Rise of right wing in Austria seems all too familiar

The Atlantic Ocean seemed to yawn wider this week than it has in years. Europe was in turmoil, haunted by the specter of the radical right rising to power in Austria, Hitler's birthplace. Americans watched sympathetically.

Austria last week became the first Western democracy since World War II to bring a far-right party into its government, when Jorg Haider's Freedom Party was sworn in as junior coalition partner to the conservative People's Party.

Haider's party originated as a postwar coven of ex-Nazi sympathizers, and it's not clear how much it's changed. Austria's president and chancellor say it's become mainstream under Haider, abandoning one-time racist, pro-Nazi views. But the 15-nation European Union isn't buying. The union this week slapped fellow-member Austria with punitive sanctions unprecedented in postwar intra-Europe relations.

In truth, all this sturm und drang left Americans a tad bewildered. We've never experienced the traumas of fascism and Nazism up close. We never had death camps on our soil. We were never occupied. It's all foreign to us.

Besides, most of us scarcely comprehend Europe's system of proportional elections, with its legions of small ideological parties holding bigger parties hostage. Where we live, winning requires 51 percent and loonies finish last. We couldn't imagine a xenophobic, anti-immigrant right-winger as a partner in an American government.

So we watched with concern as our allies raged and Vienna rioted. A few politicians and Jewish organizations issued statements condemning Haider's extremist views. Our newspapers ran the crisis on Page One for a day or two before pushing it inside.

Then we returned to our own affairs, which in this case meant watching our Republican presidential candidates prepare for the pivotal South Carolina primary. It takes place Feb. 19 in the shadow of the Confederate battle flag.

The flag flies proudly over the South Carolina statehouse and has become something of a silent issue in the primary, putting candidates in the awkward position of having to endorse the flag of slavery or risk offending Republican voters. Each to his own war-crime denials, you might say.

Back in Europe, there are other disorienting outcomes of the Austrian decision. For one thing, there's a European quarantine, imposed on Austria after Haider's party was sworn in Feb. 5. Many observers call it a historic display of unity and moral backbone by a European community seldom known for either. More remarkable, some Europeans make it a point to say they're following Israel's lead. When was the last time that happened?

"I'm pleasantly stunned by the moral backbone the European Union has demonstrated," says David Harris, American Jewish Committee's executive vice president. "It doesn't happen all that often."

To be sure, there's self-interest involved. European leaders are desperate to ensure that Haider's success doesn't become a beacon to other European rightists who share his xenophobic platform, such as the Republicans in Germany or Jean-Marie LePen's National Front in France.

Ostracizing little Austria, population 8 million, is one way to draw a line in the sand, says Andrei Markovits, professor of politics and German studies at the University of Michigan. "Now if something like this should happen down the line in a country that matters, like Germany or France, a precedent has been set."

Not everyone supports the boycott, though.

Chris Patten, the European Union's external affairs commissioner and former governor of Hong Kong, warned this week that ostracism could strengthen the extremists "by making their xenophobia look as though it's justified." And the British newsweekly The Economist warned that the European Union was stumbling "into the treacherous realm of morality." The editors wondered who might be the next target.

Even the American Jewish community, which ought to see things clearly, was unsure how to respond. Two of the community's most important spokesmen were split, with AJC'S Harris endorsing the sanctions and Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, opposing them.

Foxman worries that ostracizing Austria could drive the 70 percent who voted against Haider to rally around him out of spite. That's what happened in 1986, when United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was revealed to have hidden a Wehrmacht war record. Worldwide protests ensued. Austria responded by electing Waldheim president.

Besides, Foxman says, "Haider is a populist, a xenophobe, an opportunist, but he is not a Nazi nor an anti-Semite. And unlike the Le Pens or Buchanans, he's at least tried to explain his associations and apologize for them. Now that he's in a position of responsibility, let's test him."

Foxman has long stood apart in advocating that Jews learn to accept apologies. He's publicly buried the hatchet with, among others, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson and Nelson Mandela. He's consistent.

The question: Are Haider's apologies for real?

AJC's Harris sees a cynical politician who's still courting the same racist constituencies, sending out his messages in code instead of a straight-arm salute.

"He's attempted to recast history and redefine victimization," Harris says. "He's attempted to highlight the positive side of the SS. He's crossed a line by his coddling of a horrific past. That's not acceptable."

On balance, Harris' position is certainly more emotionally satisfying. It may even be a truer reading of Haider's deepest thoughts. The trouble is that, as The Economist says, it puts us on a slippery slope.

Unfair as it may sound, there isn't a single argument leveled against Haider that can't be applied to the Republican Party in South Carolina.

These Southerners have taken it upon themselves to defend the honor of a long-since defeated warrior tribe, all the while pretending the tribe fought for something other than a horrific system of crimes against humanity. They cling to symbols that evoke horror in their erstwhile victims. They maintain the highest personal standards, yet appeal with nods and winks to a wretched constituency that dares not show its face. And, yes, they are xenophobic, anti-immigrant and very right-wing.

Aren't there differences? Of course. We're two generations removed from the crimes of the Nazis, and another three generations further away from the crimes of the Confederacy. Memories fade.

And this: Haider's minions are now a junior partner in Austria's legislature. The Southern Republicans control ours.

Boycott South Carolina, then? Not necessarily. Just be consistent.