Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Haider and Austria

Class war from above

Over 300,000 people demonstrated in Vienna last month against the Freedom Party. Kevin Ovenden explains why the revolt is a protest against the fascist politics of Jrg Haider as well as against the system which is failing so many people
73% didn't vote for Haider

Jörg Haider's Freedom Party has made the most spectacular far right breakthrough in Europe since the Second World War. It has six ministers in the Austrian government headed by Tory Wolfgang Schüssel. It is a junior partner, although it narrowly beat the Tory People's Party in last October's general election, gaining just over 27 percent.

The Freedom Party's success has summoned up memories of the growth of the extreme right and fascist forces in Europe between the wars--and rightly so. Haider has been associated with fascism and Nazism throughout his history. His father was pro-Nazi before the 1938 Anschluss, which subsumed Austria under Hitler's German Third Reich. His mother joined the Nazis' league of young women. His great uncle Josef Webhofer used the anti-Semitic laws passed by Austria's Nazi administration to swindle a Jewish family out of a 3,700 acre Alpine estate near the town of Klagenfurt. Giorgio Roifer, an Italian Jew, bought the Bärental estate in 1928 for the equivalent of £8 million in today's prices. He was forced out of Austria in 1939 and had to part with the property for less than a tenth of what he paid for it. Webhofer bequeathed the estate to Jörg Haider in 1986.

Haider defends his relatives' past, and his links with the fascist right do not end with what could be termed accidental family circumstances. As a student, he was a member of one of the duelling fraternities, which have been a seedbed of right wing politicians in Austria and Germany. He joined the Freedom Party, which had its roots in the ex-Nazi and extreme nationalist associations founded after the Second World War.

Haider became the Freedom Party secretary in the southern province of Carinthia in 1976, where he made discrimination against the Slovene minority a central plank of the regional party's programme. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Haider maintained contact with Nazis and fascists. He signed an appeal published in the Deutsche National- und Soldatenzeitung in 1980 for the core of Austria's establishment to end the process of coming to terms with the Nazi past. The statement condemned 'the show trials of the vanquished of the Second World War'.

Former Freedom Party politician Otto Scrinzi founded the fascist Nationalist Freedom Action Party in 1984. The Freedom Party in Carinthia backed Scrinzi for Austrian president in the 1986 election. Haider seized control of the Freedom Party at its Innsbruck conference in 1986 with the backing of the party's far right Lorenzen Circle.

He then held a secret meeting in Moosburg, Carinthia, with Otto Scrinzi and Norbert Burger, leader of the Nazi National Democratic Party, which had been dissolved under the Austrian law prohibiting organisations which openly espouse Nazi aims. They discussed how the Freedom Party could co-operate with the extra-parliamentary fascist right.

He rose to be governor of Carinthia with the support of the People's Party in the regional assembly. Since then Haider has made a series of infamous speeches defending aspects of Hitler's regime. He praised Hitler's 'orderly employment policies' in June 1991; he referred to concentration camps as 'penal camps', the innocuous name the Nazis gave them, in February 1995; he praised ex-members of Hitler's Waffen SS as 'decent men' who 'had the courage to stand by their beliefs' at a reunion meeting in September 1995.

Apologists for Haider suggest his fascistic speeches are mere gaffes. Some argue that Haider's views are no different from those of mainstream conservatives in Austria who also say, in private, that not everything done during the fascist regimes of the 1930s and 1940s was bad. But Haider's views are not only more extreme. He has also carefully made them public in an effort to make sympathy with at least some aspects of Austria's Nazi past respectable.

Haider's entire political career reveals his attraction to fascist ideas. But he is not at the head of the kind of mass fascist movement that emerged after the First World War, first in Italy and later in an even more virulent form in Germany. These classical fascist parties were based on those middle layers of society who felt crushed between the organised working class on the one hand and big business on the other. Paramilitary formations were at the centre of the movements Mussolini and Hitler built. European politics in the 1920s was militarised to a degree difficult to imagine today. Millions of men were demobilised after the war. They rejoined societies that were wracked by revolution and counter-revolution, from Kiel, in northern Germany, through Vienna to Budapest and the Balkans. The intense class conflict of the early 1920s left a legacy of deep uncertainty about the future, recent memories of street fighting, and paramilitary organisation on the right and, to a lesser extent, on the left.

