e-mail us
Uproar in Austria, wait-and-see in Rome

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Vienna, Austria

Fourteen years ago an Austrian diplomat in America named Thomas Klestil tried to convince the world that his country’s president, former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, was no Nazi or war criminal. Today, as president himself, Klestil is again on the defensive -- this time insisting that Austria’s Freedom Party is no Nazi Party.

Though Klestil may be right, it’s proving a tough sale.

The Feb. 4 announcement of Austria’s new government, formed by a coalition of the far-right Freedom Party and the center-right Peoples’ Party, triggered a massive international reaction. The European Union has moved to isolate Austria, while the United States and Israel have recalled their ambassadors.

The move has also triggered tumult inside Austria, with demonstrations in Vienna against the new government that have left dozens of people injured and several storefronts smashed.

The leader of the Freedom Party, Jörg Haider, has made comments over the years that signal a somewhat revisionist view of the Nazi era, such as his claim that Hitler’s employment policy was “orderly” and that Waffen SS veterans were honest soldiers. In each case he later apologized.

Most political experts here say that Haider is no Nazi, nor does support for him reflect lingering Nazi sentiment. His appeal is rooted much more in economic populism, anti-immigrant fears and general frustration with the political status quo that has dominated the country since 1945.

Inside Austria, the excoriation has provoked resentment. Austrians, even those who find the Freedom Party repugnant, wonder why similar condemnations did not follow the entrance of a far-right party into the Italian government in the 1990s or the communist cabinet members in various French regimes. Analysts say that international isolation is likely to strengthen Haider.

The Catholic hierarchy in Austria and the Vatican have taken a wait-and-see approach. In part, the reaction in Rome may reflect the fact that Austria’s controversial Bishop Kurt Krenn, believed to have the pope’s ear, has in the past defended Haider.

Catholic lay groups in the country have been more outspoken, sending an open letter to European Union ambassadors denouncing the Freedom Party but urging Austria’s European partners to wait on imposing sanctions until they see what programs the new government will adopt (see box below).

Many observers believe the European outrage is motivated as much by the desire to contain far-right parties elsewhere as it is by genuine concern for the political climate in Austria. Nevertheless, some also believe the reaction is more than the sum of its parts -- that by condemning the Freedom Party, the European Union is defining itself as a community of values rather than a strictly economic alliance.

Austria’s October general election left three parties with roughly even shares of the vote: the left-leaning Social Democrats, the right-leaning Peoples’ Party, and the far-right Freedom Party. Ever since, the scramble has been on to form a government.

The Social Democrats and Peoples’ Party have jointly ruled the country in one form or another since 1945, but this time it was clear their divisions have grown too deep. The only option was a coalition between the Peoples’ Party and the Freedom Party, known in the political argot of Austria as a “black-blue alliance.”

Most observers here believe the Austrians who gave the Freedom party 27 percent of the vote were not supporting fascism, anti-Semitism or right-wing extremism. The party ran on issues such as a free market economy, less bureaucracy and the promotion of families. It also drew votes from the Social Democrats by supporting social protections (“for those who deserve them”) and controlled immigration to secure jobs and homes for Austrians and European integration (though it opposed expanding the European Union).

That’s not to say today’s Freedom Party is innocuous. On the campaign trail, candidates made provocative remarks that exceeded the moderate tone of their platform, remarks such as, “Save Austrian kids from Turkish majorities in classrooms!” and “Africans on the dole in Vienna are drug dealers!” One Freedom Party politician (later rejected as a candidate for secretary of the treasury by Klestil) even claimed: “Foreigners get free hormone pills from the government to produce more children than native families.”

The questionable campaign rhetoric builds on a troubled party history with respect to the Nazi era.

Haider once called concentration camps “penal camps.” On another occasion, he said that Hitler “at first” practiced an “orderly job-creation policy,” and yet another time he urged Waffen SS veterans not to allow themselves to be “victimized” by Nazi-fighters. Though he has apologized for each remark, both Jewish groups and democrats from all walks of life remain wary.

The fact that Haider, two days after the new government came into power, suggested that Germans expelled from the Czech Sudetenland after World War II deserved the same compensation as Holocaust victims has not helped matters.

