Sunday, August 27, 2006

Joerg Haider

Jörg Haider

.. was the long-time leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), and after stepped down as the party's chairman in 2000, he remained a major figure until 2005. In April 2005 he founded a new party, the "Alliance for the Future of Austria" (BZÖ), and was subsequently expelled from the FPÖ by its interim leader Hilmar Kabas.


Known for his dubious statements about Jews, his praise of Nazism, his embrace of Saddam Hussein, and for his personal charisma, far-right politician Joerg Haider led his moribund Freedom Party to a surprise victory in the March 7, 2004 elections in the Austrian province of Carinthia. Political analysts viewed this win as a come-back for the beleaguered Haider. The party garnered 42.2 percent of the vote, beating the rival Social Democratic Party which finished with 38 percent. The party did less well in the Salzburg regional election, with the party losing up to half of its previous support. However, with the strong showing in Carinthia, Haider is likely to once again vie to be a player on the national political stage, preparing for the 2006 federal elections.

Labeled by his critics as a "yuppie fascist" and the "Austrian David Duke," Joerg Haider is one of Austria's most prominent and controversial leaders. To his supporters, Haider is a breath of fresh air, promising job security, social benefits, and a new breed of politician who follows through on his election promises. The charismatic populist promises to eliminate corruption, curtail abuses of the welfare state, and protect Austria's national interests from being overrun by illegal immigrants and unchecked global markets.

To his opponents, Haider is a dangerous right-wing extremist who exploits Austria's disenchantment with the perennial ruling parties to advance his xenophobic, racist and intolerant policies. Throughout his public career, Haider has consistently parried accusations of anti-Semitism. His record, however, reveals numerous statements utilizing Holocaust terminology and legitimizing Nazi policy and activities.

Political Life

A lawyer by profession, Haider lives with his wife and two children in an inherited 38,000 acre estate. The estate was once owned by Jews who were forced to sell the land after the 1938 German annexation of Austria.

Joerg Haider was born in 1950 in Upper Austria to parents with direct links to the Nazis. His father joined Hitler Youth in 1929 and the Nazi SA storm troops a year later. The senior Haider reportedly traveled to Munich with Adolf Eichmann and Alois Brunner in 1933 as a member of the Austrian legion. Haider's mother belonged to the Nazi Paty's League of German Girls. When asked to comment on his parents' wartime activities, Haider remarked: "In retrospect one is always wiser. As a descendant, one should not be so arrogant as to say, 'I would have known better.'"

Since the age of twenty, Haider has held various positions in the right-wing Freedom Party, including as a member of parliament from 1979 through 1983. In 1986, Haider was elected party leader. Three years later, saying he would use provincial politics as a springboard for the chancellorship, Haider became the governor of Carinthia. In 1991, Haider was forced to resign from this post after publicly praising Nazi labor policy (see below), and became Deputy Governor. Haider re-entered the national parliament in March 1992.

Haider's success in the October 1994 national elections astounded political observers. In 1986, the Freedom Party received 5% of the vote. Only eight years later, in the 1994 elections, Haider and his party garnered 22.6% of the vote, up from 16.5% from 1990, achieving the dubious distinction of gaining more votes in a parliamentary election than any other European far-right party. In the 183 seat parliament, the Freedom Party jumped from thirteen to forty-two seats. Political analysts credited the Freedom Party's success to a receptiveness to Haider's anti-foreigner message, as well as with a wide-spread disgust for the stodginess and patronage of the Social Democrats and the Austrian People's Party.

Haider's rise caused the two mainstay parties of Austrian politics to suffer losses they had not experienced in their forty-nine year reign. The Social Democrats garnered only 35% of the vote, a drop of 8%, receiving only 66 seats. Their coalition partner, the conservative Austrian People's Party, dropped 4.4% to 28% of the vote, receiving only 52 seats. The coalition continued, until its breakdown in October 1995, with both party leaders refusing to welcome Haider as a coalition partner.

In October of the following year, Austria's first direct election for Members of the European Parliament took place. In this election, the Social Democratic Party (SPO) suffered serious electoral setbacks, in contrast with both the Austrian People's Party (OVP) and Haider's Freedom Party (FPO), which increased their share of the vote. One of the principal factors that contributed to the Freedom Party's success in this election was its anti-European stance. In gaining 27.6% of the vote, Haider's party broke through the projected 25% "natural ceiling" that had until then been assumed for the European far right.

