TransAct 54

TransAct statement

Coming to terms with the past

When asked how he could work with former members of the Waffen-SS, former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky is said to have replied by asking whether it was not an historical success that such murderers cooperated with him peacefully. Peter and also Waldheim belong to that shamed, forgetful generation. Haider is paying back those who made life difficult for them, who caused and at the same time prevented their forgetfulness. There is a difference whether a murderer, or someone who was involved in a murderous operation, defends himself or whether his children defend him.

The latter does not appear as an insult to honour, on the contrary, it seems to be too cheap to sacrifice one's family at the altar of public opinion, which is known to be inconsistent. What one does for one's parents, one also does for oneself. Much therefore depends on how one deals with problems that have been inherited from the parents. Haider uses the tactic of turning everything into its opposite. He reacts to the shaming of the parents with barefaced affront. His reaction to accusations and problems is to make problems for the accusers and he reacts to taboos by breaking them. In doing so he can start from the assumption that, in a society in which everything should in principle be open to discussion, taboos give the impression of hypocrisy, of prescribed opinion and of concealment. In contrast, the breaking of taboos, whatever they may be, has something refreshingly honest about it. In doing so, it is part of Haider's sporting outfit that he goes a little too far, further than he can publicly defend and when things get too hot, he makes a quick U-turn and was never in that place where his critics had seen him. He was misinterpreted.

A friend in Vienna recently told me that she often talks with a colleague who comes from the same family as a member of the government. Just like the Haiders, the parents were Nazis, and this has been kept a family secret in the same way as one protects a treasure. The children grew up living a double life, they could not appear as they were. They thought that a powerful enemy, supported by hypocritical opportunists, had made them into outlaws and therefore into a secret society. This story reminded my friend of her own history. Luckily escaping death in a concentration camp, her parents impressed upon her not to make herself noticed as a Jew but for God's sake also not to be part of those with whom she went to school. Such Jews were lost in a different way to the Nazis, tortured by the accusation of living with their killers while no-one could have any doubt that the Nazis had their place here.

Perhaps this close relationship to illegality makes it understandable what a triumph it must have been for Haider to appoint his own lawyer as Minister of Justice, to appear in front of the cameras with him and to drivel about treason trials against the Austrian President and leading opposition politicians. The referendum project, which had to be called off because of irrelevance, was intended to separate the wheat from the chaff once and for all, the betrayers of the fatherland from the Austrian patriots. At last, the others should face the kind of problems that they had caused for his own kind for so long.

If the coming to power was just a play which finally gave meaning to the strange concept of "coming to terms with the past", it could be read as harmless. Words such as treason were already hopelessly outmoded before the EU. Haider's breaking of taboos could be seen as touching slip-ups caused by an overwhelming tendency towards truthfulness but which were only relevant in the context of his family history. In this connection, the EU sanctions can best be understood as a voluntary contribution towards Austria's most popular sport, i.e. joining in a choir of complaint in the consciousness that one has been wronged. The other Member States have long seen through the fact that skiing is only a passion which has been put forward as a pretext to promote tourism, while the real mass sport of the Austrians consists of self-congratulation as innocent victims. The decision to give us a prescription for torment which in reality does not hurt was precisely matched to this masochistic desire.

Lawsuit and scandal – this way of reading the situation of course plays down the circumstances, especially when it separates the relationship to the past from the relationship to the future. The explosive nature of this lies in the mixture of perspectives. The way of dealing with the past contains a good example of something which promises political success in a wider area and which has already become established. The technique of turning everything into its opposite is well suited to contemporary politics. In this connection, the tactics which the FPÖ uses against its opponents are especially life threatening for a liberal democracy. Two methods are especially noticeable, the lawsuit and the scandal. It is a novelty in Austrian politics that the attempt is being made to use the courts on a grand scale and that campaigns have been carried out to which individual citizens fall victim.

