A roar of protest went up across Europe when the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) became junior partner in a new coalition government. Political leaders and press denounced the FPO as neo-Nazi. The European Union (EU) conjured up a revival of Adolf Hitler in the person of Jrg Haider, the FPO chief, poisoning Europe with hatred, racism, and xenophobia. They announced punitive measures against Austria, diplomatic isolation, and economic sanctions.
The historical premise is false. Adolph Hitler did not appear out of a clear blue sky. He clawed his way up over 15 years in a Germany demoralized by defeat, humiliated by the vengeful treaty of Versailles, and victimized by, above all, its ancient enemy, France.
The Europe of that day couldn't cope with the collapse of the prewar order. Economic instability led to the catastrophic Depression of the early 1930s. Politically, Europe was a picture of confusion, and Germany a madhouse in which putschists and private armies fought for supremacy.
Europe today is light-years beyond all that. Nor is there reason to believe Austria is especially vulnerable. When most Austrians welcomed the Anschluss in 1938, it was after 20 years of life marooned on remnants of the Hapsburg Empire and their strong desire to unite with pre-Hitler Germany (forbidden by the Versailles treaty). Hitler hadn't simply picked a ripe fruit.
I started as a journalist that year for the United Press in Berlin. My first assignment was to cover Hitler's return from Vienna. I'd already met Nazi party people whom Hitler had sent to Austria years before to undermine the government. After three years, I was arrested, accused of espionage, and imprisoned for four months before being expelled. I subsequently worked in the Soviet Union. There can hardly be anyone around more sensitive to the revival of a totalitarian threat.
The historical premise of today's outrage over Mr. Haider - that this is a rebirth of Nazism - looks more like a hysterical reflex.
Is Haider a Hitler-in-waiting? No storm troopers or colored shirts. Samples of his rhetoric over the past decade are pretty feeble, possibly reflecting what he heard growing up with ardently Nazi parents.
Praising Hitler's employment policy ignores the terrible cost of a program focused on rearmament, war, and the dragooning of slave labor.
His expression of respect for certain veterans of the Waffen-SS is - in part - actually just. In the last year of the war after the Army plot to assassinate Hitler, and possibly earlier, conscripts, whether Nazis or not, were sent to the Waffen-SS. Missing from Haider's remarks is acknowledgment that the original SS was a criminal organization playing a central part in the concentration camp system and the Holocaust.
All in all, none of Haider's loose-mouthed demagogy is likely to shake Europe off its foundations - nor Austria either. Austria is an established democracy in a democratic Europe.
In October elections, the FPO got 27 percent of the vote - most likely a protest against the stagnant political system in which the socialist party had been in government for 30 years, the last 14 spent shared cozily with the centrist People's Party. After the election they fell out and couldn't form a new cabinet. The socialists at one point reportedly even approached the FPO, but that failed. The FPO finally joined forces with the People's Party. It is more than rumored that the socialists then urged other socialist governments in Europe to raise hue and cry.
There is no telling how long it will be before another election. Meanwhile, the main victim is the unity of the EU. Never before has it attacked one of its members. Who'll be next? For what reason?
And this, at a time when the EU faces enormous, real problems: Kosovo and the Balkans; the urge to crystallize a European defense initiative, coping with waves of legal and illegal; and, above all, expanding the EU with possibly 13 new members.
Europe has too much on its plate to indulge in emotional distractions.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society