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Aug 2003 Journal

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Watch on the Rhine - and the Danube (editorial)

For months now, stretching into years, the Middle East has so monopolised world interest that little attention has been paid to other parts of the globe. Even we, who have every reason to follow events in the European heartland closely, have only kept a fitful watch on the Rhine and the Danube.

Not that German-Austrian action - or, more precisely, inaction - has not had a (marginal) effect on the situation in Iraq. Schröder's election-winning pacifism must have been a comfort to Saddam, even if - so rumour has it - he delegated one of his many look-alikes to receive the soi-disant Austrian pacifist Jörg Haider.

What one finds so puzzling about this eruption of pan-German pacifism is that it has not lessened the regard in which Hindenburg is held. When the Berlin Senate recently discussed a proposal to rescind the Freedom of the City awarded to the Reichspräsident during the Weimar years, the motion was lost. Hindenburg, let us remember, was, jointly with Ludendorff, 'supreme war lord' in 1916-18 when, sidelining the compromise-minded Reichstag entirely, the High Command waged a gruesome guerre à outrance. Even ignoring Hindenburg's supine role during the death agonies of Weimar, how can the capital of a country awash with pacifist sentiment wish to honour a militarist - and an (ultimately) unsuccessful one at that?

Something equally disturbing has occurred at the lower level of the municipal administration. The 'borough council' of the Berlin middle-class district of Steglitz has refused to rename the Heinrich von Treitschke Strasse (Treitschke, a nineteenth-century historian, notoriously stated 'Die Juden sind unser Unglück' - the Jews are our misfortune). During the council debate a spokesman for the majority argued that since Heinz Galinski, postwar leader of Berlin's Jewish community, drove through Heinrich von Treitschke Strasse daily en route to his office without demur, the name should remain!

A more worrying straw in the wind is that Nobel Prize-winner Günter Grass seems disposed towards joining nationalist historians like Jörg Friedrich, who are engaged in a 'relativisation of evil' summed up in the formula 'Dresden equals Auschwitz'. Possibly swayed by the bestseller status of Friedrich's work depicting Allied air raids on German cities, Grass has made the Russian drowning of German civilian evacuees in the icy waters of the Baltic a central episode in his new novel Im Krebsgang (Crab Walk - see review on page 10 of this issue).

But there is one bright light among the encircling gloom: the demise of FDP demagogue and fraud suspect Jürgen Möllemann, who put German-Jewish relations under severe strain during the last Federal elections.

Möllemann's Austrian counterpart is, of course, Jörg Haider. Though Haider, the owner of a Nazi-expropriated country estate in Carinthia, does not have to resort to fraud, he performs similar high-wire stunts. His (aforementioned) eve-of-war visit to Saddam and other maverick actions have diminished his electoral appeal - in spite of which he remains an essential, if semi-detached, member of Austria's governing coalition. The coalition's leader, Chancellor Schüssel, it almost goes without saying, sided with Chancellor Schröder - and not with President Havel or the leaders of Hungary or Poland - in the Europe-wide split over Iraq.

As a participant in the governing coalition, Haider is in a position to obstruct Schüssel's proposed pensions reform. The ongoing pensions crisis threatens the country's financial stability - but, coincidentally, provides the government with a reason for cutting off state subsidies to the cash-strapped Jewish community. The 6,700-strong Israelitische Kultusgemeinde has already had to shed a third of its 100 employees. A point of contention between it and the government concerns the huge cost of security. The community is loath to entrust its security to the Austrian police - and the state wants it to dispense with the services of veteran Mossad operatives.

While these arguments rumble on, time - as well as cash - is rapidly running out and, even before the next edition of AJR Journal drops on your doormats, the Viennese Jewish community - once the richest and one of the most prestigious in Europe - may have ceased its corporate existence. Hitler, who dubbed Vienna a 'mongrel city' because of its Jews and Slavs, will be laughing in hell - and Haider won't exactly be weeping into his beer either.

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