In local provincial elections, Haider's party gained great popularity. The FPO emerged as the strongest party in the provinces of Salzburg and Carinthia, and a similar trend emerged in the elections to the municipal assembly of Vienna, which is Austria's most important local council. In these elections, the SPO lost the majority it had held without interruption since 1918 (except during 1934-1945). Compared to the performance of Austria's two biggest parties, the FPO increased its share of the vote from 22.5% to 28%.

In 1997, Haider's party captured 28% of votes in elections to the European Parliament; the Freedom Party's total was 6 percentage points higher than what it scored in December's general elections. The results placed the Freedom Party in third place, behind the People's Party, the junior coalition party that scored 29.6 % of the vote, and the governing Social Democratic Party, which gained 29.1 % of the vote.

Haider was re-elected to governor of Carinthia by a landslide in 1999. Later that year, the Freedom Party finished second in general elections with a stunning 27 percent of the vote. With the political leverage gained from the 1999 election, in 2000, the Freedom Party succeeded in joining the new Austrian government as a coalition partner. This development lead to an outcry from many in Austria, the international community as well as Jewish and non-Jewish organizations around the world, and finally culminated in Israel's recalling its ambassador from Vienna. The European Union imposed sanctions on Austria. While Haider resigned as head of the Freedom Party in 2000, he continued to be a major influence behind the scenes, and retained his position as Governor of Carinthia. In November 2002, Haider's machinations lead to early elections, and support for the party fell precipitously to 10%. Although the Freedom Party remained a "junior partner" in the governing coalition, Haider and the Party's influence was greatly diminished.

The 2004 campaign in Carinthia was seen as a major test of Haider's viability as a politician. With polls predicting a Freedom Party loss, and pundits highlighting his embrace of Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the war and other questionable policy choices, Haider was expected to get under 30% of the popular vote. He surprised analysts in the days before the election by moving up in the polls, and in the end, retained his governorship and his level of popular support.

The Freedom Party

The Austrian Freedom Party, founded in 1956, is the heir to the League of Independents. Formed in 1949, the League was the direct descendant of the faction that promoted pan-German nationalism for Austria both under the Habsburgs and in the years following World War I.

Initially reluctant to welcome the terms of Austrian independence, especially the neutrality clause of the State Treaty, the Freedom Party chose instead to take a pro-European position as a substitute for identification with Germany. As the only political group espousing free-market, pro-(Western) Europe views in Austria, the Freedom Party also included a liberal wing resembling the Free Democrats of the Federal Republic of Germany. The two tendencies were always uneasy with each other, and the party's origins were never wholly abandoned. The first two leaders of the Freedom Party were respectively a former member of Chancellor Arthur Seyss-Inquart's post-Anschluss (unity) Nazi cabinet of 1938 and an ex-SS officer.

Until the 1990's, the Freedom Party was a marginal part of Austrian public life. In the elections of 1949 and 1953, the Freedom Party's predecessor scored around 10 percent; thereafter, the Freedom Party received between four to seven percent of the national vote. Under Haider's leadership, support for the Freedom Party has increased at an incredible rate.

The Freedom Party's agenda continues to be nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Europe.

Defending Nazi policy and Nazis:

Haider has a long public record of defending the policies of Nazi Germany and of justifying individual actions during those years. Haider has utilized terminology reminiscent of the Nazis, announcing, for example in October 1990 a "final solution to the farm question." Upon his election to the leadership of the Freedom Party, Haider rejected comparisons with the German Nazi Party, saying "The Freedom Party is not the descendant of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority."

Indeed, Haider first gained international attention in March 1986 during the controversy surrounding the return of Walter Reder, an Austrian born former major in the Nazi SS, who was freed by Italy from a life sentence he was serving for his role in the mass killing of Italian civilians in 1944. For Haider, the controversy was ridiculous, as Reder was "a soldier who had done his duty." Dismissing Reder's wartime activities, Haider stated: "If you are going to speak about war crimes, you should admit such crimes were committed by all sides."

Haider's most infamous comment came during a July 1991 debate in the Carinthia provincial parliament, when Haider, then governor, declared: "An orderly employment policy was carried out in the Third Reich, which the government in Vienna cannot manage." In face of a national and international uproar, Haider apologized for his remarks, but said "What I said was a statement of fact: that in the Third Reich a large number of workplaces were created through an intensive employment policy and unemployment was thereby eliminated." Haider, who resigned over the controversy, did not mention to particulars of Nazi labor policy, including military buildup, forced labor, and concentration camps. Haider has defended his 1991 statement, claiming he was referring to Nazi policy between 1933 and 1936.

