March 6, 2000
Volume 52, No. 24
A comparative view of Europe
by Jonathan Lewis, Ph.D. candidate in history.
Observers of the recent elections in Austria are having a difficult time categorizing Joreg Haider and his Freedom Party. Some call him a Nazi, others an opportunist. Others probably mildly admire this enfant terrible.
Make no mistake about it: Haider is an unpalatable xenophobe, but a Nazi he is not. After all, he favors free-market reforms and is not interested in setting up a totalitarian state, let alone launching an aggressive war.
The supposed certainties of the Cold War era have now been swept away, rendering all but meaningless the distinctions between "left" and "right." One may argue that the world lives in the era of postcommunism, although it is naïve to assume that Marxism is dead and gone.
New political alignments and movements are afoot. Some, like Austria's Freedom Party, seek to expand the flow of capital but restrict the flow of immigrants. Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, recently formed an alliance between his Unity Party and the Communists. Policymak-ers who came of age intellectually during the Cold War are confounded by the ex-KGB operative and uncertain as to what he stands for.
I have always been interested in politics and history. I'll admit it: I used to love looking at maps as a child and read a good deal of history on my own. In college, I took as many classes on political thought as possible. One of the greatest gifts I have acquired while a graduate student in the history department here at Emory has been the ability to analyze political movements from a comparative perspective. Calling Haider a Nazi and Putin a Communist does little to shed light on the dynamics that allowed for their ascent to power.
At a time when many consider the only important form of analysis to be financial analysis, I have chosen to dedicate much of my graduate studies to developing skills in political analysis and have been lucky enough to have had professors who encouraged me in this direction. As a student of modern European history, I had to choose a subfield for my doctoral examinations. Rather than concentrating on an individual country such as France or Germany, I decided to focus my attention on comparative analysis of pan-European political movements in the 20th century.
Studying for exams allowed me to find similarities and differences among movements of all hues of the political rainbow. My doctoral dissertation, "French Intellectual Politics and the Southern European Left, 1968-1982," which is being advised by Walter Adamson, will give me the opportunity to examine the French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Communist parties in a comparative perspective.
What I am learning is that many of the questions asked by French intellectuals regarding the potentially antidemocratic natures of Western European Communist parties in the 1970s are eerily similar to those being asked today by democrats regarding far-right movements in countries such as Austria, France and Italy.
The growth of anti-immigration movements and the European far-right hold a particular interest for me. I recently published an article in the Atlanta Jewish Times on the growing xenophobia and neo-Nazi movement in contemporary Scandinavia.
I argued that the American media has done this country a disservice by failing to grasp the gravity of the far right's presence in democratic states such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Scandinavia's anti-immigrant sentiment is, in many ways, similar to that found in Austria. Both Austria--particularly Vienna--and Scandinavia has had an influx of refugees from the Balkan Wars. Rather than looking at Haider as an isolated example of xenophobia, I think it is much more practical to understand him in the context of a far wider anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe today. This is where comparative political analysis can be useful in a practical sense. That said: it's sickly ironic that refugees from the fighting in the Balkans now face xenophobia in the lands where they seek refuge.
My hope is that I will be able to continue to apply the tools I learned in an academic setting in the policy world. The realms of academia and public policy--which all too often are caught in an antagonistic relationship--need to be bridged even more often than they are now. Policymakers, especially those concerned with remote and relatively unknown places such as Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabagh, need to learn from the anthropologists, historians and political scientists who have made the study of these regions their life's work.
At the same time, we in academia need to be open to communicating with the policy world and willing to share our insights so that when decisions are made, they are informed decisions.
While comparative political analysis may seem too traditional for some in academia, I have found it to be an exciting way of looking at the world.
Editor's note: Since this article was written, Joerg Haider resigned as head of Austria's Freedom Party.