729 - The Witch Is Dead

Only days ago, in “716 - The Last Rose of Summer”, I talked about the outcome of our general elections and the political resurrection of Jörg Haider, the man who single-handedly created right-wing populism in Austria - and now he’s dead. I heard the news on Saturday morning when I talked to my father. Sometime around 2am he’d had a terrible accident with his car, and he died on the way to the hospital.

These images were shot under the impression of his death, and the death of such a powerful political figure is certainly worth some thoughts. Jörg Haider was the most controversial of Austria’s politicians after the second World War, certainly one of the most talented and intelligent, comparable only to Bruno Kreisky, the socialist former Chancellor who once called him “the Nazi boy”, but who was definitely aware of his talent.

Haider was demonized and adored, he was charismatic like no one else in the last 25 years, he was a man who reached for the stars and ultimately always failed. Although I disagreed with almost all that he ever said, even I have to admit that there was greatness in this man, even if it did not lead to anything good.

What exactly was the character of Jörg Haider’s populism and why did he polarize that much? Well, it is important to recognize that he always talked in a way that people wished all polititians would talk like: straightforward, plain, open, direct. He addressed people’s fears and worries, and at the same time he had the talent to make them accept him as one of them, pretty regardless of the actual crowd, whether he was in a country inn or at a meeting of CEOs.

Along with that unfortunately there was a darker side, most certainly a remnant of his upbringing, and although I suppose that he would not have tried to reinstate the classic Nation Socialism, even if he would have been given the choice to do so, he sure catered to that audience. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

In 1991, in a debate in the regional parliament, a speaker attacked Haider’s plan of reducing unemployment payments for people seen as “freeloaders”, calling it forced work placement reminiscent of Nazi policies. Haider replied, “It would not be like the Third Reich, because the Third Reich developed a proper employment policy, which your government in Vienna has not once produced.”
The german word that he used was “ordentlich”, of which “proper” is not a bad translation, although it does not cover all aspects. In “ordentlich” there is order, correctness and a strong implication of approval. You don’t call things “ordentlich” when you don’t believe in them.

There was more of that by him and much more by his immediate followers. Reinhard Gaugg, one high-ranking member of his party, the man who carried Haider on his shoulders when he became leader of the party in 1986, in a putsch at the Freedom Party’s convention in Innsbruck, when asked to give an association with the word “Nazi”, replied “neu-attraktiv-zielstrebig-ideenreich” (new, attractive, determined, imaginative).

Haider’s greatest triumph came when his party was second strongest force after the elections of 1999, and when in 2000 they went into a coalition with the conservative People’s Party, again something that produced an uproar throughout Europe. Taking Haider’s party into a government was seen as a breach of the cordon sanitaire against coalitions with right-wing extremists. In practice it quickly demonstrated how amateurish and contrary to their public image these politicians acted, and after only a short time of scandals the party broke apart. Haider continued with a new party in Carinthia where he had a large number of followers, and the original Freedom Party was taken over by some H. C. Strache, only a bad copy of Haider, but successful nevertheless.

And now? Will the world change? Will Carinthia, will Austria change? Will there be an end to quarrel? Will there be an end to the practice of making immigrants scapegoats for whatever is wrong in this country?

Unfortunately it is not so easy at all. Jörg Haider introduced a new kind of politics, something that had not existed before but that now has become an integral part of the Austrian political life. He has lowered the inhibition threshold and he has made things acceptable that should never have been made even thinkable, certainly not in a country with our history, a country that should know better. The witch is dead, but there is no return to Kansas.

The Song of the Day is “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead”, the song from the Wizard of Oz, given Haiders much hinted-at homosexuality, fittingly interpreted by Klaus Nomi, one of the first prominent gay victims of AIDS, a man who died at about the time that Haider’s rise to power began. I have it on “Encore!”, a collection from 1983 that I then bought on vinyl and later on CD. Hear the song on YouTube.

There are 3 comments

ramin   (2008-10-13)

I noticed his death over the weekend in Finnish news as well. It's quite telling of his impact on European politics that his death was noted in multiple medias very quickly.

I then started to wait for your reaction to the news, since your dislike of his politics was quite apparent. I, for one, am glad that at least one charismatic right-wing politician is out of the game.

On the pictures, they're an interesting choice. I'd first think a gloomier fog shot would be more fitting for a post about death. But in this case I don't think you want to convey sadness etc. so much as a certain sense of hope and optimism that the sun brings to the colors. Very fitting.

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Andreas   (2008-10-13)

As I said, there is not much reason to think that his death (which, btw, I never wished upon him) could change anything for good. The damage is done, political culture has changed, and I think that those kinds of political behavior that were unknown to Austria before him, will stay. He has shown that it is possible to defy the constitution, to negate the supreme court, to agitate the stupid against the weak - and to come away with it. This is his legacy and it will stay with us for a long time.

And it's not only Austria. Silvio Berlusconi is a populist, in a way Nicolas Sarkozy is, Ronald Reagan was, George Bush certainly is, and so is Vladimir Putin, to name only the most prominent. It has become very fashionable to present simple, enticing and wrong solutions for the challenges of our complex old world.

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Thomas   (2008-10-18)

Yes, the damage is certainly done. Not only by Haider but - as you already pointed out - by a whole crowd of equally opportunistic and populistic politicans. But there might be one reason to think that his death could change things for good: he certainly won't contribute more to the erosion of political culture.

Sorry, I don't want to sound harsh. But the guy had an alcohol level of nearly 2 promilles and was speeding heavily! Laws of biology, of physics? Nah, not for me! He was asking for it. Sorry.

Now it really starts worrying me that his death seems to be starting to be cloaked in conspiracy theories and even takes on forms of mass hysteria. Jörg Haider as a martyr... Brr. Scary thought.

Or is that a false impression from a couple of thousand kilometers away?

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