In May 1992, while the government was embroiled in a scandal involving a provincial government's decision to honor a gathering of Wafen SS veterans, Haider defended the decision. Haider instead accused the Interior Minister in Parliament of engaging in "primitive attacks" on "respectable" war veterans, while turning a blind eye to immigrant perpetrated crime.

Haider spoke out against the Austrian government's plans to compensate 30,000 Austrian victims of Nazi rule, including Jews, Communists and homosexuals, claiming that Austrian victims of the allies, such as civilians who fled Austria's occupation by US, Soviet, French and British troops, should also be compensated. As he told an elderly Austrian audience in April 1995, "It is not fair if all the money from the tax coffers goes to Israel." However, when the Parliament voted in June to set up a $50 million compensation fund, Haider voted in its favor. Still insisting on the need for compensation for victims of the allies, Haider explained, "But we do not intend to be petty. Even though you will not join us to widen the scope of the fund we will not vote against the bill. We too want to draw a line under a chapter we are also responsible for."

In May 1995, the Freedom Party was the only major Austrian political party absent from ceremonies at Mauthausen death camp marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the liberation of the camp. Just before the anniversary, Haider had referred to Mauthausen as a "punishment camp," implying that those interred there were criminals.

During a ceremony commemorating World War II veterans which is known to attract former SS officers and neo-Nazis, Haider called the crowd, including an array of former SS officers, "decent people of good character" and applauded them for "sticking to their convictions despite the greatest opposition." While addressing the reunion of Waffen-SS veterans, Haider declared that the reason people opposed them was "simply that in this world there are decent people who have character and who have stuck to their beliefs through the strongest headwinds and who remained true to their convictions until today." Haider's appearance at the ceremony was revealed when an amateur videotape of the gathering was broadcast on German television in December 1996.

Following these revelations, Haider defended his appearance at the event, saying: "The Waffen SS was a part of the Wehrmacht and hence it deserves all the honor and respect of the army in public life." "Everything I said in that video was completely acceptable." "I participated in this event and I don't see any reason not to. While I reject National Socialism, I certainly do not approve of the wholesale disparagement of the older war generation. I stand by this generation and I fight against the way it is disparaged."

In a television interview following the event, Haider claimed he did not know the Waffen SS had been branded a criminal organization by the post-war Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, adding: "It doesn't interest me in the least."

During a parliamentary debate in July 1998 on a proposed new law requiring applicants for Austrian citizenship to prove knowledge of German, Franz Larfer, an MP of the Freedom Party, used the word Umvolkung. This term was used by the Nazis to define the forced change of the ethnic composition of a population by immigration or compulsory transfer. This happened in Eastern Europe during the Nazi-period leading consequently to the annihilation of the inhabitants. The term is comparable to the expression ethnic cleansing. In reaction to the use of this expression, members of the Austrian parliament booed and shouted and the session had to be interrupted. After Heinz Fisher, the president of the Austrian parliament, explained to Larfer the meaning of this word, Larfer returned to the microphone apologizing for applying it. As the media reported extensively on this incident, Haider defended Laufer's use of this term, and reiterated in a press conference the following day that his colleague was right in using this expression, explaining that the government applying a liberal immigration policy allows for extensive "foreign infiltration," which subsequently leads to Umvolkung.

Attempts to Improve Image

Over the past decade, Haider has taken a number of public steps in an attempt to redeem his international image. During a 1994 visit to the United States, Haider visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., declaring afterwards: "I think that even those individuals who don't know much about history will realize that we must do everything to enforce tolerance, everything to enforce human rights and everything to strengthen democracy."

In May 1995, Haider and four companions visited the Simon Weisenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The visit came in the midst of a Freedom Party advertising campaign opposing a plan to make Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal (in whose honor the Center is named by who is unaffiliated with the organization) an honorary citizen. Haider and the Freedom Party claimed the Museum was questioning Austrian democracy by hanging the democratically elected Haider's photo alongside those of Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein. In fact, Haider's photo hung alongside politicians described by the Center as "right-wing demagogues," including Jean-Marie Le Pen and David Duke. Haider's request for a meeting with the Center's leaders was rebuffed.