But in the campaign, Haider distanced himself from such remarks. A youthful figure who uses undiplomatic language that appeals to many voters, Haider instead attacked the sharing of spoils and power by the Social Democrats and the Peoples’ Party since 1945. The system of “Proporz” (one jobholder for each in public offices, schools, hospitals, nationalized industries and organizations) helped heal the wounds between the two parties, who fought each other in a civil war in 1934. It also, however, created the impression of a status quo that enriched party leaders on both sides.

This was the thrust of Haider’s campaign: It’s time for a change!

Wolfgang Schüssel, Peoples’ Party leader and a man of solid democratic credentials, decided to try to tame Haider by bringing his party into the government, mainly because polls indicated that frustrated voters would make the Freedom Party No. 1 if there were a new round of balloting (its support is estimated at 31 percent). Haider is a provincial governor without a cabinet job, and Klestil forced both he and Schüssel to sign a pro-democracy, pro-human rights, pro-European Union manifesto.

The European Union announced sanctions that included freezing all bilateral relations between Austria and other member states, refusing to support Austrian candidates for office in international organizations, and receiving Austrian ambassadors at a technical level only.

In Austria, where 78 percent of the country is Catholic, the position of the church carries unusual significance. So far it has been cautious about the new government; Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has reaffirmed the church’s commitment to human rights and the dignity of every person, and said the bishops will be watching the government closely. Most Catholics, including the widely influential Catholic Action organization, have called on European Union leaders to refrain from denouncing Austria as a Nazi state.

One factor in the church’s response may be the attitude of traditionalist Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, who for years has shown sympathy for Haider. He defended Haider’s “Austria first” slogan by invoking the Catholic teaching of ordo caritas (“degrees of charity”), and welcomed a plank in the Freedom Party platform in favor of defending Europe against Islamic inroads. (The party later dumped the plank.) Krenn also seems to look benevolently on Haider’s authoritarian leadership style.

In 1993, Krenn arranged a private audience for Haider with John Paul II.

The Vatican’s response to the new government has been measured. “The Holy See has not got a tradition of giving preliminary judgements either on people or on programs,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state, told reporters Feb. 3.

“When the government’s programs are known, [the Vatican] can say whether there seems to be anything contrary to Christian morality,” Sodano said. He added, “The Holy See’s tradition is of great realism.”

U.S. officials, however, have welcomed the vigorous European reaction. “They have stressed here that the EU is not just an economic concept, that it is a political concept,” said Samuel Berger, the top foreign policy adviser to President Clinton. “That reflects both their sense of history and their sense of the future.”

NCR staff contributed to this report.

Catholic lay groups to EU ambassadors
The following is an open letter to European Union ambassadors in Vienna, Austria, signed by the heads of Catholic Action, the Central Council of Catholic Lay Organizations, Caritas and We Are Church.
   The governing coalition between the Austrian Peoples’ Party and the Freedom Party of Austria has led to an international storm of anger, which is very harmful to Austria’s reputation. …
   Catholic Action of Austria, one of the largest organizations of the Catholic church, has for some time campaigned for a climate of tolerance in Austria. We have engaged ourselves energetically against anti-foreigner sentiment and racism, as well as against any minimization of the Nazi era. We have taken positions against the corresponding statements and activities of the Freedom Party. We, too, are deeply concerned over the political situation in Austria.
   At the same time we are dismayed by the sanctions against Austria announced by your governments. We understand the concerns of your countries, but we think your reaction will do little good and the threatened measures will not contribute to the relaxation and settlement of the situation. On the contrary, we fear an “anti-EU effect” if Austrians get the impression that “the foreigners are blocking” their internal political responsibility. Citizens who did not vote for the Freedom Party wish the world had more faith in the democratic stability of Austria. Sanctions will only have their support and be seen by them as legitimate if Austria in fact departs from the European community of values.
   We appeal to you in full awareness that the cause of the current crisis lies in ourselves. We regard a cross-party effort to build a new political culture, in which no social group need feel angst or defamation, as absolutely essential. This is true not just of Austria, but across Europe wherever there are problems with extreme-right movements. These problems cannot be solved, however, by placing one state in the docks and isolating it. It requires a common European exertion.
   Dear ambassadors … we plead with you to make your influence felt so that a sophisticated image of Austria is not displaced by an overall rejection. ... Geographically, Austria lies at the heart of Europe; we ask you to work so that politically it is not placed on the margin.

Please click here to return to your place in the article.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000