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The rise and fall of Jorg Haider
By Steven Martinovich
When Jorg Haider burst upon the world scene a few years ago the reaction to him was immediate and visceral. The obscure -- to most people outside Austria at any rate -- politician was denounced as having Nazi sympathies and ostracized by other seemingly more respectable world leaders. He and his Freedom Party were shunned by fellow European conservatives and within a few years his dreams of becoming Austrian chancellor died, partly as a result of his own tempestuous nature.
That's the Haider we in the West knew but the real Haider was a considerably more complex -- and paradoxically at the same time more simple -– character. The ripples he caused in Austrian politics continue to reverberate today. Thanks to the blanket denunciations repeated in the media our image of him is one of an aspiring Adolph Hitler, or at a minimum of a man who has yet to come to terms with Austria's willing complicity in the Third Reich. The reality of Haider is that he may be all of that and yet so much more.
Respected Austrian historian Lothar Hobelt examines Haider in the recently published Defiant Populist: Jorg Haider and the Politics of Austria. Hobelt, a conservative himself, explores Haider not as a case study but rather in the historic and political contexts in which he was created. As he illustrates, Haider masterfully navigated through the dangerous shoals of Austrian history and politics to revive the fortunes of a post-Second World War party that was all but dead just two decades ago.
Before Haider's arrival on the scene Austrian politics was a nation-sized example of machine politics in action. The socialists and conservatives -- the later would have fit comfortably within America's Democratic Party -- fought it out with each other for office and in an effort to solidify their hold would dole out jobs and benefits to supporters. By the mid-1980s, the two parties were different sides of the same coins and the Austrian political scene was ripe for the emergence of real alternatives. The most successful of which was the Freedom Party with Haider as one of its rising stars.
The party that Haider inherited was nothing less than a shambles. After some early years of small electoral successes it slowly dwindled in both members and popular support. Motivated by a vision of him one day as the nation's head of state, Haider immediately set out to revitalize the party's fortunes and he did it with a combination of policy initiatives, charisma and the occasional stunt. Despite the occasional stumble, by both the party and Haider himself, the Freedom Party began to climb in the polls and collect some impressive election victories. The party eventually rose to a prominence that it became a necessary partner in the coalition governments that dominate Austria's recent history.
For all his gifts, however, Haider was quite capable of harming his own cause. Among the more notable incidents were his comments that seemed to laud Hitler's employment policies and his praising of Austrian Waffen SS veterans. Though they didn't cause any real backlash in Austria, and arguably helped his outsider status that garnered him more votes, it began to plant the thought in many people's minds that Haider was more useful as a check on the two major parties rather than serving as one of their replacements. The question that many asked though was whether Haider sympathetic to National Socialism. Hobelt doesn't believe so.
"Some of the misunderstandings, of both an intentional and unintentional sort, that have arisen in connection with Haider's sound bites also go back to a strange belief in the nature of some words as inherently tainted or 'evil.' It is obvious that a number of expressions or turns of phrase current during the Third Reich form part of the vocabulary of the generation that grew up with them. ... Historians in particular have a duty to look at the context of a quote rather than to jump to conclusions because of semantic red herrings. In one particularly telling case, Haider sometimes used the combination 'social community of the nation' (soziale Volksgemeinschaft) when referring to the obligation to help weaker members of society. That is the equivalent in German of 'one nation' rhetoric in the Disraeli mold. The Nazis made use of that expression, but so did others before and since."
In the end what harmed Haider weren't his sometimes controversial statements but a combination of his party's success and the chinks in its leader's armor. As the Freedom Party became more successful, finally winning enough support to be a coalition partner, the electorate's expectations for it changed. Where it was once viewed as an outsider that many saw as a check on the two main parties, it was now held to the same standards as they were. When the party was in the wilderness it could tolerate Haider's occasional missteps -- fueled by his speak from the hip populist style -– but as a major player Haider was often as much as a liability as he was a help.
Austrian politics can be a complicated story but Hobelt manages to explore it engagingly, taking time to explain the nuances of that country. Politics and history continue to come into conflict in Austria and the politician that can take advantage of that can go a long way. For a time Haider managed to do that before his political stock slipped. As Defiant Populist proves, however, underestimating Haider can be dangerous. The telegenic politician still holds the governorship of one of Austria's provinces and with the recent problems the Freedom Party has suffered -- prompted not surprisingly by Haider himself -- it shouldn't surprise anyone to see him on a bigger stage once again one day.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Order Defiant Populist straight from the bookseller here.
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