Jörg Haider: A Discussion of Rhetoric

TV-Konfrontation Van der Bellen (Die Grünen) - Jörg Haider (BZÖ), 04.09.2008
Jörg Haider: A Discussion of Rhetoric - Richard Wimmer


Jörg Raider's Freedom Party won 28.7 per cent of the vote at the last parliamentary election in Austria on October 3, 1999. The international press condemned the rise of the far right in Austria1 and repeated once again what has been said about Jörg Haider over the last ten years: that he is a right wing extrem­ist, that he leads a party which stirs xenophobic feelings in the population, and that he has not distanced himself from Austria's National Socialist past. He has been called a Nazi more than once when travelling abroad for press conferences. Dur­ing a visit to London after the election he was surprised by a large group of anti­ Nazi activists who yelled the slogan, "Nazi Out."

For those who have not followed the debate over Jörg Haider since 1986, when he took over as chairman of the Freedom Party in what some called a putsch, things are as simple as mentioned above. However, one discrepancy seems very conspicuous. The international analysis broadly speaking seems to be lagging behind the Austrian analysis of the phenomenon Jörg Haider.2 He has dominated Austrian politics for fourteen years and has been an inexhaustible source for the writings of political analysts.3 There is no doubt that the majority of the Austrian Haider-specialists argues in a less simplistic tone and does not think of him as a small reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.

One of the most interesting and often-mentioned aspects of the Haider phenomenon is his use of inflammatory rhetoric. It should be noted that Haider' s verbal outpourings and deliberations on, or rather misinterpretations of, history are so numerous that I can only quote some of the most polarizing and most commonly known. It must be noted that it is difficult to translate these phrases or words appropriately into English because Haider and other party officials, cov­ertly, maybe even unconsciously, resort to a type of Nazi rhetoric no longer used in today's "denazified" German language. Furthermore, Freedom Party politi­cians use what could be termed "coded" language. The language itself is not ex­plicitly anti-immigrationist, anti-feminist, or anti-intellectual but the message is clear to anyone who is receptive to those codes. It also must be mentioned that jour­nalists and commentators focus especially carefully on Haider's rhetoric. Words and phrases said by Haider arouse attention although politicians from other parties may have uttered the same phrases unnoticed before.

Anyone who has ever followed a discussion with Haider or other repre­sentatives of the Freedom Party will notice that it is very hard to approach their method of argumentation. First, they deny any charges against them. Second, they twist the argument by saying that their words were taken out of context, thereby accusing their opponents of unfair debating methods. Only if there is no way out do they use the apology argument: "Yes, this was said and it is not defen­sible. But in the stressful life of a twenty-four hour politician things might have been said over the last twenty years. We apologize. But do you keep records of what the others have said over the last twenty years?"

Most of the high-ranking politicians of the Freedom Party underwent pro­fessional media training, studying the guidelines of the so-called neo-linguistical school. Therefore it is difficult to win an argument against them unless you are armed with evidence or an attorney in a court of law. The following are a selection of some of Haider' s more controversial statements on a variety of topics.


When Jörg Haider was interviewed by the Austrian news magazine Profil, he spoke not of concentration camps or death camps during World War II but of "Straflager" which, literally translated, means disciplinary or punishment camps. Historians know that there were a variety of camps during World War II, and not all of them were used as extermination camps. However, from a post war per­spective none of these camps qualifies as something like a prison where convicts served a sentence delivered by a legitimate court of law. Once again it must be said that this was an attempt at reinterpreting history. Jörg Haider studied history and is a well-educated man; he knew perfectly well what he was saying. He implied that the millions of people who were imprisoned and eventually died in the concentration camps were criminals who deserved to be deported there.

Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill5

In a recent interview for a local Viennese newspaper, Haider equated Hit­ler, Stalin and Churchill as brutal mass murderers. Of course, in several other interviews he acknowledges that the Holocaust was the worst crime committed against humanity and that the Nazi regime bears responsibility for that. He would argue that the bombing of the civilian population of Dresden in 1945 was not necessary for the achievement of the defeat of Nazi Germany. But when equating Stalin and Churchill with Hitler he also wants to exculpate the Germans (and his family) by saying that others were equally bad.


"It's really a problem with black people. Even when they have a majority they don't get their act together. It's a hopeless case," Haider said during a televi­sion interview on March 1, 1995. This is one out of a series of racist remarks by a Freedom Party member regarding black people. During the last campaign for the general election, the local branch of the Freedom Party plastered the walls (with posters denouncing black immigrants in general as drug dealers who ruin Austria's children.


Intellectuality for Haider is almost a swear word. For him it describes the despicable leftovers of the "'68 generation." It is synonymous for moral and spiritual bankruptcy. He often describes (leftwing) intellectuals as" champagne glass Marxists."


In his" visionary" book, Die Freiheit, die ich meine." in which he contem­plates a progressive society, Haider tells the reader about the role of women he envisages in that society: "The feminist illusion of women's self-realization as pro­fessionals and mothers has proved to be a fatal error... The ideology which pro­fesses that only a professional woman is to be taken seriously has violated many women and has been at the same time very harmful to society as a whole because the job of a housewife is equally demanding." Haider' s proposed policies towards women are very conservative, to say the least. During the last election campaign, he promised to pay each mother a check worth $450 per child; this measure would supposedly allow women to stay at home with their children instead of working part-time. The reaction of women's rights movements and other parties was fierce because they feared that this would keep women out of the labor market altogether. Labor market reinsertion is very difficult for people who have not worked for along time. They argued that the money would be better invested in childcare institutions.

Based on a brief glance at his comments, the question arises of whether Haider is a Nazi. At first glance the answer might be obvious.9 He has not distanced himself credibly from the Nazi past. He has made disturbing revisionist remarks about the National Socialist past. He belittles Nazi crimes and speaks of the members of the Waffen-SS as decent folks. Therefore, he is a Nazi. In my opinion however, this explanation oversimplifies the situation and falls short of explaining his personality and his appeal to the masses.

Although Austria has not gone through the same intensive form of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, or addressing the issues of the past, as Germany has, it can safely be said that there is only a tiny number of Nazis left in Austria.

Now that Haider's party has become the second largest political force in the country, he has increasingly distanced himself from the National Socialist era. He knows that elections are won in the middle and that he would deter many voters if he professed an ideology that merely constitutes a program for a negligible minority.

There is no doubt that Jörg Raider's Freedom Party must be carefully analyzed today. Austria has suffered from international isolation ever since his party was able to form a government with the Conservatives in February 2000. The fourteen other members of the European Union reduced bilateral relations with Austria. The Belgian foreign minister Michel Louis said it was immoral to spend holidays in Austria as long as Haider's Freedom party is in government. Israel called back its ambassador from Austria. The U.S. government recalled its ambassador for special consultations.

There is no denying that Haider's ideology can be described as right-wing populism and that his party sometimes stands for xenophobic policies. But there is also a long way between xenophobia or anti-immigration policies and National Socialism. The question still remains: why has Jörg Haider become so popular in Austria? Basing an answer on a general condemnation of him and his party as "Nazi" does not provide an answer or even an intellectual discussion.


Richard Wimmer, Master of Law at the University of Vienna, 1997, is a student in international relations at The Johns Hopkins University-SAIS Bologna Center.