Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 9
6 March 2000

C E N T R A L    E U R O P E:
Who to Hate: Haider or History?

Blake Lambert

Around Christmas, when a government including Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party was only a looming threat, talk of Austria's political future simmered at a Vienna youth hostel. It was a quiet and festive time in one of Europe's most stunning, and expensive, cities - the lull before February's sonic boom.

Nevertheless, Haider's recent rise to power never strayed too far from the surface in conversations with two of the hostel's staff, who were not native Austrians. Ian, a British national, had lived in Austria for about six years, arriving before the country had joined the European Union. Erudite and thoughtful, he was upset by the Freedom Party's ascension, suggesting very few people, presumably Austrians if not people in general, understood anything about politics. Ian said rising xenophobia and intolerance of immigrants resulted in African émigrés being constantly hassled by the government, facing accusations that they were drug dealers. Sometimes they were imprisoned - for no apparent reason, in his opinion.

The other man, a student of urban planning at the University of Vienna, probably in his mid or late 20s, came from Munich in Germany's province of Bavaria. Perhaps he spoke for many Germans when asked about Haider or perhaps he just spoke rather succinctly: "Germany has learned from its past; Austria hasn't."

Not in my backyard

Then again, the briefest glance at the people on Austria's streets showed the country has become ethnically diverse. Asian and African faces blended with what some might be tempted to label the "typical" Austrian.

Sandwiched between Western and Central Europe, although the country has absorbed a large number of immigrants in recent years, it is hardly the first place to have some of its citizens and politicians lash out against newcomers. Even Canada, a "new world" state that is consistently ranked as the best place to live by the United Nations, has an abysmal record when it comes to treatment of its newcomers.

Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who lived in Canada for 44 years before returning to her birthplace to assume the post of President, said that upon her arrival in the 1950s, she was taunted for being a "new Canadian," code for immigrant. Just last year, a Victoria, British Columbia newspaper ran the headline "Go Back," after some boats of Chinese illegal immigrants were found off Canada's shores. Those are fairly harsh words coming from a country that boasts such multicultural centers as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Environmentalists call it NIMBYism: the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, whereby the toxic, sewage-spewing sewers are loudly condemned in one's neighborhood but not across town. Except in this case the toxicity comes from historical disasters and confused memory, not the environment.

Neither the United States nor many of the European Union's member countries, who have all distanced themselves from Austria as a result of the Freedom Party's place in a coalition government, took action during the Second World War to save people from the Nazis. (Denmark and the Netherlands are two exceptions.) They were not so enthusiastically beating down the doors of Germany, Poland and other European countries to save Jews, Roma and others being slaughtered. Far from welcoming these refugees with open arms, the governments of the US and Canada turned them away.

All of these countries may have apologized for not doing enough in the Second World War and may have done their level best to address the past, but they cannot entirely dismiss their culpability or failure to act.

In this light, the actions of the EU and the US against Austria, prompted by Haider's inclusion in government, attain more than a slight shade of hypocrisy. Officials and diplomats of these countries were right to vigorously condemn Haider's comments which portrayed him as a Nazi sympathizer and should never absolve Austria out of its odious Nazi past and its modern xenophobia. Yet it is self-righteous on their part to solely isolate Austria and globally pin a pro-Nazi label on Jörg Haider when the same strands of thought are unresolved elsewhere.

Perhaps the EU countries, along with the US, should have merely intensely scrutinized the situation, preparing to pounce at Austria if it made any radical missteps and, instead, should re-examine their relationship with Latvia and Lithuania, for example.

A poisonous cocktail

In December, the EU invited both countries to start accession talks, which officially began in February. Very few days pass by in either country without a government official or two courting Western favor or commenting on the countries' incredible progress as they eagerly anticipate joining the EU. Yet neither of these two countries has demonstrated a consistent ability to deal with their Second World War pasts any more than Austria has.

The facts are brutal and horrifying for nations whose combined current population is less than 6.5 million. 90 percent of the Jews in Latvia, at least 70,000 people, were killed between the years 1941 and 1944. In Lithuania, the damage was equally devastating: In total, about 300,000 people were killed by the Nazis, although Vilnius, the country's capital, was considered a major center of Jewish life before the war.

Yet these death tolls ignore the modern tale of the Holocaust in Latvia and Lithuania, which has become a poisonous cocktail of denial, disbelief and historical one-upmanship.

For instance, in Latvia, far-right organizations such as the National Daugavas Vanagi Union, the Association of National Partisans and Staburadze, the Jelgava office of the Association of Politically Repressed Persons have attempted to diminish the culpability of their country with respect to the Holocaust. These groups called alleged Second World War criminal Konrāds Kalējs a "victim" of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Latvian Jews, and their members have demanded to know the role of Jews during 1940, when the Soviets entered the country, including the number of Jews who served in the KGB.

In their attempt to absolve and cleanse their country's Second World War record, they have become desperate to draw artificial links between two completely separate historical tragedies. These statements have been made despite the fact that Jews were also victimized during the Soviet occupation and that the Latvian President, Vīķe-Freiberga, said in late January that perhaps more than 1000 Latvians actively participated in the Holocaust.

Soft-pedalling anti-Semitism

However, this attitude is not limited to far-right groups; high-ranking officials have simply soft-pedaled a similar message. Minister of Justice Valdis Birkavs, a former prime minister and minister of foreign of affairs, told a major newspaper in 1998 that ethnic Latvians, for the most part, did not participate in killing Jews during the Holocaust. As if tens of thousands of people could disappear without a trace and no one is to blame.

A Jew turned my father/mother/sister/brother over to the Soviets, Latvian nationalists and far-right organizations have said. Jews welcomed the incoming Soviet forces with flowers and kisses. Such rhetoric, delivered mildly or harshly, veers into dangerous territory. It smacks of Nazi propaganda, a relic of the occupations of 1941 to 1944, which served to discredit Jews by stirring enmity among the public as the Soviets returned.

Of course, no one should ever claim that those who participated in the Soviet occupation should be absolved of their crimes. No one should ever dismiss the suppression of the Soviet occupation either.

Unfortunately, however, Latvia and Lithuania cannot seem to keep these disasters separate from one another and have failed to resist historical temptation. Neither country, despite speaking of their accomplishments in confronting the Holocaust in glowing terms, has managed to convince its citizens of its evil. Both countries are too new, still fresh, wrapped in the cozy cocoon of new nationalism, in which they could not lie for 50 years.

Nevertheless, leaders from Latvia and Lithuania have condemned the events of the Second World War on their soil, for example, at the International Holocaust Forum in Stockholm at the end of January. When asked by the West, they say they are committed to prosecuting Nazi war criminals. But it is easy to condemn human evil when the world is watching and one's aim is to join, or rejoin, the West. Taking action domestically, however, when subject to the whims of a nationalist electorate that cares about the prosecution of Soviet war criminals and not Nazis, may be another story. Most likely, neither the EU nor the US probably will isolate Latvia or Lithuania for their spin on the Second World War. After all, they are meager economic players in a westernizing Europe that borders Russia, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic Sea. More importantly, they are not Austria.

Blake Lambert, 2 March 2000


The Latvian Crimes against Humanity pages have very comprehensive information on all aspects of human rights in the Baltic States

The photo for this article was taken from the Lithuanian Genocide pages [in Lithuanian]

Tel Aviv University has published a report on anti-semitism in the Baltic States



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