Austrians seem blind to Nazi past

Extremism: The rise of far-right leader Joerg Haider is sad, but probably not surprising.

February 13, 2000|By Hans Knight

HERE WE go again.

Once more, the hills of Austria are alive with the sound of music, but the tunes are a far cry from those that came from the lovely throat of Julie Andrews in the fairy-tale movie of yore.

Just when we thought that Austria was recovering from the black eye inflicted on its gorgeous face by the duplicitous Kurt Waldheim, along comes a ruggedly handsome, fast-skiing politician named Joerg Haider with a smashing right cross to the nose.

His Freedom Party -- and isn't it hilariously ironic that rightist extremists always include "freedom" in their moniker? -- is now part of the coalition government. And much of the outside world seems shocked -- shocked -- that a nation that spawned Mozart, Strauss and Freud, could propel to political prominence a man who has made favorable references to Adolf Hitler's "orderly" labor policies, praised the "decent" character of the Waffen SS, and called the horrific concentration camp of Mauthausen, a mere penitentiary.

Me, I'm saddened. By why am I not surprised?

Perhaps it is because I know the Austrians rather well. Used to be one myself. This was way back, before the country's beauty proved no antidote to Hitler's poison. This was before they kicked me out for "racial reasons" and facilitated the murder of thousands of "non-Aryans" on the same grounds.

I learned that beneath the lilting waltzes droned darker music. Don't get me wrong. Not all Austrians fell in step with the Brown Shirts' jackboots. Far from it. There were decent people there, salt-of-the earth types. They protested in anguish. They had their heads bloodied in the cobblestone streets, and some were killed.

When the German troops marched into Hitler's homeland on March 12, 1938, it made sense that the Austrians didn't put up any military resistance. Abandoned by a fearful democratic world, it would have been suicidal to oppose the Wehrmacht's lumbering tanks.

The "good" Austrians wept and trembled behind locked doors. But others -- too many -- embraced the Fuehrer like a rock star. They hailed themselves hoarse in the Nazi-flagged streets. This was no sullen submission to a conqueror. It was joyous genuflection before an evil magnetic seducer. I saw former, oh-so-genial neighbors force Jews to deface their own shops with buckets of paint, saw them burn down the local synagogue while the fire brigade doused adjoining buildings so they wouldn't catch fire. I saw much more. I heard, it seems now, the prelude to the Holocaust.

Generations have passed. Austria survived World War II with painful wounds, though not as searing as those inflicted on other lands by the very philosophy so many Austrians once cheered.

In 1943, the Allies, in a somber conference in Moscow declared Austria was the Nazis' first victim. Perhaps this explains why the country has never come to terms with its flawed past. Victim, yes. Collaborator, yes, too.

So, is Herr Haider the new Hitler? Of course not.

For one thing, he does not have a rapacious Wehrmacht at his disposal. Nor can he exterminate Jews and others the Nazis called "undesirables" because that was accomplished a long time ago. What he does to perfection is nurturing many people's xenophobic taproots. Love of "foreigners and outsiders" has seldom been one of Austria's virtues. Maybe there lurks in the nation's darker recesses the atavistic resentment of a once-great empire reduced to a very small power.

In recent decades, Austria has been swamped by immigrants from the East. Initially, they were welcomed because they were willing to do the dirty, low-paying jobs. Now they are seen as a threat to Austria's national identity, sucking up welfare money and committing crimes disproportinate to their numbers.

Such fears have fueled Haider's ascendancy. But other countries have dealt with similar problems in humane, democratic fashion. And although much of Europe has experienced a political swing toward the right, none evokes the international alarm triggered by an Austria cursed by a Nazi past.

Is the international outcry likely to strengthen Haider's influence? Probably. No country wants to be told by others how to behave. Least of all, Austrians.

Haider won his platform by democratic votes. This is perhaps the most troubling ingredient. It says more about his followers than it does about him. But so what? Silence would be worse. It's been the democracies' choice too many times.

The 14 members of the European Union have rightly condemned what they consider to be an ominous blot in their midst. The United States has warned it would watch "very closely" how the Freedom Party plans to honor its belated pledge to play by the rules of ethnic tolerance.

We shall see.

"Heil Haider isn't quite "Heil Hitler," but to many, too close for comfort.

My former compatriots have a saying in times of trouble:

"The situation is hopeless, but not serious."

Maybe they should -- young people, bless `em, are protesting in Vienna's streets -- but it surely is serious.

Hans Knight is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and was an editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News.

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