Death of a “yuppie fascist”

October 17, 2008

Jeff Bale recounts the sordid history of Austria's best-known far-right leader.

JÖRG HAIDER--Nazi sympathizer, anti-immigrant racist, premier of the Austrian state of Carinthia--is dead. And the world is much better off without him.

Often derided as a "yuppie fascist" or the "Austrian David Duke," Haider died in a car accident in the early hours of October 10. Officials estimate that, having passed another driver on a three-lane road, Haider was traveling upwards of 90 miles per hour at the entrance to a town with a 30 miles per hour speed limit. His car rolled multiple times, his left arm was almost severed from his body, and he sustained lethal head and neck injuries.

Fittingly, his car finally crashed into a house that had been painted orange, the color of Haider's party, by its occupants to show their support.

News of Haider's death came in the wake of Austrian elections held a week before. Haider's party, the Coalition for the Future of Austria (BZÖ, by its initials in German), won some 11 percent of the vote. Together with the Freedom Party (FPÖ), the far right won 29 percent overall, placing them just behind the Social-Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ).

Jörg Haider
Jörg Haider, known as Austria's David Duke

The national discussion in Austria before Haider's death centered on speculation about which combination of parties might take over in a new government (negotiations were ongoing as this article was written). But as Martin Prinz, a commentator for the Vienna daily Der Standard argued, the days after Haider's death "exposed Austrian politics for all of its political cowardice."

That's because instead of denouncing Haider and the hate he stood for, politicians from across the political spectrum expressed their condolences and even some sense of praise.

Haider spent much of his political career fending off accusations of anti-Semitism and sympathies for the Nazis. And for too many years, mainstream politicians and analysts dismissed him as a fringe right-winger who posed no threat.

Yet even a cursory review of Haider's public comments over the years confirms his political outlook.

His most infamous statement came in a 1991 speech to the Carinthian parliament, in which he praised the "orderly employment policy" of the Third Reich. The statement cost Haider his position as premier of the state.

However, most references to this quote leave out the context in which it was made. The state parliament was debating cuts to unemployment benefits, and Haider, as was his custom, accused the unemployed of freeloading and living well off exorbitant state benefits. His solution was to force the unemployed to take whatever job they were offered, or face a cut in benefits. When another politician called out that this was the policy of the Third Reich, Haider retorted with praise for the Nazi employment policy.

The record is littered with Haider's downplaying of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

In March 1986, Nazi SS officer Walter Reder was released from a life sentence in Italy and returned to Austria. Haider dismissed the ensuing controversy as "ridiculous" and praised Reder as "a soldier who had done his duty."

In April 1995, Haider denounced the government's plans to compensate the 30,000 Austrian victims of Nazi rule, including Jews, communists and socialists, and gays and lesbians. Haider claimed that Austrians were also victims of the Allies and deserved compensation, too. In the end, Haider voted for the plan.

In December 1995, Haider claimed that the Nazis' Waffen SS "deserves all the honor and respect of an army in public life," as it was part of the German armed forces.

In July 1998, Haider defended an FPÖ member of parliament who used the term "Umvolkung" in a debate about new citizenship rules. The Nazis used regularly used this term to refer to their programs of ethnic cleansing by forced migration or transfer. The MP supported new rules to make applicants for Austrian citizenship prove their knowledge of German, to prevent the "Umvolkung" of the country. Haider defended the usage, and in fact used the term himself the following day in a press conference criticizing liberal immigration policy for allowing "foreign infiltration."

FAR FROM a fringe lunatic, Haider was a highly educated and charismatic figure who cultivated a long and successful political career attacking immigrants and pushing his brand of right-wing populism in opposition to mainstream Austrian politics.

Haider joined the FPÖ in 1976 when he was a law student. The party itself was the successor to the League of Independents, which advocated free-market and pan-German policies. In fact, the first leader of the FPÖ was part of the Nazi collaborationist cabinet in Austria during the Second World War--and the second FPÖ leader was an ex-SS officer.

Haider had direct family ties to the Nazis. His parents were both party members, his father a member of the SA storm troopers. In addition, Haider inherited a large estate in Carinthia that had been expropriated from its Jewish owners during the war. Haider's great-uncle subsequently bought the property and left it to Haider upon his death.

Haider's leadership in the FPÖ took the party from a marginal group to a major political player that regularly won 10 to 20 percent of the vote in state and national elections. Haider became the party's head in 1986, and by 1994, he won 23 percent of the vote in national elections.

The high point for the organization came in 1999, when it stunned the world by winning 27 percent in national elections, making it the second-largest party in the country. The FPÖ entered a coalition government the next year, resulting in international outrage and protest. Haider ultimately resigned as party chief--not out of shame, but to dampen the international outcry, while he continued to pull FPÖ strings from behind the scenes.

Most recently, Haider was premier of the state of Carinthia. Carinthia is important not least for the fact that 10-20 percent of its residents are ethnic Slovenes who have lived in the region since long before the modern state of Austria was created in 1955. Tensions over language, cultural and education rights for Slovenes have been a staple of Carinthian politics.

Haider's political strategy, when not defending or reminiscing about the Nazis, has always been to blame immigrants for Austria's economic woes and claim that the high taxes Austrians pay to fund the welfare state went primarily to support foreigners. In addition, he was always a steadfast opponent of the European Union, and tapped into popular frustration with political corruption and ineptitude in Austrian politics, while pushing far-right solutions.

THE FPÖ's fortunes declined in the past few years, with Haider eventually leading a split from the organization and founding the BZÖ in 2005. Now that he is dead, the potential for the two organizations to merge again and represent an even stronger far-right force remains a possibility.

News of Haider's death should have led to efforts to marginalize both his image and the ideas and organizations he stood for. Instead, to judge from the week since the fatal car accident, Haider will be immortalized as a mainstream politician.

This is a terrifying and tragic mistake. To provide cover for Haider's politics of hate in the form of "condolences" or "politeness" only allows the far right to grow stronger.

In the wake of the international financial meltdown of the last few weeks, pundits and politicians made innumerable references to the Great Depression and the economic tumult of the 1930s. It is precisely these sorts of crises that allow for the far right to grow--and not just in terms of figures like Haider getting to spread their views, but in frightening terms of violence and attacks on society's most vulnerable.

This is the time to denounce Haider and all that he stood for--and to build a left-wing response to the economic and social crises of today.

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