Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000
A U S T R I A:
Is There Life After Haider?
Austrian Jews at the end of the 20th century
In 1922, the Austrian novelist of Jewish origin Hugo Bettauer published in Vienna a satirical novel entitled Die Stadt ohne Juden: Ein Roman von Übermorgen (The City Without Jews: A Novel about the Day after Tomorrow). In this highly controversial and prophetic work, Bettauer imagines that a newly elected politician orders the expulsion of all Jews from Austria. However, the initial enthusiasm of the Austrian population for this measure rapidly vanishes once the impact of the absence of the Jewish community makes itself felt and the need for physicians, lawyers, artists, experienced journalists and bankers soon forces the Chancellor to invite back all the Jews.
What was only a fiction for Bettauer became the tragic and cruel reality for the Austrian Jewish community after the Anschluss of 1938. In a matter of months (and even weeks), the Jews, who had made such a decisive contribution to Austrian cultural life (with personalities such as Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schönberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein or Stefan Zweig) were forced to emigrate or were "deported to the East," a plight which for most of them meant death in occupied Poland's concentration camps.
As a consequence, the pre-war Jewish population of about 200,000 was reduced to 11,000 in 1945. Unlike in Bettauer's novel, though, the Jews did not come back and there are today an estimated 8000 Jews in Austria - over 90 per cent of those living in Vienna (the second largest community is in Graz, with only 80 members).
After 1945 and until the middle of the 1980s, the traditional anti-Semitism of the Austrians seemed to have disappeared or at least gone underground. During the Cold War, Austria acted as useful transit point for Soviet Jews (some of them decided to stay), and from 1970 to 1983, the country was ruled by a Jewish chancellor, the Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky.
However, the Kurt Waldheim affair in 1986 provoked an outburst of anti-Semitic feelings, and many Austrians took the prominent role of the World Jewish Congress in the campaign against the conservative politician and former UN general secretary as evidence of an "international conspiracy" and a "Jewish plot" against the Austrian nation. In fact, according to public opinion polls of the same year, a disturbing 63 per cent of Austrians said that they "would not want to live next to a Jew" - much more than in Germany (48 per cent), France (15 per cent) or the United States (9 per cent).
But it is the rise of Jörg Haider which reawakened the fears of the Jewish community. Since his election to the head of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 1986, Haider has made Austrian Jews shiver more than once with his comments on "the orderly labour policies" of the Third Reich (in 1991), his description of the Waffen SS members as "men of character" and his use of the word "punishment camp" (Straflager) instead of concentration camp (Konzentrationslager) in 1995.
Since the elections of last October, in which the FPÖ gained nearly 27 per cent and became the second largest parliamentary group, the Jewish community has consistently expressed its opposition to the participation of Jörg Haider's party in government. As the main group representing Jewish interests in Austria, the Jewish Religious Community (Israelistiche Kultusgemeinde or IKG) was hence one of the organisations which sponsored the demonstration "No Coalition with Racism" in Vienna on 12 November last year.
The chairman of the IKG, Ariel Muzicant, described Haider as an "incendiary" and reported a dramatic increase in the number of attacks against members of the Jewish community. In a highly publicised interview for the magazine News, Muzicant stated: "Haider uses lies as a political instrument. I present a file of threatening letters several centimetres thick, and Haider simply questions this. Do synagogues have to burn before Jörg Haider believes us?".
After the collapse last week of the talks between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, Haider is indeed on the brink of power, and the Jewish community is forced to ponder its future.
Of course, Haider apologised (rather clumsily and unconvincingly) for his comments about the Third Reich, and unlike other extreme right-wing leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, he has carefully avoided any openly anti-Semitic statements: Haider's xenophobia seems directed more toward "foreigners" (Bosnian refugees and, lately, Romanians) than Jews specifically. Peter Sichrovsky, one of the party's MEPs (Member of the European Parliament), is Jewish and has repeatedly denied that the Freedom Party is anti-Semitic or racist.
On 27 January, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported Haider's intention to travel to Israel next month in order to give a press conference and participate in a televised debate. According to Sichrovsky, "the people in Israel have to finally know who he [Haider] really is, no Nazi and not Hitler's right hand... we want the truth to come out, at the right time and at the right place."
Haider is more a pragmatist than a true believer, "a rep who can sell any product" (as the erstwhile leader of the FPÖ Friedrich Peter once described him ). His sudden and frequent policy shifts on the European Union and his mutation from a "pan-German" to an "Austrian" patriot suggest that Haider might prove to be a Karl Lueger (the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna between 1897 and 1910, who privately intimated that anti-Semitism was "only a slogan used to bait the masses and that he personally respected and appreciated many Jews and would never deliberately do an injustice to any of them") rather than an Adolf Hitler.
Yet the Freedom Party is a racist, populist and extremely dangerous political formation. After all, Lueger in his times to a large extent paved the way for Hitler; the banalisation of Haider's xenophobic discourse could have dire consequences for Austrian Jews.
As the incumbent Transport Minister Caspar Einem (Social Democrat) remarked, Haider plays "an irresponsible game"; even if he claims never to have made any anti-Semitic declarations, his statements about the SS are bound to alarm those who lost all their relatives in the concentration camps.
A report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia published in December last year described Austria as one of the most racist countries in Western Europe (along with Switzerland). Worryingly, anti-Semitism, traditionally thought to fluctuate according to economic cycles and to be linked to economic crises and hardships, has re-emerged in a country which has the European Union's third lowest jobless rate (4.2 per cent, only behind Luxemburg and the Netherlands ).
At the international level, Israel has strongly expressed its opposition to the inclusion of the Freedom Party in the government, which has sometimes put the Austrian Jewish community in an awkward position, especially when some Austrian politicians have dismissed Israeli declarations as unacceptable interferences in Austria's internal politics.
Israel is, nevertheless, justly concerned, and although the often-heard argument in Austria these days that Israel's less-than-perfect handling of the Palestinians does not allow it to condemn Austria might be true, it certainly should not be used as an excuse to render politically acceptable the rise of Haider or legitimate his politics of racial hatred.
Magali Perrault, 28 January 2000
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