Media folk tend to love Nazi stories. The affinity first struck me when I tried peddling a novel draft in the 1970s about an escape from East Germany. An American editor reading through my synopsis at the Frankfurt Book Fair yanked the cigar from his mouth to ask:
Any Nazis in this?
No, it’s a Cold War story. Why?
Well, if you could weave some Nazis into it, we could put a swastika on the cover and be guaranteed to break even.
Nazis are still selling!
Austria is expected to elect Norbert Hofer from the rightwing Freedom Party (FPÖ) as its new president Sunday. He had gotten over a third of the votes in the runoff election for the mostly ceremonial job, nearly twice as many as the Green Party candidate who took second place. The establishment parties that ruled Austria since WWII didn’t even come close. “Quality” media such as the New York Times (NYT), Financial Times (FT) and Foreign Policy (FP) Magazine see ghosts from the Nazi past and dark days ahead for the West in general.“Illiberal” parties have been winning elections elsewhere, especially in Central Europe.
We’ve seen this media hysteria before. When the FPÖ became part of a coalition government headed by the long-established center right party over 15 years ago, CBS News anchorman Dan Rather led the evening news with archive video of marching SS men. The rest of the EU imposed political sanctions on the new government, but the government lasted much longer than the EU sanctions did.
FT’s Tony Barber led off this month’s Friday the 13th story warning that “An illiberal political order is taking shape in central Europe.” One was reminded of Churchill’s famous 1946 speech: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Martial metaphors followed about the “march of illiberalism” with “advancing” Austria signaling a development that has not “happened in a European democracy since the defeat of Nazism.”
Not only generals can get addicted to fighting past wars
While Barber only directly evoked the Nazi specter once, FP’s Paul Hockenos managed to fit it in 4 times in his short May 17 article. Reporters looking for the Nazi angle trooped through Vienna on a regular basis when I was covering politics from the US Embassy there in the early 1990s. The country was an oasis of calm, and seemed especially so to me as it was wedged between assignments in Haiti and Rwanda. But before I arrived, the late charismatic FPÖ party leader Joerg Haider had made a favorable reference to Third Reich employment policies in a sharp provincial parliamentary exchange with a socialist rival. The rival had initially raised the Nazi employment analogy while criticizing then “Governor” Haider’s job program. As Haider tried to explain afterwards, he merely wanted to make the point that the Keynesian type autobahn and infrastructure spending projects had created lots of jobs in the 1930’s. Whatever, visiting foreign reporters from then on couldn’t resist the slave labor interpretation, regularly describing the Austrian political gadfly as the man who had praised Hitler.
The FPÖ certainly started out after WWII as a party packed with not overly repentant ex-Nazis and others with left-over Pan-German sentiments. That Pan-Germanism had also been common to Austrian Marxists after the First World War, including communists, the Jewish Social Democrat leader Otto Bauer and socialist Karl Renner. The latter had even “blessed” the 1938 Anschluss with Nazi Germany but was nevertheless promoted by Stalin to become Austria’s first president following the Nazi defeat. The FPÖ also cultivated a growing economically liberal element and — as the Cold War progressed – promoted NATO membership that was shunned by the two dominant parties.
Unity with Germany had once seemed like an economic imperative after the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918 and the other linguistic groups bolted to form their own nation states. Pan-Slavism had been popular among many of them as well. But Austria’s open trade with west Europe after WWII gradually obviated the unity attraction. As the party increasingly emphasized traditional Austrian roots, the pan-German element diminished just as the Marxist element had lost its appeal Social Democrats.
Still, the West’s “progressive” journalists tend to see Nazi look-alikes under their beds the way some far right Americans once saw communists lurking beneath the masks of all socialists. They also borrow freely from Cold War metaphors such as falling “dominos” or “putsch” to describe elections that are won by the “wrong” party. FP’s article can’t be accused of mincing words, however, when describing Devil in Disguises Hofer as “a handsome, soft-spoken former engineer. He’s also a far-right, racist, xenophobe.”
Islamophobia charge replaces the old Anti-Semitic one
None of the articles I’ve seen mention that Hofer’s right wing FPÖ had facilitated a Holocaust “restitution” agreement when it last shared power in Vienna. It was the most far reaching reparations agreement since the war. Looking back ten years later, US Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who led the US side in the negotiations, credited Austria’s chancellor and his team, that included Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer of the FPÖ, for its “courageous leadership” in bringing about that “watershed in modern Austrian history.” Eizenstat had been a senior official at both Sate and Treasury Departments in different Washington governments and later U.S. Special Adviser on Holocaust Issues. He also said the “process” launched by that coalition government “made Austria a stronger country and a shining example and worldwide leader in the search for justice, however belated, for victims of the Shoah and other victims of Nazism.”
As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer put it during the previous EU/Washington/Tel Aviv hysteria that had followed the announced coalition, then FPÖ leader Haider “… has campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform. And he has made the occasional softball remark about the Nazi past, saying, for example, that Waffen SS soldiers deserve respect for their wartime service.” Israel had withdrawn its ambassador then. The current party leadership, including Hofer himself, more recently visited Israel and was given an “unofficial-official” reception. Tel Aviv is much more receptive these days to right wing parties emphasizing the global threat of Islamic extremism.
The “anti-immigrant” mantra is lazy journalese for “anti-mass immigration” and it has been a staple of FPÖ campaigning from early on. Sylvie Kauffmann, evoking Orwellian scenarios in her May 19th NYT column and “struggling to explain” the current shift to the right, suggests that “Immigration is important, but the dynamics predated the refugee crisis.” Kaufmann apparently thinks no one outside her native Marseilles had been following the decades of tensions there over mass immigration from the Maghreb or the explosive violence by disaffected immigrants and their poorly integrated descendents elsewhere in France earlier this decade.
Great quality of life and desire to keep it that way
“Vienna is the world’s best city to live in… London, Paris and New York do not even make it into the top 35, according to international research into quality of life.” The British Guardian newspaper was quoting the latest Mercer Quality of Life survey that consistently puts Vienna either as number one or close to it in its index. Those unaffected by the declining urban life quality in the “prole” neighborhoods of the other cities mentioned fail to see why Austrians might not want to emulate the financial and immigration policies that contributed to the condition of the others.