The uproar surrounding the entrance of Jörg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party into Austria's coalition government illustrates how a discredited past can prove an erroneous guide to present political behavior. In Haider's case, the politics of guilt -- portraying his popularity as the result of his appeal to neo-Nazi sentiments -- obscures the real reasons for his rise. Whatever Haider's supporters may feel about his much-publicized 1991 comment praising Third Reich labor policies -- which he subsequently disavowed and apologized for -- and however crude his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Haider owes much of his success to the widespread disillusionment with the Austrian political establishment. Austria's two major parties, the Socialists and the People's Party, ruled in a "grand coalition" from 1945 to 1966 and again from 1986 to 1999, shamelessly dividing the spoils of jobs and contracts in a still heavily state-dominated economy.

Imagine if U.S. Democrats and Republicans decided to share power -- with one party's leader as president, the other's as vice president, and a completely mixed cabinet -- and then resisted all demands for reform. In such a scenario, a resentment-fueled third-party challenger, a self-described reformer, might shoot up in the polls. This is precisely what happened in Austria.

The European Union has failed to acknowledge that Haider skillfully plays on legitimate discontent, along with xenophobia. This has allowed the EU's 14 other governments to claim the moral high ground as they cut off high-level contacts with Austria. Austria's neighbors have remained unrelenting, even after Haider resigned as the leader of his party. They object to the Freedom Party's participation in the Austrian government, regardless of Haider's title (he remains governor of Carinthia). The EU's rationale is that it must send a clear signal to far-right parties that they have no place in member governments. But even if one accepts this logic, the organization's actions remain highly problematic. There is no indication that the EU has considered what will happen if it fails to achieve the all-or-nothing goal of bringing down the current Austrian government. And it seems far from ready to concede that it has caricatured the real origins of Austria's political crisis.

This reckless oversimplification is a common feature of today's politics of guilt. In the current debates about what obligations the past imposes on the present, speakers have a tendency to distinguish only between "good guys" who use reassuringly familiar terms about the need for atonement and "bad guys" who raise troubling questions. Recent "bad guy" candidates have included German novelist Martin Walser and Berlin's Mayor Eberhard Diepgen. In 1998, Walser sparked a furious debate by questioning "the ritualized way" in which Germans speak about their past, denouncing the use of the Holocaust as "a moral cudgel" in political discussions, and calling the planned Berlin Holocaust memorial a "football field-sized nightmare." Diepgen, usually a bland politician, suddenly found himself cast in the same light as Walser when he refused to attend last January's ceremony dedicating the Holocaust memorial site. Before any rush to judgment of either man, it should be noted that the proposed memorial is hardly universally popular. Consisting of 2,000 stone pillars on a five-acre site near the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial would be an immense, impersonal monument, in the eyes of critics.

That Germans like Walser and Diepgen are willing to speak their minds on such sensitive subjects without fear of being branded antisemites is a new and healthy development. Walser's warning against trivializing the Holocaust proved apt during the war in Kosovo. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer justified his government's willingness to send German planes into combat for the first time since World War II with the slogan "Never again Auschwitz." It was as if nothing short of a new Holocaust would justify Germany's military action.


In societies emerging from totalitarian regimes, the instinct to either condemn or absolve is perfectly natural but never easy to manage. For example, Czechoslovakia's method of purging the country by exposing those who had collaborated with the Communist secret police was marred by excess. When carried out in Prague and elsewhere in central Europe, it has achieved uneven results, even serious miscarriages of justice. But this is hardly surprising, since the governments relied on old secret-police files to identify informers -- effectively extending the power of the old regime into the new system. The targets of secret police surveillance were, of course, dissidents -- who had the thickest files and were often blackmailed. Communist Party functionaries were not given this kind of attention, nor were those citizens who never risked anything. And although very few Communist officials were ever brought to trial, many of those who battled them were suddenly forced to resign from politics.

The alternative -- to ignore the often dubious evidence in the files, as Poland initially tried to do -- proved equally unsatisfying. Sooner or later, the secrets in the files seep out, often through deliberate leaks aimed at destroying political opponents. Now Poland has belatedly launched its own process of exposing its past.

