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v3.5 | 22 12 01
February 5, 2001 | San Francisco Bay Guardian
Reality Bites

::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.

A 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.

Shocking 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.

The future belonged to Haider and his cohorts, or so it seemed.

But 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 sanctions.

All 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 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, 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 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 European "wise men." Specifically, the report took Boehmdorfer to task for failing to reject a suggestion by Haider that government critics be jailed.

Asked 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.

Haider 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.

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 presenter, 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 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.

The 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.

"Austria 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.

Netbase 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 (, Netbase describes its running battle with the Austrian government since the Freedom Party muscled its way into power.

A 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.

Herr 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."

But 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 incursions.

The 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.

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 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 carried away.

In 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."

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 suspicison," a comment that raised concerns of political meddling in the judiciary.

On 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.

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 Haider's party was suffering a popularity slump. But Austria's charismatic far right strongman has a long record of rebounding from adversity.

Tens 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."

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.



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