Hitler Deja Vu?

In Austria these days, the traditional six-letter "H" word, Hitler, has been supplanted by a new six-letter H word, Haider. Two weeks ago, the ultranationalist leader Jrg Haider stunned the country's political establishment when his Freedom Party took 30 percent of the vote in national elections. In his home province of Carinthia, Mr. Haider claimed 60 percent of the electorate.

Some credit Haider's success to his populist nationalism - he regularly rails against immigrants, government corruption, and the price of European Union membership. Others credit his success to his youthful good looks, coupled with a distinctive speaking style that draws from the lexicon of National Socialist diatribe. Haider appeals to young and old alike.

Since 1986, Haider has marched his party from the political shadow of a 6 percent mandate into the political spotlight where he regularly makes headlines in Austria and abroad. Haider's surging popularity is unsettling EU Eurocrats in Brussels and unhinging political leaders at home. During a nationally televised pre-election debate, Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky wagged his finger at Haider and exclaimed, "You will never be chancellor of Austria."

The implied and oft-expressed fear among Austrians is that Haider is another Adolf Hitler. The concern is not new. For nearly a decade, the Austrian news media have been drawing the Haider-Hitler equation; there is even a book that explores Haider's use of Nazi jargon. Though Haider dismisses the charges, he has publicly endorsed Nazi labor practices, once claiming that Austria had not had a proper work policy since 1945. Last autumn, Haider attended a gathering of former SS soldiers and praised them for their service to the fatherland. Now, less than a year later, Haider has captured one-third of the electorate in Austria.

Haider's appeal derives less from his Nazi rhetoric than from his populist message. At the height of the war in Bosnia, when tens of thousands of refugees sought safe haven in Austria, Haider stumped the country with a simple theme: It is horrible what those people are doing to one another in Bosnia, but why should you - a hard-working, responsible citizen - bear the social and economic burden for the indulgent savagery of neighboring countries? He has also questioned the economic benefit of EU membership for Austria which, on balance, pays out more than it receives.

The truth is that Haider is an annoyance and an embarrassment for Austria, but not a threat to democracy nor to the process of European integration. While Austrian voters occasionally use Haider to express discontent with government policies, they have demonstrated sound judgment when the fundamentals of democracy were at stake. In 1993, when Haider demanded a public referendum on Austria's immigration laws, he suffered a public humiliation; hundreds of thousands of Austrians flooded town squares to demonstrate their solidarity with the country's resident foreigners. The following year, nearly two-thirds of the Austrians voted in favor of EU membership. In a European context, neither Jrg Haider nor Austria, a country of fewer than 7 million, can seriously hamper the integration process. At this point, only France and Germany could do that.

Haider will certainly continue to play the political gadfly in Austrian politics, but he will not emerge as a new Fhrer who can throw the continent into turmoil - unless, of course, he were to transfer his political ambitions to Germany. While this scenario is highly unlikely, it would not be the first time that a charismatic Austrian crossed the border and tried his hand in German politics.

*Timothy W. Ryback is director of the Salzburg Seminar, a forum for international dialogue in Salzburg, Austria.

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