Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Despite important differences, the path to power of Haider's misnamed Freedom Party in Austria has chilling parallels with that of Germany's Nazis in 1933.
In both there is the breakdown of a Social Democratic led coalition amidst economic difficulties. In both the conservative parties want to hold power without the Social Democrats. In the end the new coalition partners are extreme right wing parties which claim to have renounced the more vicious aspects of their past and embraced the constitutional road. Even the pledge of good behaviour the Freedom Party has initialled parallels the famous paper Hitler signed promising Neville Chamberlain 'peace in our time' just one year before the Second World War. So the German experience can teach us a number of lessons.
Germany's conservative elite had no love for Hitler's ragged band of street thugs, cranks and demagogues. They would much rather have ruled without them. Indeed, in the summer of 1932, when the Nazi Party achieved its highest vote in a free election (37 percent) and Hitler demanded the chancellorship, the president, Field Marshal von Hindenburg, exclaimed, 'This Bohemian corporal wants to become Reich chancellor? Never! At most he could be my postmaster general. Then he can lick me on the stamps from behind.'
However, as time passed it became clear that to secure a stable right wing government support from the Nazis in the parliament would be necessary. So a deal was made and a coalition formed. A number of things smoothed the way.
Firstly, the Nazis hid their murderous ideas behind a cloak of respectability. When Hitler failed to seize power by an armed uprising (the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch) he decided to 'pursue a new line of action... Instead of working to achieve power by armed conspiracy, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the parliament... If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them at least the results will be guaranteed by their own constitution.' Goering added, 'We said we hated this state, now we say we love it--and still everyone knows what we mean.'
This tactic of respectability did not bear fruit until economic crisis hit Germany after 1929. In the 1930 general election the National Socialist vote leapt from its previous total of 2.6 percent to 18.3 percent, making it the second biggest party. Although the Nazis had built their vote as an extreme right alternative to the current holders of political power, they now redoubled their protestations that 'the National Socialist movement will try to achieve its aim with constitutional means'.
The second factor which made coalition possible in 1933 was the conservatives' willingness to believe that the Nazis had been tamed and were now safe to work with. A typical conversation was held between President Hindenburg and Hugenburg, leader of the Nationalists (the German conservative party), in 1931. Hindenburg said that due to their violent anti-government demonstrations 'he did not regard [the Nazis] as a reliable national party'. But Hugenburg reassured him that due to the Nationalists' effort over the past year and a half 'the National Socialists had been politically educated thereby. The demonstrations which the Reich president deplored had probably not been meant so badly.'
Even so, the conservative elite left nothing to chance. They planned to use Hitler for their political ends and believed they could do so by bringing Nazis into government as a minority under tight control. While Hitler gained the post of chancellor, overall the Nazis won just two other posts in the cabinet of 11 people--much less than the Freedom Party's 50 percent share. Von Papen, chief architect of Germany's coalition, boasted, 'It is we who engaged him [and] in two months we'll have pushed Hitler so far into the corner that he'll squeal.' Hugenburg was equally optimistic: 'We're boxing him in.'
Yet within six months the Nazis had wiped out every other political party, including its coalition partners, smashed the trade unions and covered Germany with a dense network of concentration camps. Hugenburg now regarded the decision to allow the Nazis into government as 'the greatest stupidity of my life'. The conservatives had disastrously miscalculated the character of the Nazi Party because they thought it was essentially like their own party, just a little more extreme. This was quite wrong, and the problem did not lie with the individual personality of Hitler, as some have believed since.
Firstly, Nazi-type parties have an attitude towards political debate, agreements and signed pieces of paper that differs from the conventional right wing. Founded upon grotesquely elitist attitudes which arise because human equality is rejected, Nazi leaders are filled with contempt for ordinary people. This leads to the belief that conscious and deliberate lying to the public is a perfectly acceptable method in politics. The political aim is not to empower and free the masses, as the left would attempt to do, but to dupe them.
While ordinary politicians may distort and bend the truth to suit their purposes, only Hitler made it into a guiding principle: 'In the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility, because the broad masses of a nation more readily fall victim to the big lie...even after it has been nailed down.' Therefore, even more than with ordinary politicians, any promise, any piece of paper signed by a Nazi-type leader should be regarded as worthless.
More importantly, Nazi-type parties and conventional right wing parties have a very different dynamic. The latter are shaped during times of relative economic stability. Accepting the ideas of capitalist society, they see the role of the state as assisting the bosses to maximise profits, maintaining deference to the rich, and so on. They do exhibit a degree of elitism, racism and nationalism, but within limits.
That is because these parties also realise the best way to achieve their aims is not by all out confrontation with the working class and full scale attack on the rights it has won. Parliamentary democracy gives very limited freedom and even less equality. Nevertheless, it is enough to give many ordinary people a belief that they are free and helps them grudgingly accept the status quo. The appearance of choice (even if the underlying reality is the economic compulsion of the threat of poverty) leads to cooperation with the boss, which is far more productive than if people are sullenly driven by the sting of the whip. This calculation holds true in 'normal' conditions, but changes when crisis means the capitalist state is expected to take more drastic action to defend the system.
So while conventional right wing politicians look down on the working class, despise trade unions and resent losing elections, they mostly tolerate a system which allows certain civil rights.
Nazi-style parties are very different. They become mass organisations at times of capitalist crisis when large numbers become infuriated by the failure of the system. Mass unemployment and the decline of basic social services such as housing, health and education are the result of the bosses' economic system, and those who suffer the most and work collectively--the workers--can usually recognise this fact.
Nazi parties tend to appeal more to middle class groups or those without collective consciousness who identify their status and hopes with the success of the capitalist system. When things go wrong and the system fails them they may not so easily recognise where the fault lies, especially if the left is not strong enough to explain the true reasons.
Nazis tap into the anger and frustration of these groups by providing them with false explanations. Far from capitalism itself being at fault, they argue, it is the compromises which the capitalist system has had to make that are the cause of the suffering. To expunge these, such parties promote exaggerated versions of the capitalist concepts of elitism, racism and nationalism, taking them to their ultimate conclusion.
In their initial stages Nazi parties may limit themselves to scapegoating particular groups, such as immigrants, for the problems the system causes. However, if the situation deterioriates and the crisis deepens they will extend their attack to all areas where the system has had to compromise. Every element of freedom and equality that has been won comes under threat.
The situation in Austria today is not the same as in Germany in 1933. The economic crisis is developing more slowly and less dramatically. Haider lacks the vast jackboot paramilitary force of Hitler's Brownshirts, and the Freedom Party still fears showing its Nazi face. Austria is not the industrial superpower that Germany represented.
Nevertheless, the actions of Austrian conservatives have once again opened the door to Nazism, because it is in the nature of capitalism to plunge into crisis and for organisations such as the Freedom Party to evolve towards a political system that ultimately ends in gas chambers. The difference this time is we have been forewarned. The presence of the Freedom Party in the Austrian government can and must be opposed both in Austria itself and internationally.