Anti-Haider protest in Vienna in the beginning of February

Anti-Haider protest in Vienna in the beginning of February

Haider's movement is not an aberration. It is one side of the European crisis

Mussolini and Hitler gelled their fighting organisations together against this background. There were differences between Italy's fascists and Germany's Nazis. Anti-Semitism was the lynchpin of the Nazis' ideology, although it played a secondary role in mobilising electoral support. The Italian fascists looked rather to a mythical national past in which the middle classes supposedly ruled. Mussolini seized power in a weak and fragmented nation state. Hitler grew against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in capitalism's history and instituted the most barbaric rule it has yet known.

But the chain of events was similar in both cases: first the creation of fighting units, then an appeal for electoral support, then the backing of the bulk of the capitalist class, finally the destruction of the organised working class using paramilitary formations and the state. There were enormous tensions and contradictions along the way. The drive for votes from the respectable middle class clashed with the mayhem the street fighters unleashed. The fake anti-capitalist rhetoric, designed to attract the middle classes and the least organised workers, sat uneasily with the promises made to big business that fascism would serve its interests. At key points a correct fighting response from the left could have cracked these fissures wide open and hamstrung the fascist movements.

The circumstances in which today's would-be Mussolinis and Hitlers have built support are different in important respects from those of the 1920s and 1930s. The particular contradictions they face ought to make them weaker and more unstable, provided they are hit with the kind of opposition which the classical fascist parties did not face.

In Austria the Freedom Party is an amalgam. It draws support from fascists and Nazis, neo-liberal businessmen, and those who are simply disillusioned with the two main parties, the Social Democrats and the People's Party. It has oscillated between presenting itself as the Austrian equivalent of the Liberal Democrats in Britain or the free market FDP in Germany on the one hand, and as a far right party on the other. In the 1970s the 'pro-liberal wing' of the party, headed by Norbert Steger, had the upper hand. He steered the party far enough to the centre for it to be briefly in coalition with the Social Democrats in the early 1980s. But the extreme right elements remained within it and later handed the party to Haider, ousting Steger and prompting the liberal wing to split away. Haider has been successful in building out of the failure of the Social Democrat/People's Party coalition governments. However, his electoral breakthrough has come at a price for those of his supporters who would like to turn the party into a classical fascist formation.

He has had to adapt ideologically through denying links with the interwar fascist movements. This has helped the Freedom Party break out of the political ghetto, but it has undermined attempts by ideologically committed fascist elements in the party to harden its support. Consequently, there is a huge strategic problem for those who want to reverse the order of the steps which brought classical fascism to power: ie to go from electoral support to building a paramilitary force from scratch. The Freedom Party does not have even the 1,000 paramilitaries French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen had at his height, let alone the equivalent of the 400,000 Brownshirts Hitler had in January 1933. Much of the Freedom Party's support is soft. It has more than tripled its vote over the past decade, but party membership remains at about 40,000. Opinion polls show that over a third of Freedom Party voters do not want Haider to be chancellor of Austria; they are consciously casting a protest vote rather than endorsing Haider's ideas.

These, then, are weaknesses. But they are conditional, not absolute. They do not mean that the Freedom Party cannot be transformed into a fullblown fascist force. There is a particularly dangerous line of argument, which even gets a hearing on the left, that since the Freedom Party is not identical with the classical fascist formations, it is therefore no more than a temporary right wing 'populist' phenomenon.

Proponents of this view also point to the absence of a 1930s-style crisis as evidence that fascism cannot gain a following in contemporary Europe. But the Freedom Party and other far right parties have built out of the crisis of European capitalism as it is happening now. Western European political structures, born in the era of the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s, are under enormous strain. Pressure from bosses to abandon the welfare state model of capitalism in favour of neo-liberal policies and sharpened international competition is growing.

It lies behind the manoeuvring that brought the Freedom Party into the Austrian coalition. Austrian capital demanded a Thatcherite reconstruction of the economy and had to back the People's Party/Freedom Party coalition because the trade unions would not allow the Social Democrats, the largest party, to sign up to the required cuts package.

