Joerg Haider: The Rise of an Austrian Extreme Rightist
Updated: March 9, 2004
Known for his dubious statements about Jews, his praise of Nazism, his embrace of Saddam Hussein, and for his personal charisma, far-right politician Joerg Haider led his moribund Freedom Party to a surprise victory in the March 7, 2004 elections in the Austrian province of Carinthia. Political analysts viewed this win as a come-back for the beleaguered Haider. The party garnered 42.2 percent of the vote, beating the rival Social Democratic Party which finished with 38 percent. The party did less well in the Salzburg regional election, with the party losing up to half of its previous support. However, with the strong showing in Carinthia, Haider is likely to once again vie to be a player on the national political stage, preparing for the 2006 federal elections.
Labeled by his critics as a "yuppie fascist" and the "Austrian David Duke," Joerg Haider is one of Austria's most prominent and controversial leaders. To his supporters, Haider is a breath of fresh air, promising job security, social benefits, and a new breed of politician who follows through on his election promises. The charismatic populist promises to eliminate corruption, curtail abuses of the welfare state, and protect Austria's national interests from being overrun by illegal immigrants and unchecked global markets.
To his opponents, Haider is a dangerous right-wing extremist who exploits Austria's disenchantment with the perennial ruling parties to advance his xenophobic, racist and intolerant policies. Throughout his public career, Haider has consistently parried accusations of anti-Semitism. His record, however, reveals numerous statements utilizing Holocaust terminology and legitimizing Nazi policy and activities.
A lawyer by profession, Haider lives with his wife and two children in an inherited 38,000 acre estate. The estate was once owned by Jews who were forced to sell the land after the 1938 German annexation of Austria.
Joerg Haider was born in 1950 in Upper Austria to parents with direct links to the Nazis. His father joined Hitler Youth in 1929 and the Nazi SA storm troops a year later. The senior Haider reportedly traveled to Munich with Adolf Eichmann and Alois Brunner in 1933 as a member of the Austrian legion. Haider's mother belonged to the Nazi Paty's League of German Girls. When asked to comment on his parents' wartime activities, Haider remarked: "In retrospect one is always wiser. As a descendant, one should not be so arrogant as to say, 'I would have known better.'"
Since the age of twenty, Haider has held various positions in the right-wing Freedom Party, including as a member of parliament from 1979 through 1983. In 1986, Haider was elected party leader. Three years later, saying he would use provincial politics as a springboard for the chancellorship, Haider became the governor of Carinthia. In 1991, Haider was forced to resign from this post after publicly praising Nazi labor policy (see below), and became Deputy Governor. Haider re-entered the national parliament in March 1992.
Haider's success in the October 1994 national elections astounded political observers. In 1986, the Freedom Party received 5% of the vote. Only eight years later, in the 1994 elections, Haider and his party garnered 22.6% of the vote, up from 16.5% from 1990, achieving the dubious distinction of gaining more votes in a parliamentary election than any other European far-right party. In the 183 seat parliament, the Freedom Party jumped from thirteen to forty-two seats. Political analysts credited the Freedom Party's success to a receptiveness to Haider's anti-foreigner message, as well as with a wide-spread disgust for the stodginess and patronage of the Social Democrats and the Austrian People's Party.
Haider's rise caused the two mainstay parties of Austrian politics to suffer losses they had not experienced in their forty-nine year reign. The Social Democrats garnered only 35% of the vote, a drop of 8%, receiving only 66 seats. Their coalition partner, the conservative Austrian People's Party, dropped 4.4% to 28% of the vote, receiving only 52 seats. The coalition continued, until its breakdown in October 1995, with both party leaders refusing to welcome Haider as a coalition partner.
In October of the following year, Austria's first direct election for Members of the European Parliament took place. In this election, the Social Democratic Party (SPO) suffered serious electoral setbacks, in contrast with both the Austrian People's Party (OVP) and Haider's Freedom Party (FPO), which increased their share of the vote. One of the principal factors that contributed to the Freedom Party's success in this election was its anti-European stance. In gaining 27.6% of the vote, Haider's party broke through the projected 25% "natural ceiling" that had until then been assumed for the European far right.
In local provincial elections, Haider's party gained great popularity. The FPO emerged as the strongest party in the provinces of Salzburg and Carinthia, and a similar trend emerged in the elections to the municipal assembly of Vienna, which is Austria's most important local council. In these elections, the SPO lost the majority it had held without interruption since 1918 (except during 1934-1945). Compared to the performance of Austria's two biggest parties, the FPO increased its share of the vote from 22.5% to 28%.
In 1997, Haider's party captured 28% of votes in elections to the European Parliament; the Freedom Party's total was 6 percentage points higher than what it scored in December's general elections. The results placed the Freedom Party in third place, behind the People's Party, the junior coalition party that scored 29.6 % of the vote, and the governing Social Democratic Party, which gained 29.1 % of the vote.
