- Becoming Normal the Austrian Way
In March 1999, Carinthia, a small and insignificant province in southern Austria held elections to its regional parliament. Nobody would have expected that this event could attract anyone’s interest outside of Austria. But the outcome amounted to a landslide victory of more than 40 percent for the rightist Freedom Party (FPÖ) and was extensively covered abroad. The implications of this stunning result went far beyond the borders of the small alpine republic: The election results were seen as representative of a more general assault by populist and xenophobic movements, similar to the FPÖ, on stability and even democracy throughout Europe.
In 1986, Jörg Haider, current governor of Carinthia, became head of the FPÖ when it was still a marginal party. Since then, the Freedom Party has enjoyed success in regional and national elections. Today, the FPÖ has managed to attract as much as 30 percent of Austrian support in nationwide polls. The coalition government of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Conservatives (ÖVP) [End Page 267] in Vienna, however, has always ruled out the possibility of sharing power with Haider. It remains to be seen whether the recent Carinthian elections will undermine this pledge in the near future.
The success of a right-wing party in Austria is troubling. After all, Adolf Hitler was of Austrian origin and the country’s enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis after its annexation by Germany in 1938 has not been forgotten. Is Austria today on the brink of flirting yet again with its infamous past?
Written well before the elections in Carinthia, Anton Pelinka’s Out of the Shadow of the Past suggests a different story. Pelinka, a respected and well-known professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck whose political roots can be traced back to the liberal and cosmopolitan elements of Austrian Social Democracy, has no reason to be kind to the Freedomites or their charismatic leader, Haider. But Pelinka undertakes the difficult task of explaining to an outside, mainly Anglo-Saxon, world, why and how his country today functions the way it does.
For Pelinka, the success of the FPÖ is part of a huge transformation process that Austria has been experiencing since the end of the Cold War. Surprisingly, Pelinka argues that Austria, after joining the European Union (EU) in 1995, is now on its way to finally becoming a “normal” European liberal democracy like Britain or France. Both countries have long democratic traditions of regularly changing governments with opposition forces always ready to take over power. Austria’s institutional setup, however, is somewhat atypical.
Pelinka is well aware of the common perceptions that political analysts hold when they care to consider modern Austria. All of these impressions have to do with the country’s quite peculiar past. There are those who have been to Vienna and loved its rich culture and its coffee houses, which, of course, remind them of the former European power that ruled over most of Central Europe for so many centuries. Others tend to emphasize Austria’s complex relationship to Germany, which indeed goes far beyond the years of the “Anschluß”(annexation) from 1938 to 1945. Many Austrians, even during the time of Habsburg rule, felt part of the German nation and were not able or willing to develop an identity of their own. When the outcome of the First World War left the German-speaking part of the monarchy within the confines of a small and weak republic, the majority of the roughly 8 million Austrians did not identify themselves with the newborn state. They wished to become part of Germany long before the Nazis came to power there in 1933. Nontheless, it is fair to say that despite its weakness and lack [End Page 268] of appeal, Austria as a state resisted the Nazi threat for quite a while. When German troops occupied Austria in March 1938, however, the overall population behaved badly. An enthusiastic welcome for Hitler by the masses was one thing. The merciless persecution of...