Common wisdom has it that Germany has come to terms with its Nazi past, while Austria is still in a state of denial. That debate continues, but the result of Sunday’s presidential elections in Austria show that the appeal of far-right politics is definitely fading in the Alpine state. Heinz Fischer, the incumbent Social Democrat, was re-elected by 79 per cent, while Barbara Rozenkranz, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, gained 16 per cent.
The result is a bitter blow for the Freedom Party, which had high hopes for its candidate, popularly known as “Grandma Rozenkranza”. The grey-haired 51 year old is a proud housewife and mother of 10 children, many of whom have ancient Germanic names such as Hedda (battle) and Mechthild (power). She seemed a natural choice to attract the almost one in three voters who voted for the two far-right parties in 2008 parliamentary elections.
But what Austrians like, it seems, even more than an impressive fecundity, is “Gemütlichkeit”, which means a kind of warm, cosy friendliness, on which the southern Germanic lands pride themselves. Frau Rozenkranz, it is fair to say, was not very Gemütlichkeit.
Quite the opposite, in fact, especially when it came to dealing with the darkest episode in Austrian history. Grandma Rozenkranza proved at best, extremely insensitive and certainly out of her depth when discussing the Nazi era. She said that the law banning denial of the Holocaust – an untouchable of Austrian politics – was unconstitutional. A public furore erupted and she later changed position and also said that she condemned the Nazi atrocities. Still, doubts lingered.
“This is a constant problem for right-wing populists. They say something then they have to backtrack under public pressure,” says Gregor Mayer, an Austrian writer, and author of Aufmarsch (March past), a new study of the far right in Eastern Europe. “But that is a good thing because Austrian society has matured a lot in the last 20 years. The new generation is much more informed and much more vocal about what is acceptable.”
Having already endured one former Nazi as head of state, Kurt Waldheim, who served in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War and as president in the late 1980s, the prospect of another president with questionable views, acting as a lightning rod for international opprobrium was too much to take.
Still, even his most ardent fans admit Heinz Fischer, 71, is a rather bland, if not sleepy figure. He is a professional politician thoroughly rooted in Austria’s two party system, with its numerous checks, balances and compromises. Arguably, it is that two party stitch-up that fuels the righteous anger of those excluded from the patronage system, and brings votes to the Freedom Party. But for now at least, once again, Gemütlichkeit has triumphed, and that is how they like it in Austria.