The task of assigning guilt or innocence should, in theory, be easier when it comes to the Third Reich and World War II. But beyond those Nazi leaders convicted at Nuremberg or in subsequent war tribunals, how far does guilt extend? Most people, for example, would distinguish between a Nazi officer in a concentration camp and a shopkeeper who displayed moral cowardice by pretending not to see what was happening.

Finally, if measuring guilt is a difficult exercise within the heart of the Third Reich, it is all the more complicated elsewhere. Many countries promoted the myth of collective innocence. Postwar France, for instance, loved the myth of the Resistance, implying that almost everyone fought the Germans -- until the powerful 1971 film The Sorrow and the Pity began exposing widespread collaboration. Switzerland has found its neutral reputation tarred by recent revelations about its banks and its handling of Jewish refugees.

There are no easy rules for passing judgment, but there are obvious pitfalls to avoid. The crucial distinction between perpetrators and collaborators should not be forgotten. In the occupied countries and in Switzerland, there were plenty of shameful actions that should be condemned. But a degree of caution -- and humility -- should be employed when castigating people whose main sins were ones of omission. After all, even the United States does not have an unblemished record. In an era when antisemitism was a common feature of American life, Washington routinely tried to prevent Jewish refugees from entering the country and dismissed much of the information coming from Europe about the Holocaust.

On the other hand, we pay a heavy price for failing to examine the past and establish the truth. The fact that many Russians still resist the truth about the gulag -- Stalin's labor camps and prisons -- has allowed a largely unrepentant Communist Party to dominate successive legislatures. The same process is visible in Austria. That country's failure to face its past is one reason why a populist like Haider gets away with open xenophobia. Austria's search for truth must begin with its admission that Austrians were perpetrators of war crimes, not occasional Nazi collaborators. They must break from the decades-old myth that they were Hitler's "first victims."


What's next for Austria? The EU, along with the Austrian Socialists, hopes that pressure will lead the current government, led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel of the People's Party, to collapse. Encouragingly, there appears to be very little domestic popular backlash against the foreign criticism, unlike during the uproar over Kurt Waldheim's presidential election in 1986. In fact, a poll conducted in March 2000 showed that 76 percent of Austrians support continued membership in the EU -- 11 percent higher than when the country first voted to join in 1994. Support for the Freedom Party, which garnered 27 percent of the vote in the last election, remains about the same as before the sanctions. The new government team is singularly unimpressive and could easily implode -- not just because of outside pressure but because of internal disagreements over such matters as taxes and budget-cutting. If the regime falls, some form of grand coalition -- most likely with the Greens as a new member -- could take over. But that will not guarantee long-term success. Unless Austria addresses the issues that fueled the Freedom Party's rise in the first place, a new grand coalition would provide more ammunition for the far right -- particularly those who manipulate the public's fear of losing national sovereignty to the EU.

The EU should also realize that Austria's current government may defy the odds and survive by skillfully managing the problems of a troubled but nonetheless strong economy. In that case, the EU should set the bar high for a resumption of normal relations by making two

demands. First, the Freedom Party should announce explicitly that Haider's apologies for his Third Reich statements and xenophobic rhetoric have been less than convincing, and that he no longer represents the party's thinking; this is something it has not yet come close to doing. Second, Chancellor Schüssel must admit that he should have insisted on such a statement from the party before he invited it into his government, even if that meant removing Haider as party leader. The joint statement Schüssel issued with Haider was a classic case of too little, too late.

For the all-or-nothing advocates in the EU, the greatest danger in making such demands is their being accepted, which would end the crusade short of total victory. But if the EU is honest, it will acknowledge that Austria's crisis is not as simple as has been portrayed. Furthermore, the EU should reconcile its own scattershot record on dealing with other countries' pasts. The French government includes ministers from a Communist Party with a long Stalinist tradition that it has only halfheartedly renounced. In Italy, the far-right National Alliance joined the government for several months in 1994, yet EU governments made no move to downgrade ties with Rome. Inconsistencies rarely paralyze politicians. But a greater respect for history means inculcating sensitivity to its complexities, particularly when history impinges so clearly on the present. It also means recognizing that the instinct to oversimplify can lead to policies that contain the seeds of their own destruction.

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  • Andrew Nagorski, Senior Editor at Newsweek International, was Newsweek's Berlin Bureau Chief from 1996 to 1999.
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