Friedrich Hebbel, the great Austrian dramatist of the 19th century,
described his country as "the small world in which the great world
holds rehearsal." If that's the case, we're in trouble.
A year ago, the far-right Freedom Party, led by Jorg Haider, shocked
Europe when it joined the Austrian government as an equal coalition
partner. A Porsche-driving pseudo-populist firebrand, Haider built
his party into a major political force by scapegoating immigrants
and trawling the sewers of ethnic prejudice for votes. Shocking
levels of anti-Semitism persist today in Austria, where, according
to a survey published by the newsweekly Gor, 50 percent of
the population believe that Jews were responsible for their own
persecution, and 37 percent say they are "not sure" they could shake
hands with a Jew. Catering shamelessly to this constituency, the
Freedom Party emerged as the top vote-getter among the Austrian
working class and people under 30, in what proved to be the strongest
showing of a right-wing extremist movement in Western Europe since
World War II.
But the Haider juggernaut encountered significant resistance as
soon as the
conservative People's Party of Austria broke its pre-election promise
and formed a controversial alliance with the Freedom Party. The European
Union immediately imposed diplomatic sanctions. And more than 100,000
demonstrators gathered in Vienna on February 20, 2000 to protest the
"I declare hunting season
on thsose who
are hunting us," says Jorg Haider.
Yet all this just gave Haider more fuel. Resigning as head of the
Freedom Party, he passed the baton to Susanne Riess-Passer, Austria's
vice-chancellor, otherwise known as "the king's cobra." Haider remained
the party's behind-the-scenes boss, while ruling as governor in
the southern province of Carinthia. Taking aim at his critics, he
declared that any political figure who supported E.U. sanctions
against Austria should be prosecuted for "political treason," and
he launched more than 100 libel suits against journalists, artists
and academics as part of a far-ranging effort to intimidate and
muzzle dissenting voices. Gerhard Botz, a leading Austrian historian
of the Nazi era, accused Haider of endangering freedom of speech
by attempting to "criminalize" his critics.
Haider's defamation suits often ended up with judges who were viewed
as friendly to the Freedom Party. For legal representation in these
cases, Haider turned to the former law firm of his Freedom Party
confidant, Dieter Boehmdorfer, the current justice minister who
formerly served as Haider's personal attorney.
Boehmdorfer's performance as Austria's attorney general has been
so odious that he alone among cabinet officials was singled out
for condemnation in a report by three "wise men" from the European
Union who were asked to assess the impact of the diplomatic boycott
against Austria. But the trio of experts concluded that such measures
had become counterproductive by encouraging just the kind of xenophobic
and reactionary sentiment they were designed to punish. Based on
their recommendation, the sanctions were lifted in September.
Haider gloated at the European Union's tactical blunder, while
Boehmdorfer issued veiled threats against Freedom Party detractors.
"Even the freedom of the press has its limits," the justice minister
Vowing to stop "biased" reporting, Haider's minions in the government
set up a regulatory body to monitor the "objectivity" of the country's
national broadcast media. Austrian state television and radio were
deluged with complaints from Freedom Party stalwarts. "There has
always been a degree of interference, but of late it has reached
an unprecedented dimension," Daniella Spera, Austrian TV's main
news anchor, disclosed in October. "Top politicians are calling
so regularly it is nearly impossible to work."
Numerous print media professionals also complained of personal
attempts at intimidation by government officials. In November, the
Austrian journalists' association warned that press freedom was
at risk after the Freedom Party launched a vicious verbal attack
against the Austrian Press Agency over a dispatch that ruffled Haider's
feathers. "You can't blame the reporter when the facts do not please
you," responded Astrid Zimmerman, head of the Austrian journalists'
The art and culture scene was also subjected to an array of repressive
policies, including the termination of state subsidies for numerous
cultural workers and progressive social programs. The Independent
Women's Forum in Vienna, for example, saw 80 percent of its budget
dry up overnight. Many of the victims of the funding cuts--from
community radio stations to independent theater groups--had one
thing in common: their opposition to the government.
