Austria: It’s not about the Jews


VIENNA, Feb. 7 (JTA) — The entry of Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party into the Austrian government triggered international sanctions, demonstrations and street riots, and prompted calls by Israel and Jewish groups to isolate the country.

But the fact is that the current crisis in Austria is only marginally a Jewish issue.

“It is a problem of Austria, a problem of Europe and a problem of history,” said Peter Bettelheim of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research and Consulting.

Even before the government was sworn in, the Freedom Party and its coalition partner, the center-right People’s Party, were forced to sign an unprecedented document pledging to support democracy, combat anti-Semitism and accept responsibility for Austria’s role in the Holocaust.

And President Thomas Klestil, who only reluctantly allowed the coalition to be formed, went on national TV to urge that the government be judged by its actions and to vow that he personally would monitor its progress.

The next step, say Austrians, is to see if they can live up to all these vows.

“We’ll see if they put their actions where their mouth is, or where it was,” said Robert Liska, a businessman and board member of the Austrian Jewish community.

Austrian Jews welcomed the tough diplomatic line against the new government and looked forward to international scrutiny of the new coalition.

The unprecedented political sanctions imposed by Austria’s 14 European Union partners and the United States were directed far beyond Austria’s borders at a rising tide of xenophobia and extreme right parties that has spread across both Eastern and Western Europe.

“Many people feel that Europe is being haunted once again by fascism,” Budapest sociologist Andras Kovacs, who has long tracked nationalism and anti-Semitism, said in a presentation.

“The illusions created by the euphoria that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall have been dispelled,” he said. “Today — 10 years after the end of the Cold War — rather than the end of history and the final victory of liberal democracy, shouldn’t we really be talking about the eternal recurrence of history and the deep crisis of Western democracies?”

The message of the sanctions were targeted both at Western countries where far right parties have garnered votes and at the former Communist states waiting in line to join the European Union.

These countries, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, have seen alarming groundswells of racism and xenophobia, particularly in relationship to the Gypsy — or Roma — population. Last year in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem, local residents erected a wall to block off a Gypsy housing block from the rest of its street.

“The E.U. wants to draw a very strict line on what is tolerable in regards to common values,” said Marta Halpert, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Vienna-based Central Europe office. “That means, no right-radicals in government. It also is a warning to the East European candidates that they won’t be welcome if they allow the rise of radical groups and they must resolve their minority problems before they enter the E.U.”

Another motive for the sanctions, some analysts say, may have been a proactive attempt to redress Europe’s failure to prevent disasters such as the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars. The Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic was one of the few to voice solidarity with the new Austrian coalition.

Said Robert Liska, “What we’re really talking about is [the fact that] in today’s world there is a common denominator of Western democratic values. The pronouncements of Haider, the FPO and FPO functionaries do not fit into this common denominator.”

The recognition of European history and the Holocaust, he said, “are part and parcel of this common consensus as much as is respect for minorities.”

Haider’s Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in general elections in October, becoming Austria’s second largest party. Its platform mixes blatant xenophobia with nostalgic appeals to the patriotic values of the “good old days.”

But it is Haider’s persona, as much as the radical Freedom Party platform, that worries the international community, as well as the more than 70 percent of Austrian voters who rejected his party at the polls.

“He is socially acceptable suddenly,” journalist Karin Wolf said in a televised interview. “Several years ago, no one would support him.”

Haider demonstrated how a once-pariah party could reach the heights of power through the magnetism of a charismatic leader.

Labeled by his critics as the “yuppie fascist,” the 50-year-old son of Nazi supporters is a rabble-rousing populist and instinctive political animal who knows how to tailor his rhetoric, appearance and demeanor to suit his target audiences. He won international notoriety several years ago by making statements praising the Hitler regime.

“Haider has no line, no direction; he’s amorphous and no one can pin him down,” said Bettelheim. “The only thing he has is a feeling for resentment and how to exploit it. He plays a perfect role in a time of insecurity; a figure for the media. He combines the appeal of a rock star, a rowdy and a yuppie.”

Placards carried by the anti-Haider demonstrators who have taken to the streets nightly since the government was sworn in frequently compare him to Hitler, and commentators have compared his rise to power with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.

But Joanna Nittenberg, the editor of the Vienna Jewish monthly Neue Welt, warns against overstating the case.

“The FPO in government is our worse dream,” she said. “But Haider is not Hitler. Haider is a populist, he wants power, he wants to be chancellor. But comparing him to Hitler minimizes Hitler. If we exaggerate too much, we can lose credibility.”

Although there was a backlash of support for Haider in public opinion polls in the face of the international condemnation, many Austrians appear to have been galvanized politically by the situation.

“We want to organize protests against the new government because we don’t think this is a normal change,” said Petra, a 17-year-old with pierced lip and ears, who was gathering anti-Haider signatures for the left-wing group. “The FPO is dangerous. It is against workers rights, and its racism is also dangerous.”

Many see the current crisis, as a major, possibly cathartic, installment in Austria’s belated examination of its Nazi past, which began only in the late 1980s when Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite evidence he had concealed his own Nazi history.

In this context, Leon Zelman, a Holocaust survivor who heads the Jewish Welcome Service, which aids Jewish visitors to Austria, called on Jewish groups not to abandon the overwhelming majority of Austrians who oppose Haider, but rather to help them in their fight.

“Europe is reacting the way it must react,” he said. “But at the same time, I will be happy to find an understanding world for the thousands and thousands of young people who go out on the street to protest this new government.”

In the current situation, he says, Austrians, and particularly young Austrians and others susceptible to Haider’s appeal, need education and support in liberal values more than ever — not just to counter anti-Semitism, but to counter all forms of racism.

“The Holocaust will and cannot ever happen again,” he said. “But the beginning of the Holocaust was not Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the end. The beginning was intolerance. And not just intolerance against Jews. We teach young people about the Holocaust, yes, but we need to teach them what prepared the way.”

Zelman has organized a concert and ceremony to be held May 7 at the Mauthausen concentration camp to mark the 55th anniversary of its liberation, which he hopes will send such a message. The majority of Mauthausen inmates were not Jewish.

But he said he was deeply concerned that Elie Wiesel had told him he could not take part because of Austria’s new government.

“I love Elie Wiesel,” he said. “He is such a moral person, he gives this message to the world. He MUST come here; I will ask him again to please come.”

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