Dead and gone, but memories linger

Oct 162008

For all the scorn that media outlets and everyday Austrians have heaped upon nationalist Jörg Haider over the last two decades, the public mood this week has been surprisingly solemn.

Jörg Haider’s death while driving drunk Friday night triggered a wave of public emotion, most of it sadness. For all the scorn that media outlets and everyday Austrians have heaped upon the nationalist over the last two decades, the public mood this week has been solemn. The front pages of newspapers have been filled with pictures of makeshift shrines set up by his followers, above all in Klagenfurt, the capital of the Kärnten federal state in southern Austria, where Haider was governor.

On Tuesday afternoon, a bouquet and a couple of handwritten notes were fastened to the gate in the Dorotheergasse, near St. Stephan’s Cathedral, where Haider’s political party has its Vienna regional headquarters. I stood back several feet and snapped photos as a 50-year-old woman, head slightly bowed, affixed another bouquet to the gate. In the span of 10 minutes, three or four other men came by and rattled off series of photos with telephoto cameras. I guessed that some of them were photojournalists.

Two doors up the Dorotheergasse is Vienna’s Jewish Museum, which displays artifacts of what was arguably once the world’s most vibrant Jewish community. Hundreds of temples, banks, factories and shops were gutted in one night in November 1938. About one third of the city’s 185,000 Jews were starved or murdered by the Nazis; nearly all of the rest left Europe just before, during, or just after the war.

Haider never called for anything approaching Nazi-style pogroms, but several of his statements and actions as governor were alarming for a country still coming to grips with its role in Hitler’s Third Reich. Once in the early 1990s, Haider praised Hitler’s “orderly” employment policies. He didn’t single out any specific policies, but the comment was disturbing in light of the Nazis’ widespread use of forced labor.

Above all, Haider’s three-year-old BZÖ party and his former Freedom Party struggled to limit immigration. The two parties argue that excessive immigration, mainly from Turkey, other Islamic countries, the former Yugoslavia and generally poorer eastern European countries, is overburdening Austria’s generous welfare state and threatening its various European, secular and Judeo-Christian traditions.

The two parties won 29 percent of the vote in national elections just two weeks ago, a largest-ever share that alarmed many in the other 71 percent.

A woman passed behind me in the Dorotheergasse and wondered aloud at the makeshift shrine: “This is really unbelievable. It must be some kind of sick joke.”

One of Haider’s most controversial moves as governor was to suppress the use of Slovenian-language traffic and city-limits signs in southern Kärnten, where Slovenian-speakers are a sizeable minority. National law mandates such signs in bilingual areas; Austria’s eastern Burgenland province, for example employs numerous Hungarian- and Croatian-language signs.

Last week on a train from Klagenfurt to Vienna, I sat next to a young Austrian woman whose family is ethically Slovenian. Slovenian-speakers lived in the area alongside German-speakers long before Slovenia ever existed as a country, or even as part of Yugoslavia. Up until the end of World War I, it existed only as two provinces of the Habsburg empire. After the war, perhaps 50,000 or 100,000 were left on the Austrian side of the border, with 1 million or 1.5 million on the other side of the mountains, in Slovenia.

The Nazis purged Slovenian language and culture from the public sphere after taking over Austria in 1938, according to a chronology of Austrian anti-Nazi resistance groups from 1938 to 1945, which appeared on a banner set up by a Catholic youth group in front of Stephansdom on Tuesday. So Haider’s refusal to foster Slovenian as a native language may have looked a lot like a continuation of Hitler’s policies.

That made Alina furious. She couldn’t understand the extent of the public solemnity and mourning over Haider’s death.

In that, she echoed a statement by an ethnic Slovenian politician in Kärnten. The man, Jelincic, was quoted by the Austrian Press Agency as saying, essentially, “good riddance.” The leading daily newspaper in South Tirol, an autonomous, ethnically Austrian province of northern Italy, quoted a prominent German-speaking politician as admiring Haider generally, but disagreeing with him on Slovenian issues.