In 1996, Haider appointed Peter Sichrovshky, a Jewish Viennese journalist, as his number 2 candidate for the European elections in October. Many attributed Sichrovsky's appointment to a move by Haider to avoid criticisms of anti-Semitism. Sichrovsky, in response, maintained that such accusations were themselves anti-Semitic: rather than accepting him as a parliamentarian, commentators could only remark on his religion. Haider denies that Sichrovsky was only selected as the Freedom Party's deputy leader because he is Jewish. On October 16, 1996, Sichrovsky was elected as one of six members of the European Parliament on the Freedom Party ticket. Sichrovsky split with Haider in 2002 over internal party politics.

In an attempt to appear more conventional, Haider has blunted his sharp rhetoric. He has avoided bad company since his 1996 meeting with SS veterans. His 2004 campaign in Carinthia avoided much of the sensationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric of past campaigns, and instead focused on economic and governance issues.


Haider has fended off accusations of anti-Semitism since the 1980's, but his insensitivity to Nazi brutality and a refusal to appreciate the suffering endured by those who lived under Nazi rule is well documented. Haider's recent attempts to promote a more moderate political agenda, for the purposes of attracting votes from the center and gaining acceptance from the international community, do not erase his record of xenophobic policies.

As his political fortunes rise and fall, Joerg Haider has demonstrated that he continues to be a force in Austrian politics.

Joerg Haider and Saddam Hussein

Growing support for Iraq among far-right extremists in Germany and Austria is cause for increasing concern. The nexus of support for Iraq centers around Joerg Haider, the Austrian far-right politician and Freedom Party head, who has made three trips to Iraq thus far. Haider met with Saddam Hussein and the two reportedly discussed the "Zionist and US conspiracy" against Iraq. Along with other members of his Freedom Party, Haider is a member of the Austrian-Iraqi Society, dedicated to "the promotion of the cultural, scientific and economic relations between the Iraqi people and the Austrian population."

Haider also has ties to Abdul Monheim Jebara, reportedly an Iraqi arms dealer who acts as a liaison between Saddam Hussein and sympathetic far-right groups in Europe. Jebara may have arranged Haider's first trip to Iraq. In addition, Abdul Jebara works with a number of far-right extremists in Europe who have started an initiative known as "SOS Iraq." The group claims that it is seeking funds to stop the "genocide" in Iraq and provide assistance to Iraqi children. ADL is developing more information on the trend of increasing ties between Iraq and extremists in Europe.

Saddam Hussein now counts among his allies the high-profile European extremist Joerg Haider, the unofficial leader of Austria's xenophobic and ultra-nationalist Freedom Party. ADL has learned that Haider not only supports Saddam Hussein, but has met repeatedly over the years with Hussein and other high-ranking Iraqi government officials. Iraq and the government of Saddam Hussein enjoy support from a spectrum of far-right groups across Europe - particularly in Germany and Austria -- that appreciate the Iraqi leader's hostility to both the United States and Israel.

As recently as a few years ago, the Freedom Party was sharply critical of Hussein and the Iraqi regime. When the Austrian government granted Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, then the second most powerful Iraqi leader, a one-month visa in 1999 for medical treatment, the Freedom Party protested the visit. Peter Westenthaler, one of the Party's top leaders, accused the interior ministry of letting a "war criminal" secretly enter Austria without informing the Austrian people.

Developing a Relationship, Meeting by Meeting

By 2002, Haider had formed a strikingly different opinion of Iraq and its leader. Haider was now open to the potential of finding friends in the Muslim world, even among its most controversial members. By that time, the governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia had already visited Muammar Qaddafi in Libya twice, while Qaddafi's son, Seif-al-Islam, visited Haider in Vienna. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Haider traveled to Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Libya (a third time), and Iran. Haider and several other prominent Freedom Party figures became members of the Austrian-Iraqi Society, an organization dedicated to the "promotion of the cultural, scientific and economic relations between the Iraqi people and the Austrian population."

In early 2002, the Iraqi embassy in Austria contacted Haider and invited him to Iraq. According to the weekly newspaper Format, the person responsible for arranging the trip was Abdul Jebara, a former Iraqi arms dealer who was sentenced to over six years in prison in the late 1980s for attempting to smuggle military helicopters to Iraq. After his release from prison, Jebara moved to Carinthia, where he claimed to know Haider "very well." In fact, a parliamentary investigation later revealed that Haider himself had signed a permit allowing Jebara to do business in Austria as an importer/exporter. Also allegedly involved in the arrangements for the visit was Dr. Sabri Aziz Izzat, a physician living in Austria who is a cousin to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. The invitation was not made public until February 11, when Peter Sichrovsky, the General Secretary of the Freedom Party, announced that Haider was visiting Iraq at the time.

