Joerg Haider: The Rise of an Austrian Extreme Rightist
Labeled by his critics a "yuppie fascist" and the "Austrian
David Duke," Joerg Haider is poised to become one of Austria's most
powerful political leaders. Haider is the forty-five year old leader of
the right-wing Freedom Party. After an extremely strong showing in the
October 1994 general elections the telegenic, millionaire Haider predicted
that he would be chancellor within "a year or two." He may now
have his chance.
In October 1995, a budget crisis led to the dissolution of the ruling coalition,
resulting in elections being called three years early. Polls show that
while Haider and his Freedom Party will probably not gain the chancellory
in the December 18 elections, they may emerge as Austria's second largest
party. Such a showing will mark a seismic shift in Austrian politics, displacing
the number two position Social Democrats or People's Party who have separately
or jointly governed the country since World War II.
The agenda promoted by the avowedly right-wing Freedom Party is xenophobic
and ultra-nationalist. For Haider and his party, it is the immigrant community
that is responsible for Austria's ills, particularly unemployment and crime.
The Austrian people, whether attracted to this agenda or disgruntled with
politics as usual, have grown increasingly receptive to this formerly fringe
Throughout his public career, Haider has consistently parried accusations
of anti-Semitism His record, however, reveals numerous statements utilizing
Holocaust terminology or legitimizing Nazi policy and activities.
Haider's self-perception is reflected in the following comment: "When
you analyze the commentaries and see characteristics ascribed to me, sometimes
I'm the great idealogue, preparing something horrible, then I'm the ideology-free
opportunist, next I'm the yuppie, then I am the old Nazi, then I'm the Ghadafi
of Carinthia, then the Austrian (David) Duke. Stereotypes do not suit me.
I have to live with the fact that one always tries to compare me to somebody
else, but I believe I am an Austrian original."
Early Years and Family Life
A lawyer by profession, Haider lives with his wife and two daughters in
an inherited 38,000 acre estate. The estate was once owned by Jews who
were forced to sell the land after the 1939 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 Party'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."
Whatever lessons Haider learnt from his parents, the affinity and allegiance
to Germany he has promoted throughout his political career, developed at
a young age. At age sixteen, he won a speech contest with a talk entitled,
"Are We Austrians German?" His speech was later published by
the neo-Nazi newspaper Deutsche National Zeitung under the title "How
German is Austria." More recently Haider stated that he believes
that Austrians are not a naturally distinct people, but rather ethnically
Germans. Austria is an "ideological deformation," while efforts
to create a distinct Austrian identity have failed.
From the age of twenty, Haider held various positions in the right-wing
Freedom Party, including as a member of parliament from 1979 through 1983.
In 1986 he 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
after publicly praising Nazi labor policy (see below), and became Deputy
Governor. Haider reentered 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 late, in the 1994 election, 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.
Throughout his political career, Haider's policy agenda has been based
on xenophobic and racist sentiment. According to Haider, immigration offers
no benefits to Austrian society. Rather, immigrants take jobs away from
Austrians and bring in crime from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. "We've
got the Poles who concentrate on car theft," he claims. "We've
got the people from the former Yugoslavia who are burglary experts. We've
got the Turks who are superbly organized in the heroin trade. And we've
got the Russians who are experts in blackmail and mugging."
In February 1993, Haider and the Freedom Party launched a twelve point
petition campaign for ending foreign immigration and keeping the proportion
of non-German speaking children in schools under 30%. Haider predicted
he would get at least one million signatories. In what was viewed as a
major defeat, the petition was signed by only 417,000, or 7.5% of the population.
During the 1994 election campaign, Haider's linkage of immigration and
unemployment continued, causing the ruling coalition to accuse Haider of
manipulating public fears over joblessness. Haider announced to Austrians
"we have to stop immigration until unemployment is reduced to under
5 percent," claiming that the unemployment rate was 5.8%. The official
unemployment figure at that time was 4.4%.
Haider denies he is xenophobic or racist, insisting that he is speaking
the truth. "We talk about things," Haider says, "that citizens
don't have the courage to express openly and honestly." "I believe
that the multicultural society is a fiction that cannot work."
Extremism and Insensitivity
Throughout his public political life, Haider has been accused of anti-Semitism,
Holocaust denial, and of promoting pro-Nazi and neo-Nazi ideology and policies.
He vigorously denies all of these allegations.
Defending Nazi policy and Nazis: Despite public disclaimers and overtures,
Haider is undeniably guilty of publicly 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
Indeed, Haider's first international notice came 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, of course, did not mention the particulars
of Nazi labor policy, including military buildup, forced labor, and concentration
camps. Recently, Haider 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.
Most recently, Haider spoke out against the 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 only the only major Austrian political
party absent from ceremonies at Mauthausen death camp marking the 50th anniversary
of the liberation of the camp. Just before the anniversary, Haider had
referred to Mauthausen as "a punishment camp."
Support by Neo-Nazis and Anti-Semites: Haider denies that he has links
to neo-Nazi groups, saying reports of contacts with neo-Nazis are "invented
to create a mood against me," and claims he has never met with "those
types of people." Nevertheless, "those type" of people seem
to support Haider.
A November 1992 desecration of a Jewish cemetery in eastern Austria left
80 stones smeared with swastikas and slogans such as "heil Haider."
A pamphlet left at the site extended "Aryan greeting to our idol Joerg
A survey conducted in early 1995 by the American Jewish Committee concluded
that "Freedom Party supporters are much more likely than other Austrians
to exhibit hostility towards Jews." The study found that one third
of Freedom Party supporters "manifests strong anti-Semitic prejudice,"
and a "significant proportion" were "open to Holocaust denial."
Haider has furthermore shown understanding for the appeal of neo-Nazism
to the young blaming modern European society and immigration: "Young
people in the former German Democratic Republic are confronted with special
problems -- the loss of some sense of community and a high unemployment
rate. No country can be indifferent to a wave of asylum-seekers, who pose
a threat, whether real or imaginary, to jobs and internal security. Politics
has to set up some guidelines for young people to deal with the crisis.
Otherwise, society will be responsible if its children are driven into
the hands of Nazis or pseudo-Nazis."
Attempts to Improve Image: In recent years, Haider has taken a number of
public steps in an attempt to redeem his international image. During a
June 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
to everything to enforce tolerance, everything to enforce human rights and
everything to strengthen democracy."
In May, 1995, Haider and four companions visited the Simon Wiesenthal 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 but who is unaffiliated with organization)
an honorary Austrian 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.
Haider has fended off accusations of anti-Semitism, although many of his
followers are demonstrated anti-Semites. Nevertheless, Haider has exhibited
an insensitivity to Nazi brutality and a refusal to appreciate the suffering
those who lived under Nazi rule endured. His very public visits to museums
commemorating the Holocaust and other examples of genocide have apparently
failed to influence his attitudes in this regard.
No one can deny Joerg Haider's democratic right to espouse his views, nor
can one question the Austrian public's legitimate right to support him.
But the rise of Joerg Haider and his xenophobic and racist policies are
indeed troubling to those who continue to hope for a more tolerant and inclusive
International Affairs Division,
December 11, 1995
The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.