Haider was re-elected to governor of Carinthia by a landslide in 1999. Later that year, the Freedom Party finished second in general elections with a stunning 27 percent of the vote. With the political leverage gained from the 1999 election, in 2000, the Freedom Party succeeded in joining the new Austrian government as a coalition partner. This development lead to an outcry from many in Austria, the international community as well as Jewish and non-Jewish organizations around the world, and finally culminated in Israel's recalling its ambassador from Vienna. The European Union imposed sanctions on Austria. While Haider resigned as head of the Freedom Party in 2000, he continued to be a major influence behind the scenes, and retained his position as Governor of Carinthia. In November 2002, Haider's machinations lead to early elections, and support for the party fell precipitously to 10%. Although the Freedom Party remained a "junior partner" in the governing coalition, Haider and the Party's influence was greatly diminished.
The 2004 campaign in Carinthia was seen as a major test of Haider's viability as a politician. With polls predicting a Freedom Party loss, and pundits highlighting his embrace of Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the war and other questionable policy choices, Haider was expected to get under 30% of the popular vote. He surprised analysts in the days before the election by moving up in the polls, and in the end, retained his governorship and his level of popular support.
The Freedom Party
The Austrian Freedom Party, founded in 1956, is the heir to the League of Independents. Formed in 1949, the League was the direct descendant of the faction that promoted pan-German nationalism for Austria both under the Habsburgs and in the years following World War I.
Initially reluctant to welcome the terms of Austrian independence, especially the neutrality clause of the State Treaty, the Freedom Party chose instead to take a pro-European position as a substitute for identification with Germany. As the only political group espousing free-market, pro-(Western) Europe views in Austria, the Freedom Party also included a liberal wing resembling the Free Democrats of the Federal Republic of Germany. The two tendencies were always uneasy with each other, and the party's origins were never wholly abandoned. The first two leaders of the Freedom Party were respectively a former member of Chancellor Arthur Seyss-Inquart's post-Anschluss (unity) Nazi cabinet of 1938 and an ex-SS officer.
Until the 1990's, the Freedom Party was a marginal part of Austrian public life. In the elections of 1949 and 1953, the Freedom Party's predecessor scored around 10 percent; thereafter, the Freedom Party received between four to seven percent of the national vote. Under Haider's leadership, support for the Freedom Party has increased at an incredible rate.
The Freedom Party's agenda continues to be nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Europe.
Defending Nazi policy and Nazis:
Haider has a long public record of defending the policies of Nazi Germany and of justifying individual actions during those years. Haider has utilized terminology reminiscent of the Nazis, announcing, for example in October 1990 a "final solution to the farm question." Upon his election to the leadership of the Freedom Party, Haider rejected comparisons with the German Nazi Party, saying "The Freedom Party is not the descendant of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority."
Indeed, Haider first gained international attention in March 1986 during the controversy surrounding the return of Walter Reder, an Austrian born former major in the Nazi SS, who was freed by Italy from a life sentence he was serving for his role in the mass killing of Italian civilians in 1944. For Haider, the controversy was ridiculous, as Reder was "a soldier who had done his duty." Dismissing Reder's wartime activities, Haider stated: "If you are going to speak about war crimes, you should admit such crimes were committed by all sides."
Haider's most infamous comment came during a July 1991 debate in the Carinthia provincial parliament, when Haider, then governor, declared: "An orderly employment policy was carried out in the Third Reich, which the government in Vienna cannot manage." In face of a national and international uproar, Haider apologized for his remarks, but said "What I said was a statement of fact: that in the Third Reich a large number of workplaces were created through an intensive employment policy and unemployment was thereby eliminated." Haider, who resigned over the controversy, did not mention to particulars of Nazi labor policy, including military buildup, forced labor, and concentration camps. Haider has defended his 1991 statement, claiming he was referring to Nazi policy between 1933 and 1936.
In May 1992, while the government was embroiled in a scandal involving a provincial government's decision to honor a gathering of Wafen SS veterans, Haider defended the decision. Haider instead accused the Interior Minister in Parliament of engaging in "primitive attacks" on "respectable" war veterans, while turning a blind eye to immigrant perpetrated crime.
Haider spoke out against the Austrian government's plans to compensate 30,000 Austrian victims of Nazi rule, including Jews, Communists and homosexuals, claiming that Austrian victims of the allies, such as civilians who fled Austria's occupation by US, Soviet, French and British troops, should also be compensated. As he told an elderly Austrian audience in April 1995, "It is not fair if all the money from the tax coffers goes to Israel." However, when the Parliament voted in June to set up a $50 million compensation fund, Haider voted in its favor. Still insisting on the need for compensation for victims of the allies, Haider explained, "But we do not intend to be petty. Even though you will not join us to widen the scope of the fund we will not vote against the bill. We too want to draw a line under a chapter we are also responsible for."