In Baghdad, Haider met with Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz. Iraq's state-run news agency, INA, reported that Saddam Hussein wanted to "develop relations" between the Freedom Party and Iraq's Baath Party. In a joint appearance, Saddam Hussein delivered an attack on the U.S. that asked America to think about why the September 11 terrorist attacks had occurred in the U.S. and not Europe. Haider, in turn, expressed the "best wishes of the Austrian people and the Freedom Party as well as their solidarity with the people of Iraq and their wise leadership." According to Iraqi newspapers, Aziz and Haider called on European countries to oppose "international plots" led by the United States and "the Zionists" against Iraq.

When Haider returned, he held a press conference to discuss his trip, at which he said he and the Iraqis had had a "political dialogue" on the "fight against terrorism." He also said that he had given the Iraqis equipment for a blood bank in Baghdad. Haider said he supported the U.S. in its war on terrorism, but that "we should not link ourselves with the interests of those who need unrest somewhere on the planet to be able to rain down their bombs and war machines." Elsewhere, Haider defended Saddam Hussein from accusations that he had used poison gas against Kurds in Iraq, saying that it was not clear who had actually dropped the gas and implying that the U.S. had done it.

Causing a Stir

The trip created considerable embarrassment for Austria's government, already facing worldwide criticism for including the Freedom Party in a ruling coalition. Prior to Haider's visit, the only two prominent European politicians to have made similar "solidarity" visits to Iraq were the French and Russian far right wing leaders Jean-Marie Le Pen and Vladimir Shirinovsky. Haider received criticism not only from Austrian government officials and politicians, but even from within his own party, most notably by Peter Westenthaler.

Haider, however, not only weathered the storm of controversy, but thrived on it. By the end of February, he had announced that he was planning a second trip to Baghdad. Moreover, the Jerusalem Report revealed in March that Haider had invited prominent Iraqi leaders to visit Carinthia, including Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and Petroleum Minister Amr Rashid. Also invited was Rashid's wife, Rihab Taha, whose work spearheading Iraq's biological weapons program garnered her the nickname of "Dr. Germ."

Haider's second visit to Iraq occurred in May. This time Haider met only with Naji Sabri, not Saddam Hussein. Radio Baghdad said that at the meeting, Aziz discussed the international conspiracies against Iraq being led by the United States and Zionism. Following the trip, he accused the United States of causing birth defects in Iraq through the use of depleted-uranium munitions in the Gulf War. Haider also invited Sabri to Carinthia; Sabri came in July 2002, where he described Haider as "one of my best friends."

In November 2002, Haider made an unprecedented third trip to Iraq, visiting Saddam Hussein as well as Naji Sabri and Deputy President Taha Yassin. "I am very often here," Haider said, "because I have some friends, like my good friend the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we try to make our contribution so that a new war can be avoided." Haider again attacked the U.S. and Israel following the trip, accusing the United States of "warmongering."

Once more, Haider received widespread criticism, including from within his own party, with some even calling for his expulsion. Others, such as party leader and Social Minister Herbert Haupt, defended Haider, saying that the trip was for the promotion of Austrian business. The trips helped create electoral reverses for the Freedom Party and severe factional struggles ensued, leading to the ouster of some of the more moderate Party leaders. In late November, some Party activists circulated a manifesto condemning Haider's trips to Iraq and calling support for him a "personality cult." The infighting culminated at a highly unusual party congress in Salzburg in December 2002, at which Haupt was elected head of the Freedom Party - a victory for Haider.

Analysis: Wither Haider?

It must be clear to Haider that his defiantly close relationship with the Iraqi government is so controversial as to cause dissent even within his own party and that it may hurt the prospects of the Freedom Party, which has already suffered considerable reverses at the polls. At the same time, however, such activities put Haider-otherwise simply governor of a tiny state in a tiny country-on the world stage and give him considerable publicity.

Moreover, such ties in effect give him an indirect way to express anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiment by appearing with people who are more able to speak their mind than he is. This probably also explains Haider's visits to other Arab or Muslim countries, as well as his ties to Libyan dictator Qaddafi. It seems likely that the only scenario that might halt the continuation of such ties, including visits to controversial countries, would be if Haider was seriously threatened with the loss of control of his own party. So far, that has not happened. As a result, it may be expected that (unless a military conflict intervenes) Baghdad may again be a destination for Joerg Haider.