Mar 1 2000

As Europe’s Far Right Surged, U.S. Press Shrugged

Playing down the fascist ties of Austria's Haider

The electoral breakthrough of the extreme-right Austrian Freedom Party—which came in a close sec­ond with more than a quarter of the vote in that country’s national elec­tions last October—generated front-page coverage in most European news­papers. Editorial commentary empha­sized the importance of keeping the Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, from joining a new governing coalition. (Despite threats of siplomatic sanc­tions, the Freedom Party did form a governing coalition with the Austrian People’s Party in February.) The Times of London (10/4/99) warned that “Haider’s result has thrown [Austrian] politics into turmoil, frightened investors and brought closer to power the largest and most radical far right party in Europe.”

The Italian press sounded the loud­est alarm, according to a daily news sur­vey by Slate (10/4/99), which cites a cartoon on the front page of Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian paper, that showed Hitler as a jack-in-the-box mak­ing the Nazi salute and shouting “Sieg Haider!” Its eight-column headline warned: “Austria, the Hour of the Extreme Right.”

When the Swiss Peoples Party, another far-right populist force, scored major gains two weeks after the Austrian election, the London Indepen­dent (10/26/99) ran a piece head­lined: “The Ghost of Fascism Stalks the European Landscape.”

By contrast, extreme right advances in Europe initially elicited little more than a shrug from mainstream U.S. media, as typified by a Seattle Post-­Intelligencer editorial (10/12/99) headlined: “Europe Has Little to Fear From This Goose-Stepping Austrian.” The New York Times also downplayed the results of the Austrian election, referring to “the seemingly unstoppable rise of Jörg Haider” in an article (12/6/99) by Alison Smale: “A Rightist Leader Stirs Tepid Dissent, and Assent.”

Pro-Nazi “gaffes”

The bland U.S. reportage represented another victory of sorts for Haider, the charismatic, Porsche-driving populist, who undertook a trans-Atlantic, post-­election charm campaign to shore up his image, which had been tarnished by several pro-Nazi “gaffes”: Haider had praised Nazi SS veterans as “men of character,” and he called Winston Churchill the twentieth century’s great­est war criminal. He also said that all soldiers in World War II, regardless of which side they were on, had fought for peace and freedom. Asked about his verbal indiscretions, Haider “made a stunning apology” at a meeting with editors of the Washington Post, which subsequently reported (11/10/99): “Repentance, moderation and toler­ance should be encouraged, provided they are part of an evolution anchored in sincerity and not spin.”

As far as the Washington Post is con­cerned, the verdict is still out with respect to Haider’s sincerity when he says he wants to rid himself of “brown shadows.” While Haider’s belated apol­ogy is certainly newsworthy, U.S. media have thus far neglected to disclose per­tinent facts that seriously call into ques­tion his latest PR maneuvers.

True, Haider does not conform to the stereotype of a Hollywood Nazi. But a brown stain continues to hover over the Freedom Party, thanks in part to Haider’s decision to retain as his advi­ser on cultural affairs Andreas Molzer, a fascist ideologue who until recently was publisher of the Vienna weekly Zur Zeit. This virulently racist newspaper—which Molzer published for several years while advising Haider—ran arti­cles raving about “the dogma of the 6 million murdered Jews” and the epoch-making economic and political successes of the great social revolution­ary,” a reference to Adolf Hitler (Searchlight, 11/98, 11/99).

Far from being “gaffes,” as news media often refer to his apparent ver­bal missteps, Haider’s penchant for expressing pro-Nazi sympathies was intrinsic to his calculated attempt to build political support by catering to deep-rooted prejudice in Austrian soci­ety. Shocking levels of anti-Semitism persist in Austria, according to a survey published in Gor, a weekly Austrian magazine; 50 percent of respondents believe that Jews are responsible for their own persecution, 37 percent said they were “not sure” they could shake hands with a Jew, and 6 percent said “it would make them physically unwell.” (Searchlight, 12/99)

For additional evidence that Haider is being disingenuous when he speaks of banishing the brown shadows, one need look no further than his nomina­tion of Thomas Prinzhorn, another wealthy tub-thumping xenophobe, to stand as the Freedom Party’s top candi­date in last year’s parliamentary poll. A few days before the vote, Prinzhorn hys­terically accused the Austrian govern­ment of giving free hormone treat­ments to male immigrants to boost their birthrate. But this remark didn’t stop Prinzhorn from being chosen recently as co-speaker of the Austrian parliament (Searchlight, 11/99).

As Professor Mark Mazower writes in the Manchester Guardian Weekly (10/20/99), if Haider himself “steers clear of overt racism, it is no doubt part­ly because racial biology makes little sense in the old Hapsburg melting pot, and partly because things are better said in code.” Added Mazower: “The shock value of Haider’s views on history strike me as less worrying than his xenopho­bic approach to the present. His success may move the threshold of what is acceptable in European politics.”

