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Vol 2, No 22
5 June 2000
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Racism Not Just Racism
Bernd Baumgartl

Since 3 October 1999, and especially since early February 2000 and the formation of the government coalition between the Christian Democrats (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ), Austrians with international contacts have had a new duty: explaining why the nationalist and xenophobic FPÖ could possibly attract more than a quarter of the Austrian electorate.

Even the losers of the elections, the hitherto grand coalition People's Party (ÖVP) and Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), are obliged to tell their counterparts that a share of FPÖ votes is due to people's delusions after 30 years under a Socialist chancellor.

Standard reasons for the disillusioned electorate, such as rising unemployment or economic crisis, do not apply to wealthy Austria. The frequently voiced explanation that the election results reflect pure racism is too simple and too superifical. Moreover, it is not an explanation in itself. To find explanations one has to sift through the plethora of motivations that brought 27.1 percent of Austrian voters to elect the populist Jörg Haider - the rich and good-looking yuppie, the leader of the national-liberal FPÖ since 1986 - and his lot. More importantly, one has to dig into the pillars of Austrian identity since the Second World War - the Anschluß, neutrality, social partnership and ethnic homogeneity - to understand how the electorate have been shaken over the last decade.

Protest votes for FPÖ

On the surface, reasons to vote for Mr Haider and his party have been analysed by exit polls. Exit polls by the sociological institute, IMAS, have shown that his party help uncover scandals, bring about change, best represent my interests and traditions, advocate a halt to immigration, have a charismatic leader and punish the two major parties. The FPÖ electoral campaign was well managed. In fact, it was the FPÖ who imposed the leading themes of debate on the other parties. 40 percent of those under 30 were motivated by style and appearance, rather than content, or so the researchers of youth behaviour say (Austrian Weekly Profil No. 42/99).

Nevertheless, anti-foreigner discourse has been one of Haider's most explicit calling cards and a referendum initiated by him in 1993 seeking to reduce the rights of some nine percent of non-Austrians, collected 400,000 votes. He has certainly "instrumentalised the foreigners theme for his own power interests and used the latent xenophobia for his own political ends," a study by the European University Institute on xenophobia in Europe concluded.

It is peculiar that a majority of Austrian males voted for Haider in the past elections. The fictive security and easy answers provided by "Jörg, the true Austrian" allow men to identify with him, which helps them overcome the fear of being without orientation and without ethnicity in a European or globalised society.

Historically speaking, in 1938, almost all Austrians welcomed the Anschluß to Germany, but post-war Austria was deliberately rooted in the conviction that it had suffered from Hitler's occupation. Apart from a single declaration on the occasion of a state visit to Israel, Austria has never elaborated in depth on its participation in Nazism and the Holocaust, but it has covered its guilt with its own victimisation: only admit what cannot possibly be denied, but refrain from mourning and working out the shameful past.

Clear words of responsibility and mature awareness like those pronounced by the German Federal President, Richard von Weizäcker are contrasted by the Austrian spirit of the Waldheim affair in the mid 1980s ("We Austrians vote for whom we want"), and it was willingly kept alive during the FPÖ's electoral campaign.

The affection of neutrality

Cut down to a rump "German-Austria" after the First World War, and humiliated in the Second World War, the sole reason for pride in post-war Austria was its neutral status between the two blocs of the Cold War. But, it should be remembered, being neutral was less a moral desire than a sly strategy to convince the allied forces to cease occupation in 1955 and 1956 (mind that, in contrast to other countries, they were not "liberation forces" in Austria).

The end of the Cold War and NATO's expansion to nearly all Austria's neighbours made neutrality seem obsolete. In contemporaryt terms, membership in the EU forces Austria to take sides, the recent conflict in Kosovo being an example, but neutrality imposes the ban of NATO military transports across Austrian territory. Today, many feel that neutrality is no longer feasible. The FPÖ, Haider and Defence Minister Herbert Scheibner have consistently argued for NATO membership, an idea firmly opposed by the Greens and the SPÖ. Without the support of the opposition parties, the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition can do nothing since it would require a three-fifths majority in the National assembly.

The security of social partnership

Social partnership in Austria has often been seen as a model for social partnership in general. The corporatist division of labour and the sometimes mutual penetration of governmental and social organisations since the Second World War (but with strong roots in the earlier decades of the century, and even before, as well) are both key factors for social safety. Both have also contributed to the economic stability and wealth of Austria in the second half of the 20th century.

In the words of Elisabeth Gehrer, the Federal Minister for Education and Cultural Affairs, "For Austria, after the Second World War, the spirit of co-operation between the democratic powers within society can take credit for a great deal of progress: reconstruction, prosperity, social security and stability." Essayist Robert Menasse in his recent book Dummheit ist Machbar described the social partnership as:

an undemocratic system which deprives Parliament of its powers, whose responsible leaders exert a governmental power for which they have not been elected, and from which they can therefore not be voted out ... It has terrible mental effects ... The leading policy does not think in terms of alternatives and contradictions, which have been set still by the social partnership over decades ... This is why the Socialist Party was not able to react adequately upon the rise of Haider.

