Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 17
18 October 1999

Joerg Haider
A smug number two
A N A L Y S I S :
Trouble on the Island of the Blessed
The implications of the Austrian elections

Magali Perrault

Pope Paul VI once famously called Austria the "Island of the Blessed."(1) Yet, the seemingly quiet and trouble-free country of Mozart periodically makes the headlines of the international news for rather less commendable reasons.

In 1986, the election of the former Wehrmacht officer Kurt Waldheim as President provoked an international outcry, which turned Austria into something of a pariah state until the election of Thomas Klestil in 1992. Last week, the 27.22 percent gained by the extreme right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) in the parliamentary elections of 3 October sent shock waves through the international community.

Like the "Waldheim affair," the success of Joerg Haider has often been explained as the failure of the Austrians to face up to their role as Hitler's "willing executioners" after the Second World War. Unlike in Germany, it is rightly pointed out that the de-Nazification in Austria remained extremely limited and insufficient and that the discussion of and reflections on the National Socialist past have been patchy and ambiguous. But, the fact that more than one quarter of Austrian voters cast their votes last Sunday for the blatantly extremist Freedom Party and its charismatic leader - who once praised the labor policies of the Third Reich - is only superficially connected with this.

Paradoxes of Austrian national identity

Central Europeans (especially Czechs) have long had a reputation for anxiously, even obsessively, searching for the "meaning" of their respective national histories. Austria is no exception to the rule, and Austrian identity is loaded with ambiguities and paradoxes. Since 1945 and the definitive end of the Anschluss temptation, the "idea of Austria" (to quote anachronistically the title of a work of the Czech historian Frantisek Palacky published in 1865) has undergone at least three different and contradictory forms.

Firstly, Austrians defined themselves as the "good" Germans, in opposition to the "bad" Germans - mostly Prussians - allegedly prone to authoritarianism and the main pillars of the National Socialist ideology. However, this vision has become obsolete, since most Austrians now firmly believe in the existence of an Austrian nation, distinct from the German nation. Characteristically, the intervention on Monday of Bavarian Ministerpraesident and chairman of the CSU (Christian Social Union) Edmund Stoiber (who advised the conservative People's Party to enter into a coalition with the Freedom Party) was firmly if diplomatically dismissed by leader of the People's Party and incumbent Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel as "no more than a friend's advice...The decision about what happens in Austria will be made exclusively in Austria."(2) Joerg Haider himself adopted some pan-German ideas at the beginning of his political career, only to discard them later when he realized their lack of impact "on a public which has at last adjusted to its small fatherland."(3)

The second and far more prevalent conception of Austria is distinctively cosmopolitan and emphasizes the positive legacies of the Hapsburg Empire. It is usually associated with a pro-European attitude (after all, in June 1994 two-thirds of the electorate approved the accession of their country to the European Union); a commitment to actively support EU enlargement to Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and possibly Slovakia; as well as a more general sense of the potential of Austria as a Central European melting pot (a quick look at Viennese family names - starting with Chancellor Viktor Klima - suffices to demonstrate the contribution of Slavic and Magyar streams to Austrian identity). According to a survey published last year, Austria would be one of the great beneficiaries of EU enlargement, and it has a pro-European elite which strongly believes in the necessity of deeper links between Austria and its post-Communist neighbors.(4)

However, the "idea" of Austria which won the electoral contest last week was an isolationist and provincialist vision of the state's future. Since the end of the Cold War, Austrian certainties have become shaky: not from an economic point of view (Austria still is by far one of the wealthiest countries in Europe and has an unemployment rate of only 4.5 percent) but from the standpoint of "security." The fall of the Communist bloc and the advent of globalization, associated among "cosmopolitan"-oriented Austrians with cultural and economic opportunities, are perceived by another growing part of the population as a threat to Austrian values - whatever this may mean.

