The Region: Vienna, Vienna

Austria, one of the few European countries openly against Iran sanctions, is about to hold a UNSC seat.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
'Remember," says the reporter as we walk down a busy, beautiful street in Vienna, "this is the city of both Herzl and Hitler." To underline the point, at that moment we are walking down Karl Lueger Strasse, named after the city's famous anti-Semitic mayor. The fact that Lueger's anti-Jewish positions were largely cynical populism and that he had Jewish friends tells something about the spirit of Vienna. But one also remembers what the Viennese Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg asked: What would anti-Semitism lead to if not to violence? Now, 70 years after Germany annexed Austria into the Third Reich, the country has assembled its new government coalition after elections in which almost 30 percent of the population voted for extreme right-wing parties that combine anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiments. But that's not the biggest bad news. The truly startling development is that almost half of first-time young voters supported the radical right Freedom Party and the split-off party of Jorg Haider. Some genuinely favor far-right policies; others are trying to provoke their parents' generation. YET THE fact remains that only in Austria of all European countries has an extreme right-wing party become a major factor. Just elected to be the third president of parliament, and thus the fourth most powerful person in government, is Michael Graf of the Freedom Party. Graf has a neo-Nazi background, having participated in uniformed war games, and is a member of the pan-German Olympia group which, for example, invited an anti-Semitic pop star whose lyrics include the line: With 6 million dead the fun begins. To make things even more dramatic, shortly after the election, Haider, the right's most charismatic, though no longer most powerful figure and former Freedom Party leader was killed in a car crash. The police investigation showed that he had been partying at a gay bar, drank far too much and was driving far over the speed limit. His supporters spread the rumor - though it didn't catch on - that he was assassinated by the Mossad. Austria is not typical of Europe and neither is fun-loving Vienna about to break out in pogroms, but this country faces serious issues based on a framework different from others'. ONE HISTORIC factor was Austria's identity problem, which produced a homegrown type of fascism. The Austrian Empire, at one time Europe's most powerful state, declined steeply in the 19th century. Once incorporating parts of what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Italy and Bosnia, it shrank to tiny present-day Austria. Despite its military decline and the internal rebellion of a half-dozen nationalist movements, on the way to its demise it produced one of the great world cultures. Jews streaming out of villages in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia played a huge role in the country's cultural resurgence and economic progress. But once Austria became a tiny country with no empire after 1918, contending left and right political forces tore it apart between the wars. By 1934, Austria became a neo-fascist dictatorship whose regime opposed the German Nazis' efforts to annex it on nationalist grounds. Becoming part of the big German state, however, suited many Austrians, who already backed a political philosophy similar to their neighbors. An exhibit in the military museum explains that officers had to apply to join Hitler's army. Only half the generals were accepted but, the text explains, young officers saw it as a great career opportunity. Ultimately, Adolph Eichmann was as Austrian as Wolfgang Mozart. THE RESISTANCE, though heroic, was small. But for geopolitical reasons, during the war the Allies deemed Austria not to have been an enemy but merely the "first victim of fascism." This was, and is, the critical combination; Austria in a sense became the only country whose own fascist tradition was exonerated. Even today, unlike any other country in Europe, the extreme right remains relatively unstigmatized. There are even many elements in the powerful Social Democratic Party ready to deal with politicians little removed from being neo-Nazis. Until the 1990s, the official government line was that Austrians had been victims not perpetrators of the crimes of the Third Reich, and there is much of that attitude even today. In the military museum, where wartime collaboration is described quite frankly, the section on concentration camps never actually says which Austrian citizens were being shipped off for extermination. One anti-fascist researcher recalls that he lived within walking distance of a major death camp, but never heard a word about the Holocaust until he was 16 years old. The problem is intensified by the fact that while the right is anti-Jewish, much of the left is anti-Israel with anti-Jewish tinges. While the Green Party has broken somewhat with this tradition, it remains a powerful factor in the nation's political and intellectual life. DOES TINY Austria matter in the international balance? Well, yes, in some ways it does. Austria is one of the few European countries openly opposing sanctions on Iran. And the country is about to hold a seat on the UN Security Council. Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik has said the emphasis must be on dialogue with Teheran. The main point of discussion, however, has not been Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, anti-Semitic statements, backing for terrorism or human rights record but rather a major oil and gas deal. The state company signing the agreement is 30 percent owned by the government and headed by a former top Social Democratic politician and state official. The problem, then, is that Austrian political culture has a sense of self-justification. Other European countries have been inoculated against fascism and anti-Semitism by history, whether seriously or partly. Austria feels itself immune from these diseases. If the far-right parties continue to grow, it might find itself very ill indeed. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.