It’s just those little countries

The Freedom Party’s dire admonitions against uberfremdung ( “over-foreign­ization”)—a phrase coined by Göbbels—obviously played well among the Austrian electorate. But London-based journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer spied a silver lining in this ugly cloud of racism, as indicated by the headline of his syndicated news article, “Xenophobic Talk in Europe Limited to Smaller Nations.” (South Bend Tribune, 11/7/99) “Is Europe tipping over into a new era of fascism and xenophobia?” he asked. “Almost certainly not. This sort of thing would be worrisome if it were hap­pening in Britain, Germany, France or Italy, but these recent outbreaks of racism have all been in small coun­tries—none have more than 10 million people.”

Not so, according to the findings of Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo, special rap­porteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. “Neo­fascism and neo-Nazism are gaining ground in many countries, especially in Europe,” says Glele-Ahanhanzo (Inter-Press Service, 9/20/98). Of particular concern, a U.N. study warns, is the “increase in the power of the extreme right-wing parties,” which are thriving in “an economic and social climate characterized by fear and despair.” Among the key factors fueling the far right, the study notes, are “the com­bined effects of globalization, identity crises and social exclusion.”

Scapegoating immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities, radical right-wing populist movements with openly fascist roots have made significant inroads into mainstream politics, gain­ing at least 15 percent nationwide in parliamentary balloting in France, Italy, Turkey, Norway and elsewhere since the end of the Cold War. The neo-fas­cist Vlaams Blok outpolls all rivals with 30 percent of the vote in Antwerp, the second-largest city in Belgium. Even when they lose elections, neo-fascists pollute public discourse and pressure centrist parties to adopt hitherto extremist positions to fend off chal­lenges from the hard right.

A consistent 15 to 20 percent of young men in eastern Germany vote for thinly disguised neo-Nazi parties in regional elections. But no far-right party in Germany since World War II has made as much headway nationally as Haider’s party in Austria. Nevertheless, “there is reason to be concerned about a spillover effect on German politics,” wrote Deidre Berger in a Christian Sdence Monitor op-ed piece (10/25/99). Given the close cultural and linguistic ties between Austria and the German state of Bavaria, it is “particularly dis­turbing,” says Berger, that Bavarian gov­ernor Edmund Stoiber “advised the Austrians to include the Freedom Party in the new government.” This develop­ment was largely ignored by U.S. news media; meanwhile, Stoiber’s star has risen in German politics because of cor­ruption charges against rival conserva­tive leaders—to the point where he may be poised to seize the reins of the cen­ter-right opposition in Germany.

Globalization and fascism

Some media accounts recognize that resurgent racism and right-wing extrem­ism are not confined to small European countries with little influence on the world stage. Even so, there is a tendency among North American news analysts to minimize the danger by asserting that the European Union (EU) will automat­ically act as a buffer against the nefarious schemes of the far right.

“The ‘homogenization’ of EU states does not permit anti-democratic prac­tices or human rights violations of the kind extremist movements espouse to go unchecked,” Harry Sterling wrote in the Toronto Star (10/29/99). Thus, if and when Haider becomes the chancellor of Austria, his hands would be tied, accord­ing to Sterling, who maintained: “In practical terms, once political parties assume office in con­temporary Europe, their free­dom of action is drastically cur­tailed by the steadily encroach­ing conformity and modera­tion demanded by the broader European community.”

Supporters of the EU have long argued that economic integration is a necessary step toward creating a political union, which will end forever the outbursts of crazed nation­alism that have ravaged the continent in the past. But this notion may prove to be wish­ful thinking. Riding the crest of a populist backlash against globalization, neo-fascist dem­agogues have gained support by exploit­ing justifiable qualms about the European Monetary Union, which required painful budgetary retrench­ment by member states. The adoption of the euro and the general globalization of financial markets have limited the capacity of national governments to reg­ulate their economies and redress high unemployment by adjusting their own currencies and interest rates.

As economic globalization has accel­erated, producing definite categories of winners and losers, so, too, has the momentum of neo-fascist and right-wing extremist organizations. If any­thing, European integration is likely to promote the continued growth of extreme right-wing parties. Burgeoning ultra-nationalist movements are collat­eral damage generated by unfettered globalization, which breeds the very monstrosities it purports to oppose. And the extreme right provides an alibi for globalization while revolting against it. Thus far, however, the press has shed little light on this insidious dynamic.

Martin A. Lee, co-founder of FAIR and former editor of Extra!, is the author of The Beast Reawakens (Routledge), a book on neo-fascism.