Austerity measures and capitalist restructuring during the 1990s have produced sharp class polarisation. In the latter half of the decade that was reflected in the return to government of Labour or Social Democratic governments in most of the countries of the European Union. However, that did not signal a return to stability. These Social Democratic governments have, to varying degrees, implemented policies that betray the hopes of the workers who voted for them. A few European governments have been forced to meet at least some workers' expectations. However, the result has been to raise workers' expectations and invoke greater pressure from the capitalist class to ensure they go unfulfilled. The Social Democratic governments have not, in general, reversed their decline in membership and active support among workers.

Much of the Tory or Christian Democratic right across Europe is in disarray. The largest, the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, has not only seen its membership shrink over the last decade, but is now gripped by the biggest scandal to hit postwar German politics. Investigators have uncovered a network of secret bank accounts used to hide the party's funding from arms dealers and other unsavoury figures. The scandal has already brought down ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who presided over German unification ten years ago.

Haider has attacked the two main parties in Austria for distributing state jobs to their members. That system, called Proporz, was also a product of the consensus politics which most social theorists used to say was a factor in Austria's postwar stability. Attempts to restructure capitalism are therefore cracking open the postwar political settlement across the continent. They are exposing the corruption that is an integral feature of both the European states and the European Union. They are creating crises in the twin political props of European capitalism, Social Democracy and Christian Democracy.

There is a vulgarised version of the history of Europe in the early 1930s: the Great Depression brought the fascists to power. It leaves out the critical middle terms of the process. Economic crisis produced profound social and political dislocation; it polarised politics between left and right, as the centre could no longer hold; the battle between those forces then determined the future.

The sense of alienation from traditional political structures, uncertainty about the future, and bitterness at the ever harsher demands of big business are present in every European country today. The far right is trying to build out of this despair, assisted by government policies which scapegoat immigrants.

A range of different extreme right groupings grew in the early years of the 20th century and again after the First World War out of a similar sense that society had lost its direction. Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, constructed a backward looking, anti-Semitic ideology by tapping the fears of those layers who were bewildered by the enormous social changes brought by capitalist development. Catholic reaction grew in Austria in the 1920s for similar reasons. Extreme nationalist and racist parties in Germany and Austria were sucked into the Nazi or fascist movements when the Great Depression intensified all those feelings of insecurity.

Haider's movement is not an aberration. It is one side of the European crisis. It too can pave the way for overtly fascist reaction, whose logical outcome in advanced capitalism is Nazi barbarity, as that crisis deepens. But it is not the only side of the crisis. There is also a polarisation to the left. An opinion poll in Austria taken one week into the new coalition, against which thousands of people had protested every night, put the Freedom Party on slightly less than the 27 percent it got last October. The People's Party saw its rating collapse to 19 percent. The Social Democrats were slightly up, to 34 percent. The biggest winners were the Greens whose support in the poll more than doubled to 16 percent. Opinion polls show Austrians think the Greens ten points to the left of the Social Democrats on a scale of one to 100.

The poll was a snapshot of a deeper process. The Tory/far right coalition in Austria is launching the most extreme neo-liberal policies in western Europe. These attacks on pensions, welfare and the whole of the state sector are already generating opposition, even from those workers who went along with some of Haider's immigrant bashing. The coalition is internally divided and faces unprecedented political opposition. It is unstable. Yet this is the political instrument Austria's capitalists have had to turn to to launch what one trade union leader has termed 'a class war from above'.

The Berlusconi government and its five far right ministers were brought down after 10 million workers struck and 3 million demonstrated against austerity measures in Italy in October 1995. Anti-fascist protests and, above all, the mass public sector strikes in France in December 1995 stemmed Le Pen's rise and split his National Front. Similar explosions of struggle can happen in Austria.

For all these reasons, there is time to stop Haider. But understanding that means nothing unless the forces of the left recognise the danger and apply the lessons of the defeats of the 1930s. There is no going back to stable Social Democratic or Christian Democratic rule. If revolutionary socialists do not give expression to the left anti-capitalist mood in Europe, the forces of the far right will seek to transform and channel it along the rails that led to Auschwitz.

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