5, 2001 | San
Francisco Bay Guardian
::Culture war rages in Austria
:Neofascist Freedom Party marks
one year in power.
By Martin A. Lee
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.
year ago, the far-right Freedom Party, led by Jorg Haider,
sent shock waves rippling through Europe when it joined
the Austrian government as an equal coalition partner.
A Porsche-driving, populist firebrand with a proclivity
for making pro-Nazi statements, Haider built his party
into a major political force by scapegoating immigrants
and trawling the sewers of ethnic prejudice for votes.
levels of anti-Semitism persist today in Austria, where
50 percent of the population believes that Jews were
responsible for their own persecution, according to
a survey published by the Austrian newsweekly Gor, and
37 percent said they were "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.
future belonged to Haider and his cohorts, or so it
the Haider juggernaut encountered significant resistance
as soon as the conservative People's Party of Austria
broke its preelection promise and formed a controversial
alliance with the Freedom Party. More than one hundred
thousand demonstrators gathered in Vienna on Feb. 4,
2000, to protest the inauguration of the new regime.
And the European Union immediately imposed diplomatic
this was grist for Haider's mill. Resigning as head
of the Freedom Party, he passed the baton to Susanne
Riess-Passer, otherwise known as "the king's cobra."
But 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 not standing by his
or her country. He accused his opponents of "political
treason" and launched more than 100 libel suits
against journalists, artists, and academics as part
of a far-ranging effort to intimidate and muzzle dissenting
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,
who is currently Austria's Justice Minister. (Imagine
John Ashcroft with a German accent.) Before heading
up the Justice Ministry, Boehmdorfer served as Haider'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 European "wise
men." Specifically, the report took Boehmdorfer
to task for failing to reject a suggestion by Haider
that government critics be jailed.
to assess the impact of the E.U.'s diplomatic boycott
against Austria, 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 seven-month-long sanctions were lifted in September.
gloated at the E.U.'s tactical blunder, while Boehmdorfer
issued veiled threats against Freedom Party detractors.
"Even the liberty of the press has its limits,"
the Justice Minister declared.
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 presenter, disclosed in October. "Top
politicians are calling so regularly it is nearly impossible
print media professionals also complained of personal
attempts at intimidation by government officials. In
November, the Austrian journalist's association warned
that press freedom was at risk after Haider's party
launched a vicious verbal attack against the Austrian
Press Agency over a dispatch that ruffled the feathers
of the de facto Freedom Party führer. "You
can't blame the reporter when the facts do not please
you," said Astrid Zimmerman, head of the Austrian
journalists' trade union.
critical art and culture scene was 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.
doesn't have a very big tradition of dissenting, democratic
structures, and I'm very concerned about the consequences,"
said Konrad Becker, head of Public Netbase, a community
Internet service that provides online facilities for
more than 1,200 cultural and political projects.
had its funding slashed last April. It is one of many
cultural institutions struggling to survive after the
sudden withdrawal of subsidies in the Haider era. On
a not-to-be-missed Web site (free.netbase.org/english/index.html),
Netbase describes its running battle with the Austrian
government since the Freedom Party muscled its way into
stand-up comedian named Hubsi Kramar also was targeted
for retribution by the Freedom Party. Kramar dressed
in Nazi regalia during an anti-Haider parody; he was
subsequently arrested and charged with violating the
law against displaying fascist symbols. But here's the
punch line: 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 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 vets as "good
citizens who had sacrificed their youth."
Haider had few kind words for independent artists on
the dole. He denounced them as lazy, wasteful spongers
("pseudo-intellectual ne'er-do-wells"), while
endorsing subsidies only for art that represents the
deepest yearnings of the Austrian Volk - waltzing and
yodeling, presumably. In the world according to Haider,
the right of an individual artist to create uncensored
work, and the right of the Austrian public to enjoy
this creation, is clearly less important than the innate
"right" of a distinct ethnic entity called
"the people" to protect their own culture
from sinister foreign influences and decadent liberal
Freedom Party's aggressive cultural strategy is the
brainchild of Andreas Molzer, Haider's advisor on cultural
affairs. Until recently, this Rasputin-like figure was
the publisher of Zur Zeit, a virulently racist Vienna
newsweekly, which raved about "the dogma of the
six million murdered Jews" and the "epoch-making
economic and political successes of the great social
revolutionary," a reference to Adolf Hitler.
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 antigovernment 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
October, several top Freedom Party officials, including
Haider and Justice Minister 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 ex-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."
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 suspicison," a comment that raised
concerns of political meddling in the judiciary.
Feb. 5, 2001, Haider's lawyer announced that investigations
into his role in the police syping scandal had been
dropped. But several officials remain under scrutiny,
including Hilmar Kabas, the erstwhile leader of the
Freedom Party's Vienna branch. Kilbas 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 taxpayer.
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 Haider's party
was suffering a popularity slump. But Austria's charismatic
far right strongman has a long record of rebounding
of thousands of protestors gathered once again in Vienna
- 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," said Max
Koch head of SOS Mitmensch, one of the groups coordinating
the demonstrations. "Attitudes towards foreigners,
Thatcherite changes in social spending and the workforce,
regressive policies regarding women - the year has not
been a good one for Austria."
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 (email@example.com) is the author of Acid
Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, a book about neofascism.