In May 1995, the Freedom Party was the only major Austrian political party absent from ceremonies at Mauthausen death camp marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the liberation of the camp. Just before the anniversary, Haider had referred to Mauthausen as a "punishment camp," implying that those interred there were criminals.
During a ceremony commemorating World War II veterans which is known to attract former SS officers and neo-Nazis, Haider called the crowd, including an array of former SS officers, "decent people of good character" and applauded them for "sticking to their convictions despite the greatest opposition." While addressing the reunion of Waffen-SS veterans, Haider declared that the reason people opposed them was "simply that in this world there are decent people who have character and who have stuck to their beliefs through the strongest headwinds and who remained true to their convictions until today." Haider's appearance at the ceremony was revealed when an amateur videotape of the gathering was broadcast on German television in December 1996.
Following these revelations, Haider defended his appearance at the event, saying: "The Waffen SS was a part of the Wehrmacht and hence it deserves all the honor and respect of the army in public life." "Everything I said in that video was completely acceptable." "I participated in this event and I don't see any reason not to. While I reject National Socialism, I certainly do not approve of the wholesale disparagement of the older war generation. I stand by this generation and I fight against the way it is disparaged."
In a television interview following the event, Haider claimed he did not know the Waffen SS had been branded a criminal organization by the post-war Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, adding: "It doesn't interest me in the least."
During a parliamentary debate in July 1998 on a proposed new law requiring applicants for Austrian citizenship to prove knowledge of German, Franz Larfer, an MP of the Freedom Party, used the word Umvolkung. This term was used by the Nazis to define the forced change of the ethnic composition of a population by immigration or compulsory transfer. This happened in Eastern Europe during the Nazi-period leading consequently to the annihilation of the inhabitants. The term is comparable to the expression ethnic cleansing. In reaction to the use of this expression, members of the Austrian parliament booed and shouted and the session had to be interrupted. After Heinz Fisher, the president of the Austrian parliament, explained to Larfer the meaning of this word, Larfer returned to the microphone apologizing for applying it. As the media reported extensively on this incident, Haider defended Laufer's use of this term, and reiterated in a press conference the following day that his colleague was right in using this expression, explaining that the government applying a liberal immigration policy allows for extensive "foreign infiltration," which subsequently leads to Umvolkung.
Attempts to Improve Image
Over the past decade, Haider has taken a number of public steps in an attempt to redeem his international image. During a 1994 visit to the United States, Haider visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., declaring afterwards: "I think that even those individuals who don't know much about history will realize that we must do everything to enforce tolerance, everything to enforce human rights and everything to strengthen democracy."
In May 1995, Haider and four companions visited the Simon Weisenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The visit came in the midst of a Freedom Party advertising campaign opposing a plan to make Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal (in whose honor the Center is named by who is unaffiliated with the organization) an honorary citizen. Haider and the Freedom Party claimed the Museum was questioning Austrian democracy by hanging the democratically elected Haider's photo alongside those of Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. In fact, Haider's photo hung alongside politicians described by the Center as "right-wing demagogues," including Jean-Marie Le Pen and David Duke. Haider's request for a meeting with the Center's leaders was rebuffed.
In 1996, Haider appointed Peter Sichrovshky, a Jewish Viennese journalist, as his number 2 candidate for the European elections in October. Many attributed Sichrovsky's appointment to a move by Haider to avoid criticisms of anti-Semitism. Sichrovsky, in response, maintained that such accusations were themselves anti-Semitic: rather than accepting him as a parliamentarian, commentators could only remark on his religion. Haider denies that Sichrovsky was only selected as the Freedom Party's deputy leader because he is Jewish. On October 16, 1996, Sichrovsky was elected as one of six members of the European Parliament on the Freedom Party ticket. Sichrovsky split with Haider in 2002 over internal party politics.
In an attempt to appear more conventional, Haider has blunted his sharp rhetoric. He has avoided bad company since his 1996 meeting with SS veterans. His 2004 campaign in Carinthia avoided much of the sensationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric of past campaigns, and instead focused on economic and governance issues.
Haider has fended off accusations of anti-Semitism since the 1980's, but his insensitivity to Nazi brutality and a refusal to appreciate the suffering endured by those who lived under Nazi rule is well documented. Haider's recent attempts to promote a more moderate political agenda, for the purposes of attracting votes from the center and gaining acceptance from the international community, do not erase his record of xenophobic policies.
As his political fortunes rise and fall, Joerg Haider has demonstrated that he continues to be a force in Austrian politics.