The lawsuit – Above all, Haider tries to use the courts to silence his critics. To this purpose, he has set off an unprecedented avalanche of lawsuits. Whoever must reckon with high legal fees and payments for damages thinks twice whether or not silence is golden. Judges have some play in weighing up questions of defamation and the right to free speech. They are certainly independent in their judgements but the Minister of Justice is still their superior. How should one prevent that under some pretext one is not promoted or is transferred? It remains to be seen how many judges give in to the invitation to obedience in advance, but even if it is only a few, the FPÖ can reckon with them sending a great signal. It is to be hoped that the scandalous verdict against Pelinka will not set a precedent. If the practice of illiberal judicial decision-making is once successfully established, the price of opposition will be prohibitive. If the law bows before power, democracy goes down the pan.

The scandal – In this process, individuals are chosen who, through naming names, are made the object of a mass of accusations. The criticism can be sweeping but details of the concrete case are important to create the impression of being fully informed. If the attacked person manages to defend himself effectively in the media – which is difficult for an individual – no part of the attack is retracted, but moves directly on to an attack on the next person. It is important that one scandal should follow another. This has the advantage that the initiative is always on the side of the scandalmongers and subtly differentiated statements become boring. The fight against objectionable people in positions of state – these can be in schools or in the ORF, the national broadcasting corporation – seems especially promising and important. Here, with the help of the newly shuffled proportion of seats in parliament, they try to use the lever of power to heave their opponents from their posts. Even if this does not work, the unpleasant procedure still has the effect of putting the frights on others. In the processes of both suing and scandal mongering particular attention is paid to social targeting. "Targeting" means that they do not waste energy but concentrate on one opponent at a time and "social" means that a ripple effect should spread out from the damage done to one individual. Each case should set an example and act as a deterrent for others. The image of people being forced into line looms on the horizon of these strategies.

The concept of democracy – Many people will shake their heads and find this warning about the threat to liberal democracy ridiculous. What did we have before? Was it not paralysis and was politics not essentially a lot of talk without saying anything and politicians being re-elected in spite of this?

In answer to this, the government wears out the opposition with proposals, creating the impression that the only law by which they abide is the law of action and that consultation is forbidden in order to carry it out. It is not the abolition of democracy which we should fear, but rather that many Austrians (and not only them) will be inspired by a deficient democratic ideal in which democracy simply means that the will of the majority is put into practice. This is also the positive understanding of populism of which Haider is so proud. His talent consists of finding shifting majorities. The hard-working Austrians against the lazy ones, the tax-payers fight against subsidies for artists who supposedly insult them, the foreigners who are already here should retain the upper hand against those who wish to immigrate, jobs for Austrians have priority over jobs for foreigners.

When a majority decides something, the minority must believe in it. That is the law of a democracy which frightens me. Nothing is worse than a democracy which knows no protection for minorities, which allows individuals or groups to be fair game for majorities. I recently found myself in a waiting room at Vienna General Hospital overhearing an uninhibited conversation amongst a small group of well-groomed women, perhaps from the same family, who apparently wanted to visit a relative. They were talking about a young man who appeared to be very lost and weak and who, it is to be hoped, could not hear them. They knew, of course, that he was a drug addict and added in an amicable tone that his life was worth nothing anymore, not even for him, and that they had to pay taxes in order to keep him alive. Wouldn't a "little gas chamber" be the right thing for him? If such a concept of democracy is paired with a tendency towards radical problem solving, who will end up where?

The "one of us feeling" cannot get enough of polarisation. It feeds on opposites without "us" giving up being the majority. Declarations of a boycott towards Austria by scientists and intellectuals are an especially tasty morsel for the gluttonous "We". One can imagine the reaction: "We've already had them for dinner, they're just what we needed!" In fact – these people should not put the Austrians through having to mix only with Austrians and they should not put themselves through missing a visit to beautiful, hospitable Austria.

Martin Löw-Beer,
Co-publisher of the magazine "Babylon" Frankfurt on the Main

Frankfurt on the Main, October 2K