Joerg Haider's Freedom Party's rise to power as a partner in the Austrian government has gotten a lot of coverage in the U.S. media, but there has been little recognition of it as symptomatic of a resurgence of the extreme right in Europe, and of the implications this may have for European integration.
When the Freedom Party won nearly a third of the vote in Austria's national elections last October, it generated front-page coverage in most European newspapers. 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."
By contrast, the Freedom Party's electoral breakthrough 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 Joerg Haider" in an article (12/6/99) by Alison Smale: "A Rightist Leader Stirs Tepid Dissent, and Assent."
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 such comments, 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." 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 hovers over the Freedom Party, thanks in part to Haider's decision to retain as his advisor on cultural affairs Andreas Molzer, a fascist ideologue who until recently was publisher of the Vienna weekly Zur Zeit. This virulent 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. 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 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... 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."
Indeed, xenophobia and racism are far from being exclusively Austrian problems. "Neo-fascism and neo-Nazism are gaining ground in many countries, especially in Europe," says Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo, special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (InterPress 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."
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. 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 measures like the adoption of the "euro," which inevitably limit 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. Thus far, however, the press has shed little light on this insidious dynamic.
This advisory is based on an article by FAIR co-founder Martin A. Lee, which will appear in the March/April 2000 issue of FAIR's magazine, Extra!.
More on media coverage of Europe....