The Jew Is Also to Blame

In 1995, Austrian Jewish writer Karl Pfeifer exposed neo-Nazi remarks made by Dr. Werner Pfeifenberger, a lecturer in political science. The lecturer was fired, tried in court and in May, 2000, he committed suicide. Last October, the regional high court of Vienna ruled that Pfeifer was morally responsible for the suicide. Experts say that the ruling is a clear expression of right-wing domination in the Austrian justice system.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

One by one, Karl Pfeifer pulls papers out of his briefcase and sets them on the table. This is the first article, and this is the article in response. This is the anti-Semitic piece that was published in the weekly that is closely associated with the Austrian government, and these are the court rulings. And here is the handwritten statement, in which he himself, Pfeifer, documents the sequence of events that led last October to the submission of a complaint against him in the regional high court of Vienna, in which he was accused of "the moral responsibility" for the death of another person.

"I have documentation of everything," says the Austrian journalist, who, according to the court ruling, did bear the moral responsibility for another person's suicide.

The story began in 1995, exactly five years before Austria set up a government with the participation of Joerg Haider's extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. The continuation of the story, say commentators, is strongly linked to the changes that have taken place in Austria under the government headed by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

At the beginning of that year, 1995, the academic journal of the Freedom Party published an article entitled "Internationalism Versus Nationalism: Eternal Animosity." In it, the author, Dr. Werner Pfeifenberger, an Austrian expert on political science who taught at Munster University in Germany, set out his version of 2,000 years of European history: The Jews, or "the internationals" as they are called in anti-Semitic jargon and in the title of the article, were behind the decisive events in the history of the continent. The Jews and their socialist values influenced the early Christians in Europe; the Jews fomented the French Revolution; the Jews played a key role in putting down the opposition in Russia and also, no less, "The Jews threatened war against Germany in 1933."

In February 1995, journalist Karl Pfeifer published an article in response in the monthly of the Social Democratic Party, and in the monthly of the Austrian Jewish community, which he edited at the time in addition to his work as the Israel Radio correspondent in Vienna. In the article in the Jewish community monthly, under the heading "(Neo-)Nazi Tones in the Freedom Party Yearbook," he quoted from Pfeifenberger's article, and wrote that the author is reviving "the old Nazi myth of the international Jewish conspiracy."

In response, Pfeifenberger filed a libel suit against Pfeifer and against the institutions of the Jewish community, demanding $20,000 in damages. "Before the judge, he tried to depict himself as a great friend of the Jews, like all the right-wing extremists do," recalls Pfeifer. "He related that he even published an article in the Israeli lawyers' [association] organ."

However, the respondents in the suit came to court with an opinion by an historian from the University of Linz, who confirmed what Pfeifer had written. Pfeifer and his co-respondents won against Pfeifenberger in two Viennese courts in 1997; a year later, the ruling in their favor was approved by the regional high court of Vienna, where Pfeifenberger had filed an appeal. The three courts confirmed what the journalist had written, according to which Pfeifenberger's article contained "neo-Nazi tones."

The failed libel suit now worked against the man who had filed it. In Germany, where Pfeifenberger taught, Social Democrat representatives expressed concern in the parliament about "anti-Semitic tendencies" in the article that had been published. The state government of North Rhine-Westphalia decided to fire him from his post as a lecturer at Munster University. Later, in April, 1998, he found work at another institution of higher education, but only as a researcher.

In Austria, members of the Social Democrat Party and the Greens condemned Pfeifenberger's article and called for legal action to be taken against him and against the Austrian Freedom Party, the publishers of the journal. And indeed, two years after the ruling was handed down by the court in the appeal of the libel trial - and 11 days after the establishment of the Schuessel-Haider government, when Vienna was facing a boycott imposed by 14 fellow members of the European Union - the prosecutor general of Austria announced that he was opening criminal proceedings against Pfeifenberger. The prosecutor accused the lecturer of a crime under a federal law that prohibits Nazi activity, a serous offense punishable by 20 years' imprisonment.

On May 13, 2000, two-and-a-half months before the date set for him to appear before a jury, Pfeifenberger took his own life.

Pfeifer's `manhunt'

Three weeks after the suicide, Zur Zeit, a right-wing Austrian weekly closely associated with the coalition government and funded by it, published an article headed "Deadly Moral Terror." The writer, Erwin Steinberger, recounted the life history of Pfeifenberger and described how a conspiracy that had developed against him led to his death. He cited portions of the article that had appeared in 1995 in the monthly of the Jewish community, and claimed that "Karl Pfeifer embarked on a manhunt, which in the end caused the death of a hunted man."

Alongside the article appeared the portraits of 10 academics, politicians and journalists who had criticized or acted against Pfeifenberger - and at their head, the "Jewish journalist" Pfeifer - accompanied by the headline "Portraits of the Gang of Hunters."