"Austria doesn't have a very big tradition of dissenting, democratic
structures, and I'm very concerned about the consequences," says
Konrad Becker, head of Public Netbase, a community Internet service
that provides online facilities for more than 1,200 cultural and
political projects. Netbase had its funding slashed last April.
Hubsi Kramar, a stand-up comedian, also has been targeted for retribution
by the Freedom Party. Kramar dressed in Nazi regalia as part of
an anti-Haider parody; he was subsequently arrested and charged
with violating the law against displaying fascist symbols. Yet no
one gets arrested at annual meetings of Waffen-SS veterans in Austria,
where Nazi medallions are worn in earnest.
Haider has spoken at such events on several occasions, always to
an appreciative audience. German television clips have showed him
praising the "decency" of the notoriously brutal Waffen-SS. Although
he caught a lot of flack for this, Haider did not recant. Late last
year, he caused another stir when he addressed a mountaintop reunion
of SS members and other Hitler soldiers. Haider described the Third
Reich veterans as "good citizens who had sacrificed their youth."
The Freedom Party's aggressive cultural strategy is the brainchild
of Andreas Molzer, Haider's adviser on cultural affairs. Until recently,
this Rasputin-like figure was the publisher of Zur Zeit,
a virulently racist Vienna newsweekly, which rages about "the dogma
of the 6 million murdered Jews" and celebrates the "epoch-making
economic and political successes of the great social revolutionary,"
a reference to Adolf Hitler.
Emboldened by the fact that few Austrian politicians would condemn
openly racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic material in the media,
Haider went for the jugular. He called for a ban on all anti-government
demonstrations and backed new laws to allow increased police surveillance
and eavesdropping on private citizens.
But it appears that Haider, in his zeal to strangle dissent, may
have gotten carried away. In October, several top Freedom Party
officials, including Haider and Boehmdorfer, were accused of paying
police for confidential files on their political rivals and critics.
The bribery charges were triggered by the publication of a devastating
book by Josef Kleindienst, a disillusioned Haider acolyte and former
head of a police union affiliated with the Freedom Party. Titled
I Confess, the book detailed how sympathetic police officers
were bribed to provide information about Haider's foes. "Of course,
it was clear we were breaking the law," Kleindienst acknowledged,
"but it was more important to help the party fight its enemies."
More than 80 police officers were implicated in what became known
as "the spy affair." Eleven police working with a senior intelligence
unit were suspended from active duty pending the outcome of an inquiry
by state prosecutors. Boehmdorfer quickly proclaimed that Haider
was "above suspicion," a comment that raised concerns of political
meddling in the judiciary; this February, Haider's lawyer announced
that investigations into his role in the police spying scandal had
But several officials remain under scrutiny, including Hilmar Kabas,
the erstwhile leader of the Freedom Party's Vienna branch. Kabas
reportedly ran an extensive spy network that purloined data from
police computers on a regular basis. He resigned his party post
in January amid disclosures that he spent an evening in a Vienna
brothel (courtesy of the Austrian taxpayers).
All this was not good news for a political party that had campaigned
loudly against government corruption and "criminal foreigners."
Nor did the government's harsh spending cuts and ambitious privatization
program go over well after the Freedom Party had promised to fight
for the "little man." Recent setbacks in two regional elections
confirmed that the party is suffering a popularity slump. But the
charismatic Haider has a long record of rebounding from adversity.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered once again in Vienna last
month--just as they have been doing on a weekly basis throughout
the Freedom Party's turbulent first year in power. "The fundamental
concerns have not changed," says Max Koch, head of SOS Mitmensch,
one of the groups coordinating the demonstrations. "Attitudes toward
foreigners, Thatcherite changes in social spending and the work
force, regressive policies regarding women, the year has not been
a good one for Austria." True to form, Haider lashed out at the
opposition. "You have to understand, our enemies have declared war
on us," he told a recent gathering of Freedom Party faithful. "I
declare hunting season on those who are hunting us."
Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and
The Beast Reawakens, a book about neofascism.