BERLIN — A new poll underlines fears in Germany and elsewhere that the success of Joerg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party in Austria, coupled with the financial scandal eviscerating the center-right Christian Democrats, has opened German politics up for a potential right-wing surge. (Haider resigned as head of the party on Feb. 28, but told Forbes magazine he still plans to run for chancellor.)
Nearly a third of those recently polled by the weekly Die Woche said they would “definitely or possibly” vote for a German party like Haider’s. The number for those living in the former East Germany was a staggering 44 percent.
“We can’t let Haider become a German problem,” Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democratic Party told the intellectual weekly Die Zeit. “Our European partners are watching the German reaction to Haider very carefully … At the Holocaust conference in Stockholm, representatives of Jewish organizations and Israel, including Prime Minister Barak, were highly concerned that the Austrian right-wing populism could spill over into Germany.”
Haider’s new visibility comes as the Christian Democrats continue to implode over a scandal that began with revelations that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl accepted $1 million in illegal donations to help his party stay in power. Last November, Kohl’s party was coasting along in the polls with 45 percent of the public behind it; by January its support had plummeted.
As the head of the center-left Social Democrats, Schröder of course has an interest in getting people worried about mounting support for the far-right. It’s also true that despite the persistence of a neo-Nazi fringe, most Germans are acutely and guiltily conscious of the legacy of World War II. Still, Haider’s message has clearly found a larger audience in Germany since his Freedom Party became part of a new Austrian coalition government on Feb. 4.
Haider has shown a canny ability to stir up sentiment not just in Austria, but also in Germany. On a German talk show in early February, he said that the Sudeten Germans that were expelled from Czechoslovakia after WWII should receive compensation from the Czech Republic, and even hinted the Czechs shouldn’t be allowed to join the European Union without a compensation deal. Most controversially, he added that the expelled Germans were just as entitled to compensation as Holocaust survivors.
While the Czechs’ expulsion of the German-speaking population was undeniably brutal, the subject has been taboo for most German politicians. An estimated 1.5 million of the roughly four million surviving Sudeten Germans live in Bavaria, where right-wing Premier Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union — a sister party to the Christian Democrats — has often given speeches on their behalf. Sudeten Germans are reportedly planning to file lawsuits against European banks and insurance companies for compensation, spurred by the example of WWII-era Jewish slave laborers who have successfully sought compensation.
Stoiber sharply criticized Schröder and the Social Democrats for joining with the rest of the European Union in isolating Austria diplomatically for including Haider’s party in the government. “We have insulted the people of Austria,” Stoiber said.
“Stoiber’s policy towards the new Austrian government is beyond belief,” retorted Schröder in a Die Zeit interview. “If we followed it, Germany would be isolated internationally. Our history is still very present.”
Traditionally conservative Bavaria is not the only part of Germany where politicians have employed Haider-esque tactics. Last year the Hesse state branch of the Christian Democrats — which has also become embroiled in a financial scandal after the state’s premier admitted the party had secret Swiss bank accounts — itself flirted with anti-foreigner “right-wing populism.” It launched a signature-gathering campaign against the Schröder government plan to give more foreigners German citizenship.
The extreme right-wing Republicans in Germany have gone so far as to start a “Solidarity with Austria” campaign. Party leader Rolf Schlierer is urging Germans to vacation in Haider’s home province of Carinthia, where he is governor, instead of Spain. The Republicans claim they’ve had a boost in the number of new members since the Kohl scandal began.
Extreme right-wing parties still represent only a tiny percentage of voters. But they seem certain to grow more visible as the symbolic power of Berlin draws right-wing fringe elements. The National Democratic Party recently staged a protest of the yet-unbuilt Holocaust Memorial. Members marched under the famous Brandenburg Gate, and at least a dozen were arrested for singing SS songs and giving Hiter salutes, which are illegal in Germany. The National Party, which moved its headquarters from Stuttgart to East Berlin this month, are neo-Nazis, but are legal because they restrain themselves from waving swastikas and barking anti-Semitic slogans in public, both also forbidden under German law.
Other Germans are listening to what Haider has to say without necessarily wanting to join a right-wing party. The Die Woche poll gauged German support for Haider’s positions by presenting his ideas in detail, and found that 55 percent completely agree or largely agree with the statement: “German soldiers in the Second World War were victims rather than perpetrators.” Forty percent completely agree or largely agree with the statement: “Most asylum-seekers just want to bring their families into Germany and live on the costs of hard-working and diligent Germans.” Nearly half said they agreed that “(a)ll immigrants that come to Germany should be required to take an AIDS test,” and 21 percent said they agreed that “former members of the SS continued to stick to their convictions after the war was a sign of strong character.”
Wolf Wagner, author of “Culture Shock Germany” and a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt, described the new poll numbers as “very high,” but still thinks that despite the financial scandal, the Christian Democrats and its sister party in Bavaria will continue to provide an outlet for extreme views, thus preventing the rise of fringe parties.
“You have to differentiate between voting behavior and attitudes,” said Wagner. “Social scientists agree that we have around 20 percent of the population in Germany that has right-wing, racist, anti-democratic, ethnocentric, anti-Semitic attitudes. But our party system is constructed in such a way that the Christian Democrats together with the Christian Social Union together cover the whole ground from middle-liberal positions to very right-wing positions. Therefore people with extremist attitudes do not need to vote for an extremist party. In Austria, you had this permanent grand coalition, and in a grand coalition the Social Democratic positions and right-wing positions are intermarried and have to go into compromises. They cannot represent the right-wing attitudes.”
Nonetheless, many ordinary Germans remain worried about Haider’s influence. “The problem is that Germany and Austria are young democracies,” said Rolf Tramp, a Berlin bookseller. “The mass of people isn’t especially prone to democracy.”