Waltzing With Vienna

Jrg Haider, an angry politician in Austria whose father was a Nazi official, is hardly a specter hanging over Europe. His rightist Freedom Party commanded only 27 percent of a national vote last October.

Yet the prospect of his followers holding power in Vienna in a coalition government has evoked memories of the rise to power of Hitler (an Austrian by birth) in 1933 in Germany. And it's provoked a swift European Union threat to isolate Austria even at the expense of hurting the 15-member bloc.

Why are Europe's leaders recoiling at Mr. Haider? Three very good reasons: lurking racism in other EU nations, leftover resistance in Austria to facing its Nazi past, and lingering issues of continental unity.

Haider's record includes praise for Hitler's employment policies and former Nazi SS men. Such views (which he's tried to recant) make him dangerous because he also blames Austria's minor social problems on foreigners, especially East Europeans and North Africans. That's an echo of the Third Reich.

His mildest critics see him more as a political opportunist than a heel-clicking neo-Nazi. That he's found a following shows how many Austrians still see their country as having been more a victim of Nazi Germany than a collaborator. Austria did not go through the same post-war soul-searching as did Germany. Now Europe is forced to deal with it.

What especially worries the EU is that one of Austria's long-dominant parties, the People's Party, is even willing to hook up with Haider.

His popularity reflects a rise of rightist groups and parties in many other EU nations ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The EU leaders trying to stop him come mainly from nations ruled by Social Democrats, who are concerned they too may someday need to accommodate rightists, such as France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, in their own governments.

Social Democrats also fear a conservative backlash against the pending entry of much-poorer East European nations as well as against the often- lax border security in Southern Europe that lets in thousands of economic migrants. The EU's inability to deal with those tough issues only helps boost the Haiders.

As it achieves more unity, the EU is struggling to define "the essential values of the European family," as Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres puts it. That's no easy task, especially when economic unity outpaces political unity. That Austria bristles over the EU threat shows how much nationalism is alive and well in the EU.

From dealing with rightists to letting nominally Muslim Turkey into the "club" to its friction over trade and defense with the United States, the EU has its hands full as it tries to forge a collective identity that can prevent a resurgence of 20th-century-style authoritarianism.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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