There would be no need for us to publish a yearbook if we were to censor what individual authors think and do.” Similarly, he brushes off a recent Gallup Poll for the American Jewish Committee that found widespread anti-Semitism and antipathy to other minorities among Freedom Party backers. “Our largest group of voters are those between 19 and 20 years of age, who I dare say don’t even know what anti-Semitism is,” Haider says. A decade ago Haider rejected characterization of his party as a successor to the Nazis. “Because if it were,” he asserted then, “it would have an absolute majority.” Now he concludes our talk by issuing a disavowal of fascism’s legacy that sounds both cynical and ominous. “We have made out of this traditional Freedom Party a modern reform movement that is no longer burdened by past history,” he says. “We have a real function in Austria, and we cannot afford to carry around the weight of the past. The process is a long one, but it will succeed.”