On the Death of Joerg Haider

It’s not easy to be an American Jewish expat in Austria and if, like me, the gods that determine your fate put you in a small town, an additional layer of complication descends on your life abroad. Understanding Austrian politics is difficult if you happen to share color, religion, or basic values with your neighbors, but if you don’t, Austria becomes even more frustrating and inscrutable. I was reminded of this last night while reading of the death of Austria’s popular – and populist – Joerg Haider, a politician known for his remarks that sounded like Nazi sympathy, his willful stance against minority communities, and his good looks, among other things. Haider was drunk and going too fast on one of those windy alpine roads and now, he is no more.

If you want to know more about Haider and his influence, it’s easy to find those praising his career and hey, no surprises there, conspiracy theories pinning Haider’s car accident on the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. (Nice. Blame the Jews. No one has never done that before.) There are plenty of detractors too, those that acknowledge the tragedy of his death while still decrying his politics.

Haider’s star had faded somewhat, he was recently lifted from more local politics to promote his party – and was successful at doing so. During my time in Austria, he was in the news regularly and I struggled to process what it meant to have this anti-immigrant, anti-EU expansion, anti-Turkish and anti-Semitic leader rising in popularity. Haider himself never troubled me as much as those who made him popular, the anonymous residents of Austria who I might see in the supermarket or out skiing or on the way to Vienna for a bit of culture.

My questions about Haider were met with a dismissive “Dude, he’s crazy” kind of attitude, as though he wasn’t worthy of my brain cycles. I could never get there, finding the history of Austrian politics too personal to over look anti-minority attitudes. I used to make idle threats about how, when faced with rabid anti-auslander commentary, I planned to present myself at the desks of those politicians,and say, “I’m here for my deportation!” I realize the absurdity of it, but indulge me in a little dramatic anger. I wanted to go to campaign rallies waving a big sign saying “I’m an immigrant too!” Cooler heads prevailed. And now, I’m back in the US.

I wish I could say that Haider’s passing means the demise of Austria’s populist far right, but if it were just the mad rantings of one man, there would have been no party in the first place. The people who stood behind him will find someone else to carry their banner. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that no good will come from his loss.

From an Austrian blogger:

Joerg 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 Daily Photography of Andreas Manessinger

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