Sending a message about an Austrian pariah

February 11, 2000|By MARK SIMON

On a rainy night in late September, I climbed into a taxi in Berlin, heading for the airport. Noting my camera equipment, the young, skinhead driver, in his de rigeur black, asked me where I was headed.

"Vienna, for the election," I replied.

"Will you see Haider?" he wanted to know.

"I think so," I replied.

"Isn't he great?" he asked.

I did get to meet the extreme right-wing politician Joerg Haider, in the baroque Austrian capital.

He is smart, cool, photogenic, a chameleon, a master of making provocative, racist, even revisionist statements and, later, half-heartedly reversing himself, as if they were small, inconsequential errors. I was reminded of my encounter with David Duke, the American ex-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, who almost became governor of Louisiana in 1991.

Both men are young, radical masters of euphemism. Both have used the dark forces of racism and nationalism, the exclusion of the "other," to excite voters and reach power.

Mr. Haider, however, like another infamous Austrian before him whose name begins with H, has been much more successful than Duke, exploding in October onto Europe's political and psychological landscape.

The United States, Israel. and Austria's partners in the European Union reacted swiftly to isolate Austria in an attempt to change the inevitable coalition. But why this reaction to another democracy, when all signs indicated closing of ranks In Austria and therefore, an upswing in the popularity for Mr. Haider's Freedom Party? This is, after all, not the first time a neo-Fascist party has come into power in Europe.

The Italians had a Fascist party in a coalition in 1994. And, in Switzerland, the extreme rightwing Christoph Blocher came into government last year.

Austria, however, is unique -- unique in its enthusiasm and suport for AdoIf Hitler and Nazism; unique in its persistent denial of its involvement, declaring itself "the first victim of Nazi aggression"; unique in its election of a man with a known Nazi past, Kurt Waldhelm -- to this day still refused entry into the United States -- as president.

Two of the countries that reacted most sharply, Germany and France, have problems with extreme right-wing parties of their own.

Germany has a vocal, visible and violent neo-Nazi movement that periodically explodes into violence.

And it has 40 percent unemployment in the "New States" of former East Germany, making for fertile recruiting ground. Just last week, a neo-Nazi demonstration marched through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate -- the first time Nazis have marched through it since 1945. France has Jean Marie Le Pen, whose National Front garnered 15 percent of the vote in elections in 1995.

The European Union reacted with uncharacteristic speed for several reasons.

Mr. Haider, a son of virulent Nazis, has seemed to define his Jews, his others, as immigrant "guest workers."

His preference for Austrian nationals, preferably of the blond, blue-eyed variety; his statements appearing to diminish the Holocaust; his odious attempt to redeem the genocidal conduct of the Waftan SS, must be seen in the context of Austria's and Europe's 20th.century history. One cannot be detached from the other.

Mr. Haider threatens a Europe that increasingly sees itself as multicultural and tolerant because he challenges its idea of from where it has come and where it wants to go.

Do the Austrian people have the right to a right-wing extremist party in their government? Of course, they do. But it should be obvious that countries, like individuals, can choose their proverbial bedfellows.

The Austrians have made their preference clear. So has the Europeans Union.

It wants to make it abundantly clear to all, even my skinhead taxi driver from Berlin, that Mt. Haider and his friends are pariahs.

Mark Simon is a photographer based in Berlin. He wrote this for Newsday.

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