More than a manifestation of the Austrians' attraction towards Neo-Nazism, Haider's success is based on an extremely demagogic and subtle exploitation of these fears. The campaign of the FPO successfully addressed a well-defined constituency. Posters explained that Haider was the "man, whose handshake counts," "the man, whose words count." The tactical choice of the industrialist Thomas Prinzhorn as the party's official candidate for the Chancellery reinforced the electoral "respectability" of the FPO - especially among a certain part of the traditionally conservative (OVP, People's Party) voters. Moreover, Haider managed to attract young voters; the under-30-year-olds now represent 35 percent of the Freedom Party's electorate.(5)

The elections thus constituted a protest vote against the traditional bipolarization of Austrian political life between Social Democracy and Conservatism as much as an expression of support for Haider's rhetoric. Public opinion polls on Monday showed, for instance, that had the Chancellor been directly elected, only 16 percent of Austrians would have voted for Haider (as opposed to 43 percent for the Socialist Viktor Klima and 21 percent for Wolfgang Schuessel).(6)

Implications for Austria's Central European neighbors

Given the veto power of Austria on the accession of new members to the European Union, last week's elections cannot fail to have an impact on Austria's Central European neighbors.

The nuclear question (and especially the Mochovce nuclear plant in Slovakia) has long been a bone of contention between Austria and the Czechs and Slovaks. The good results of the Greens - who gained more than seven percent of the votes (and three seats more than in 1995) - is unlikely to do much to improve the situation.

Yet, it is the new political weight of Haider which will cause serious concerns for Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak and Slovenian politicians. Haider declared on Wednesday in a press conference held in the European Parliament in Strasburg that he was not in principle opposed to EU enlargement but also unambiguously added in the same breath that enlargement was a question of timing and was not an option serving Austrian interests at this point in time.(7)

The Austrian exception?

As a recent biography explains, Haider is not a "National Socialist."(8) Not only does he not have the means to be one (Mark Mazower correctly points out that Haider's rhetoric is isolationist, not expansionist [9]), but in order to achieve success, he has learned to moderate his political language. This strategic ability is what differentiates Haider from other ultra right-wing leaders, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, and makes Haider a far more complex and dangerous politician. His program is a demagogic and populist mixture, with rightist but also leftist elements: significantly, the Freedom Party overtook the Socialists as the "workers' party" - 47 percent of workers voted FPO (10) - and even came symbolically close to overtaking them in the Vienna region, still marked by the traditions of "Red Vienna."

The results of the Austrian elections do not indicate a return to Nazism or even a rise of neo-Nazism on the Austrian political landscape but are a warning sign to be taken very seriously: an intolerant and xenophobic populism threatening democracy can thrive just as well in a prosperous environment as amidst poverty and unemployment. Austria is unfortunately not an exception in Europe, and the pressure toward European integration and globalization faces, and will face in the future, resistance in many other countries - including in states with a reputedly "democratic" political culture, such as France and the United Kingdom.

The key issue for the future of Central Europe is whether Austria can rid itself of the Haider phenomenon and return to its cosmopolitan traditions. It would then have a positive role to play in the "return to Europe" of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic - a role not based on political or economic domination but on the cultural proximity between the countries of the Danube Basin.

Magali Perrault, 8 October 1999


1. Gordon Brook-Shepherd, The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey, London, Harper Collins, p.418

2. Der Standard, 6 October 1999

P>3. Luc Rosenzweig, "Un populiste dans un pays mal deanazifie", Le Monde, 5 October 1999

4. See for example the publications of the Vienna-based Institut fuer den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa (Institute for the Danubian Space and Central Europe), such as Oesterreich und die EU-Erweiterung: Argumente und Fakten [EU enlargement: arguments and facts] (May 1999) or Erweiterung der Europaeischen Union: Zukunft ohne Grenzen, Nachbarn von gestern, Partner von heute und Freunde von morgen [EU enlargement: future without borders, Friends of yesterday, partners of today and friends of tomorrow]

5. Der Standard, 5 October 1999

6. Der Standard, 6 October 1999

7. Der Standard and Die Presse, 7 October 1999

8. Christa Zoechling, Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere, p.161

9. The Guardian, 6 October 1999

10. Der Standard, 5 October 1999



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