Shortly after one o’clock on a foggy Saturday morning Jörg Haider, governor (Landeshauptmann) of the Austrian province of Carinthia, lost control of his VW Phaeton on a street in the town of Lambichl, near the provincial capital of Klagenfurt. The car hit the embankment and a concrete fencepost before flipping over. The 58-year old Haider died in the crash. And thus ended the career of one of the most controversial political leaders produced by Austria since the end of the Second World War.
Haider’s death follows by less than two weeks the parliamentary elections in which the party he led, the Alliance for Austria’s Future (BZÖ), captured close to eleven percent of the votes and 21 seats in the 183-seat lower house of parliament. A BZÖ spokesman said that Haider’s death was “like the end of the world for us.” Haider’s hometown newspaper reported that Carinthia and the nation was in “deep mourning.” News reports outside of Austria, however, were rather more subdued. According to the New York Times, Haider “was most notorious for a series of outrageous statements, including praising the Waffen-SS and the employment policies of the Nazi government.” Per the Times of London, he “drew international condemnation for his right wing rhetoric and staunchly anti-immigrant stance.”
Jörg Haider’s ascent in Austrian politics was meteoric. Marked as a rising star in college, by the age of 36 he became the leader of the FPÖ, which, up until that time, had been a sleepy, unimportant fringe party composed of free-market liberals, anticlerical conservatives, and unreconstructed Nazis. Three years later Haider was elected governor of Carinthia, and in 1999 the FPÖ gained the second-largest number of votes in the parliamentary elections and formed a coalition government with the Christian democratic People’s Party (ÖVP). In 2005 Haider, largely as the result of personal rivalries, led a faction that split from the FPÖ and formed the BZÖ.
Impeccably dressed, preternaturally tanned, and possessed of a youthful vigor up to the end, Haider was adored by that segment of the Austrian public that had become frightened of an encroaching outside world and disillusioned by the frequent cohabitation of the two main parties in stultifying grand coalitions that seemed to offer no avenue for dissent and no hope for change. Haider gave voice to that opposition, even if it was in the impossibly glottal Carinthian accent that contrasted so sharply with his urbane good looks — it was sort of like if Beau Brummel had come from Hooterville.
When European leaders shunned Austria after Haider’s FPÖ entered the government, it simply made Haider all the more popular in his own country. His frequent pronouncements against immigration and his resistance to integration into the European Union resonated with a public that feared being swamped by Slavs and foreign bureaucrats. Haider fought bilingualism in Carinthia, which has a small Slovene minority, and his party campaigned on an anti-immigration platform in the recent elections. In short, Carinthia under Haider was like Texas if Pat Buchanan were governor.
Haider was often described as a “nationalist,” but that term needs to be explained in the Austrian context. Austria never really developed a strong sense of “nationhood.” In the imperial era, the Habsburgs discouraged nationalism, which tended to be pan-Germanic, in favor of loyalty to the dynasty. After the First World War, Austria was a rump state without any historical identity. Even after the war, it defined itself more by what it wasn’t than what it was — mostly, it wasn’t Germany, and that was pretty much it. When Haider, in 1988, stated that “the Austrian nation was an abortion, an ideological abortion,” he was speaking to the conflicted nature of Austrian identity.
Furthermore, as the officially recognized “first victim of Nazi aggression,” Austria never had to come to grips with its own complicity in the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime and so never fully purged itself of those ghosts. For Haider, whose father served in the Wehrmacht and whose mother was a member of he Hitlerjugend, attempts to link Austria with the Holocaust stirred resentment and anger rather than attempts at understanding. Consequently, a strong current of insularity and national amnesia pervade Austrian politics, making Austria a more fertile ground for right-wing extremism than Germany.
At the time of his death, party leaders were attempting to cut through the Gordian knot that had been created by the indecisive parliamentary elections. Because the socialists refuse to join a coalition that includes either the FPÖ or the BZÖ, the ÖVP, by default, finds itself in the catbird seat. It can form another grand coalition with the socialists and face the charge that it is sacrificing its principles for the sake of power, and thus exacerbating the kind of disillusionment that fueled the rise of the right-wing protest parties, or it can tack to the right and take in the FPÖ and/or the BZÖ and risk the same sort of international condemnation that it faced in 2000. The FPÖ and BZÖ, meanwhile, are already rumored to be moving toward a reunion — much of the personal animosity that separated the two factions died with Haider, and, in any event, it’s debatable whether the BZÖ can long survive without its charismatic leader.
It seems unlikely that the ÖVP will take the potentially fatal step of allying itself with a reunited FPÖ. Its leaders might think that including the right-wingers in a government will tame them and tarnish their outsider credentials, but then that’s what Franz von Papen thought in 1933. On the other hand, the alternative — another uninspiring coalition with the socialists — is hardly more attractive. As a result, the ÖVP remains the likely loser in all of this, and it is hard to see what sort of long-term via media it will be able to find between the socialists and Greens on the left and the resurgent FPÖ on the right. It’s clear, then, that Haider’s death removed a potent symbol of Austrian right-wing protest, but it did nothing to quell the underlying discontent.