Jewish leaders were split this week on how to react to an Austria governed in part by a rightist party whose leader, Joerg Haider, has made and apologized for comments praising some of Hitler’s policies but has been adamant in his refusal to open Austria’s borders to more immigrants.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Austria must be made to “understand the international consequences [of such a government]. It will pay a very heavy price for going down this road.”
But the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said he thought it unwise for the European Union and Israel to ostracize Austria, as they have threatened should Austrian President Thomas Klestil approve the new coalition government of Haider’s Freedom Party and the People’s Party.
“They should engage Austria in terms of what it has to do to educate its citizens about the past so that Haiderism does not have a future,” said Foxman. “By cutting off relations, what we may see in the next election is Haider becoming chancellor.”
Harris brushed aside Haider’s apologies for comments over the years praising Hitler’s policies, saying: “Joerg Haider is dangerous because he is so slippery, because he is so smooth. He is fiendishly clever. He chooses his words carefully; he knows what he is saying. He knows his audiences, and people of good will should not be duped by glib language alone.”
Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, in a phone interview from his home in Vienna, called Haider a “rightist populist. He is not a Nazi. We [Jews] have no problem with him because he never said anything against Jews or against Israel. He is against foreigners. We must wait and see how this government will work before [before taking any sanctions].”
Haider, 50, has said that he would not want a position in the new government, preferring to remain as governor of the province of Corinthia. But Harris said Haider and his party are “one and the same. His shadow is long and no one should be fooled by his intentions to stay out of the national government itself.”
He said the real tragedy would be if Klestil swore in the coalition government pieced together Tuesday evening. Neither party received a mandate from Klestil to form a government, as required by the constitution, and Klestil was said to be slighted by their decision to start coalition talks themselves. The talks began after a failed attempt to renew the 13-year-old grand coalition of the People’s Party — which came in third behind the Freedom Party in last October’s election — and the Social Democrats. And they came after the Social Democrats, which have been part of the government for the past 30 years, were also unable to form a minority government of their own.
If Klestil refuses to accept the new coalition, which would command 104 of the 183 seats in parliament, he could declare new elections. Recent polls showed that Haider’s Freedom Party would come in first with 33 percent of the vote.
Should Haider’s party come to power — even in the coalition government — the other 14 member nations of the European Union have promised “not to promote or accept any bilateral official contacts at a political level” with Austria. In addition, the countries said in a statement that they would not support any Austrian candidates for posts in international organizations and that Austrian ambassadors would “only be received at a technical level.”
Antonio Guterres, the prime minister of Portugal, which now holds the presidency of the EU, told Portuguese television that the EU action was designed to “send a very clear signal that behavior of a racist or xenophobic character will not be tolerated within the European Union.” The next day, Portugal’s president suspended plans to make a state visit to Austria March 1, explaining that normal contacts and cooperation with Austria had been placed in abeyance to await the outcome of developments there.
And the United States indicated Tuesday that it would join in isolating Austria should the Freedom Party enter a new government.
Such moves are a “total misunderstanding of political reality in Austria,” insisted Peter Sichrovsky, a prominent Jewish member of the Freedom Party. “No democracy would accept any threat [like that] from the outside. What do these people think — that there is a dictator in Austria who is ruling against the democratic will of the people? Does the EU and Israel expect Austrian leaders to make a coalition government against the will of the people?”
He predicted that if Klistel was pressured from abroad to call new elections, Austrians would be so incensed that the Freedom Party would win with 40 percent of the vote.
Austrians were similarly not dissuaded from electing Kurt Waldheim president in the 1980s after it was disclosed that he had concealed his Nazi past.
About 10 years ago, Haider, who became Freedom Party leader in 1986 when the party had secured barely 5 percent of the vote, attracted international attention about 10 years ago with slogans and comments reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
Among them the use of the slogan “Austria First ”; his use of a racist phrase coined by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels that means “swamped by foreigners”; his claim that the Third Reich had an “orderly employment policy”; his referral to Nazi concentration camps as “punishment camps”; and a claim that the Nazis were “a part of the German army which should be honored.” He later apologized for those comments.
Asked about those who equate Haider with Hitler, Sichrovsky said Haider had made some “very wrong and stupid statements about World War II and he apologized for them. He is a different man than he was 10 years ago and he has the right to expect people to accept this.”
By the same token, he pointed out, Israel is “now negotiating with Arab and Palestinian leaders who have Jewish blood on their hands. But Israel accepts that they are able to change.”
In announcing the formation of their coalition, Haider and People’s Party chairman Wolfgang Schuessel declined to disclose details of their proposed government program and who would hold key posts. But Schuessel said previously that he would serve as chancellor and there was speculation that the Freedom Party’s Susanne Riess Passer would be named deputy chancellor. Sichrovsky said there were media reports that he might be named to the No. 2 post in the foreign ministry or the minister of either agriculture or education. Also mentioned for a prominent post was Thomas Prinzhorn, who was described as having an unconcealed distaste for foreigners. A multimillionaire, his family’s business empire was reportedly built from a company confiscated by the Nazis from two Jewish sisters.
Haider, in a series of interviews with The Jewish Week, has insisted that the world has nothing to fear from him and that Jews should not be sitting on their bags ready to leave. He repeated that assertion again this week in an interview with The Times Newspapers. And he justified his stance on foreigners by saying, “This is not racism or hatred but something we must do to protect our jobs and economy. There could, of course, be seasonal labor allowed, and this will present no problems. What we are saying is that Austria is not a staging post or a welfare stop for millions of people.
“We are not Nazis. We are willing to work with Europe. But other nations must understand that Europe is changing. … Immigration is a big issue in Austria.”