Recently, Austria almost beat France for the doubtful honor of being the first European country since World War II to elect a far-right president. A last-minute postal ballot count saved the day.
For decades France’s National Front was in the spotlight, while Austria continued in the shadows where it had spent the Cold War years. The only time it made the news was when Kurt Waldheim, a former UN Secretary general, was accused of condoning Nazi war crimes, before becoming the country’s president. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the former Eastern European Soviet satellites become part of Europe for what was really the first time since Charlemagne, Austria was a sort of no-man’s land between East and West: a small, neutral country in Europe’s heart of stone. Although it became part of the Third Reich under the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler, it has always refused to examine its role in the Holocaust, to pay compensation to Nazi victims, or investigate senior Nazis.
Perhaps its Alpine location in the heart of the European peninsula played a part in all of this. The seat of the Habsburg monarchy that held sway in Europe from 1291, in 1918 Austria became a small enclave surrounded on all sides by larger geo-political entities. At one time or another, almost every country in Europe had come under its rule, but its subjects were often restless. The mid-nineteenth century saw the birth of European nationalism, called the Spring of Peoples, as Austrians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Ukrainians/Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs and Italians, struggled in vain to become independent. (Italy was unified in 1870, followed by the German states, including Austria, in 1871.) World War I erupted in 1914 when the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated by a member of a Serbian secret society trying to unify Europe’s southern Slavs (something briefly achieved with the creation of Yugoslavia that lasted until the US sponsored a revolt in the province of Kosovo). With hindsight, it’s easy to see a European zeitgeist that survives to this day: nationalism versus cooperation.
World War II brought the United States to the rescue of the old continent for the second time in a generation, this time, with the decisive help of the Soviet Union. Reporting on the war, the American press emphasized the suffering of the Soviet people, while ignoring or downplaying Soviet military achievements. To support its war interests without being overextended militarily, the US created the Lend Lease Program that transferred arms and other defense materials without charge to Britain, China, the Soviet Union and other countries fighting on its side.
Linked to the participation of hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground and in the air, Lend Lease permitted the United States to sustain the impression that it was the main force in play against Nazi Germany. Americans were taught that without American intervention, Hitler would have won the war. And once President Truman set the Cold War in motion, the 26 million Soviet dead were never revealed to the American people.
Riding high on a carefully constructed fairytale, postwar America oversaw the future of the old continent down to its smallest details, while portraying its former ally, now literally on its knees, as increasingly threatening. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intended as much as a warning to the Soviet Union as it was to force Japan’s unconditional surrender. In reality, the war had been a temporary detour against Hitler’s excesses on behalf of capitalism from a much more fundamental campaign against communism, that encompassed any ideology to the left of center. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘witch hunt’ against ‘reds’ and even ‘pinkos’, took many lives, and set the United States on a path it has still not abandoned: that which replaces the notion of solidarity, anchored in every religion, with the condemnation of ‘handouts’ to people too lazy to work.
This notion was at the root of US policy toward post World War II Europe, based on close supervision of Christian Democratic parties. (Referring to Eurocommunism, an attempt by Western European Communist parties, led by Italy, to create ‘Socialism with a human face’, the PS to a memo that landed on my desk in the Carter State Department read: “To think we used to run this place…”
Still, nothing could dampen Europe’s determination to end for all time war on the continent through cooperation. Step by step starting in the fifties, the European Union came into being in 1993. Alas, along the way, those campaigning for a true federal state were defeated: the introduction of the Euro in 1999 sealed the economic fate of a Union that had a weighty bureaucracy but no political arm. Only a dozen years later, a combination of austerity imposed by the Wall Street controlled World Bank and IMF, combined with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and Africa, threatens to tear the entire edifice apart. though it may appear to be bad luck, it is part of a plan to achieve ‘globalization’: the supremacy of business over governments that would replace the struggle between cooperation and nationalism with a global dictatorship.