Certainly, the divide-and-rule practice of the two major parties has been cause for criticism, and Mr Haider is not alone in saying that transparency and merit need to enter into Austrian policy-making. As a matter of fact, many voters saw the FPÖ as the only party "in line" with these protests.

The myth of ethnic homogeneity

In 1919, "German-Austria" included Vienna, the former imperial capital to which a few decades earlier peoples from all lands of the Empire had migrated, including Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians,
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Serbs, Italians, and many more, thus doubling the population. A check of today's phonebooks reveals the ever-heterogeneous background of Austria, always at the cross-roads of European populations. Croat and Slovenian minorities within the state borders attest to the Slavic presence before Germanic tribes moved in during the early Middle Ages.

However, a fear of the "others" directed votes to the party which had re-coined "Überfremdung" as their main concern (borrowing the favorite word of Göbbels, which translates roughly to "over-foreignisation"). As several voters indicated, the need to differentiate Austrians from neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe provided an incentive to vote FPÖ. The fear of being diluted within the EU, which Austria joined in 1995, is also reflected in the Austrian incapacity to understand that it is now a part of the Union. In fact, the EU is instead often referred to as "they" who overrule us from Brussels.

Interestingly, a study published last month by the European Commission shows that only 35 percent of Austrians support EU enlargement. Only the French are more sceptical about enlargement. The figure from Autumn 1999, however, is better than in Spring 1999 when only 29 percent were in favor of the enlargement process.

Populism won't make it in the EU

But, even if they were in government, the FPÖ would soon have to "behave well" at European Council activities. Membership in the European Union has narrowed the range of decision-making at the national level. Austria has already experienced some feeling of being a pariah in international politics. All a new government will do is to mediate and avoid even more negative consequences. The FPÖ, which meets strong aversion from all European governments and has no fraction status in the European Parliament, will once again happily change its attitude and positions, as it has done frequently since 1986.

In sum, Austrians should welcome this historic turnover to finally deal with their dark past which has been pushed underground; they should take the opportunity to reform a political system which was rather perpetuating imperial clientelism and establish a transparent, objective administration and structure; they should demonstrate that the hatred against foreigners incited by the FPÖ is disgusting and unacceptable. Instead of being paralysed, that is, Austrians should stand up and finally fight against Haider with passion.

Freud for Freud's native country?

NGOs such as SOS Mitmensch have embarked upon this road already and the solid gains of the Green Party have been earned with a clear-cut position against the FPÖ's unacceptable xenophobia. Instead of
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living in fear that racism will over-run Austria's democracy, two things are now imperative to pursue; namely, to criticise Mr Haider and his party severely with just arguments, in order not to allow any simple answers and not to make him any more important than he, unfortunatley, already is within the realm of international politics.

The existence of three political parties of the same size has made coalition negotiations difficult. There were few alternative options left to the current government, given that the SPÖ refused to collaborate with the FPÖ. But, in the long run, whether in government or opposition, political parties will need to initiate their collective psycho-analysis of Austrian guilt and construct a valid identity, which is not merely in opposition to others. While this may be uncomfortable, it is also unavoidable.

Bernd Baumgartl, 5 June 2000

Picture Credit: Emil-Nicolaie Perhinschi

Moving on:


  1. Austrian Weekly Profil No 42/99
  2. Wakolbinger, Eva, "Austria - The Danger of Populism," in Baumgartl/Favell (eds), New Xenophobia in Europe, Kluwer Law International, 1995.

  3. Menasse, Robert, Dummheit ist machbar: Begleitende Essays zum Stillstand der Republik, Sonderzahl Verlag, Vienna, 1999.

  4. Austrian Weekly Profil No 41/99
  5. Czernin, Hubertus (ed), Wofür ich mich meinetwegen entschuldige. Haider beim Wort genommen, Czernin-Verlag, Wien, 2000.

  6. James, Louis, The Xenophobe's Guide to the Austrians, Ravette Publishing, 1995.

Scientific Discussions and Civil Society Resistence:

IG Kultur Österreich
Gegen Schwarz Blau
Get to attack
SOS Mitmensch
Republikanischer Club

FPÖ and Haider:

Haider quotes
Ötsch, Walter: Haider Light
Official party site of the FPÖ
Spoof FPÖ website


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To Be Biljana

Bernd Baumgartl
More Than Racism

Tom Liška
Working Alone Together

Jan Čulík
The Czech Enmity

Focus: Alcohol
Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Drinks for the Nation

Brian J Požun
Brew Wars

Mel Huang
Boozing in
the Baltics

Václav Bělohradský

Student Essay:
Darja Zajícová
Media Demythtified

Elke de Wit
Virgin Mary
Meets Porn Star

Mel Huang
Borders Up! Reviewed

The Arts:
Culture Calendar:

The Union of Death

Czech Republic