The formation of a new Austrian government coalition, comprised of the conservative Peoples Party and the far right Freedom Party of populist leader Joerg Haider, has sounded alarm bells throughout Europe and beyond. Founded in 1956, the Freedom Party was composed of ex–Nazis and Nazi supporters, but was not a major political factor until Joerg Haider became its leader in 1986. Haider brought his party to a second place finish in last fall’s parliamentary elections through a mix of populist, xenophobic and anti-establishment themes. Past comments by Haider expressing support for Hitler’s “labor policies,” describing Nazi concentration camps as “punishment camps,” and in praise of Waffen SS units were widely repeated as evidence of an unwillingness to confront his country’s Nazi past. Though his recent election success owed much to voter dissatisfaction with the long-time ruling coalition, his party has always held at its core anti-Semitic and racist elements.
Considering the general rise in extremism throughout Europe, the danger posed by Joerg Haider’s leadership extends beyond his small country’s borders. The Freedom Party’s entrance into mainstream government represents a successful model for neo-fascist political movements in the center of Europe by playing on racist and xenophobic fears–even at a time of economic prosperity–and opening the taboos of Holocaust denial and veiled anti-Semitism in the very homeland of Hitler.
Leaders of the fourteen European Union member states were quick to announce a series of sanctions to be imposed on their fifteenth member. Bilateral relations with Austria will be frozen and re-evaluated, and business will be conducted on a technical level that will preclude dealings with ministers and ambassadors. (However, EU multilateral meetings and the operations of the European Commission will remain unchanged.) Israel has recalled its ambassador and announced that Mr. Haider would be banned from visiting the Jewish State. The United States has indicated that it would not meet with Mr. Haider or with the government ministers he has appointed. There is a strong consensus that calls for careful monitoring of the new Austrian government, lest any of the objectionable policies of Mr. Haider be put into practice. There is less agreement on how best to influence developments within Austria to reverse Haider’s political success.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) condemns the inclusion of the Freedom Party in the new Austrian government and supports efforts by the United States, the EU nations, the State of Israel and the Austrian Jewish community to hold accountable the new government in Vienna.
We also urge the Austrian government to engage in a full examination of its role and responsibility with regards to the Holocaust.