This time, it was Pfeifer's turn to file a libel suit. Together with the Austrian Journalists Association and with its financial support, he sued Zur Zeit for accusing him of the responsibility for Pfeifenberger's death. In March, 2001, the court ruled that the weekly had to pay the journalist $4,000 in damages - but then the defendants appealed to the regional high court of Vienna.

"The moment I knew the identity of the court that would sit on the case, I had a bad feeling," recalls Pfeifer. "A short while before our case was heard, this judge, Doris Trieb, obligated an Austrian weekly, Neues, to pay Haider compensation only because of the publication of a political cartoon in which he appeared with horns."

Last October, the appeal judges reached a decision that determined that there was nothing libelous in the Zur Zeit article, based on the fact that the writer of the article had not accused Pfeifer of directly causing Pfeifenberger's death. "The facts described in the article," ruled Judge Trieb, "lead the reader ... to reach a conclusion concerning moral responsibility only."

Pfeifer did not kill Pfeifenberger outright and therefore he is not criminally responsible for his death, but, as Zur Zeit claimed, the Jewish journalist was only "morally responsible."

Pfeifer: "The judge pointed her finger at me and said: `Herr Pfeifer, your article was the beginning of an avalanche that led to the Greens and the Social Democrats to cause Pfeifenberger to lose his job.' In my 20 years as a journalist, I have covered trials in Austria and I have never seen a judge point at a defendant that way - much less a plaintiff."

What is the meaning of `moral responsibility' for Pfeifenberger's death?

Pfeifer: "From the legal point of view, it means that that extreme right-wing journalists now enjoy protection and they can write that I caused his death. And they really are writing this, and they always mention that I am `the Jewish journalist.' The moment the ruling was handed down, the neo-Nazis' Internet sites published the Zur Zeit article against me, with my picture, and since then, they have been attacking me even more strongly. This claim also appeared in Zur Zeit and there they even reinforced this accusation. They said that I was part of a gang of hunters, and that I am giving Austria a bad name."

Not only anti-Semitism

Indeed, in the shadow of Judge Trieb's ruling, last Thursday Pfeifer lost in another libel suit against the editor of Zur Zeit, Freedom Party member Andreas Molzer, who is also cultural advisor to the governor of the State of Carinthia, Joerg Haider. The grounds for the suit: a letter Molzer sent to the weekly's subscribers last February in which he accused Pfeifer of causing Pfeifenberger's death. In the letter, Molzer detailed the financial difficulties the weekly encountered, in part because of the defense costs in the libel trial. "The Jewish journalist Karl Pfeifer," explained Molzer to his subscribers, "let loose a legal avalanche against Pfeifenberger. When Zur Zeit dared to point this out as the reason for Pfeifenberger's suicide, Pfeifer filed the suit."

Pfeifer: "I am a victim not only of anti-Semitism, but also of an attack on the foundations of Austrian democracy, on the freedom of the press - and this was understood by the Journalists Association, which decided to represent me. How can it be claimed that a journalist who published a critical and relevant article, and three courts ruled that there was no exaggeration in it, is to blame that five years later, this man committed suicide?"

What reverberations did Judge Trieb's ruling have in Austria?

"It stirred up a storm only in Germany, where Pfeifenberger taught, and the leading media covered the trial. In Austria, things like this never stir up a storm. In Austria there is a strong law against Nazi activity, but this law, which generally touches upon things in the `gray' area, is a two-edged sword. The right and the extreme right are now using it against the journalists, against those who are coming out against all the philo-Nazi phenomena. I did not sue Pfeifenberger, but I did my duty as a journalist. I expressed apt criticism of his article.

"Now they are saying, `Why didn't Pfeifer go to court? If he says that Pfeifenberger is an extreme right-winger, then he is also saying that he is a Nazi and so he should have pressed charges against him.' They are using a law against us that was intended to be used against Nazis. The implication is clear: Every Austrian journalist will now think twice before he writes a critical article on these issues. This is exactly the intention of the current Austrian government - that no one in the world will talk or write about the situation that has developed in Austria.

"And there is something else they always do in Austria," continues Pfeifer, "and that is to make the victim into the criminal. In all the anti-Semitic attacks, the victim is the Jews. So when I, as a Jewish journalist and as a democratic Austrian journalist, wrote correct criticism they turn it against me and say that the guilty one is not Pfeifenberger, who wrote virulently anti- Semitic things, but the cheeky Jew Karl Pfeifer who exposed what he wrote. The intention of this government is that things like this will not happen in Austria, that they will be able to say to the world: `We are a democratic country, we don't have a party like that in government and everything is fine.'"

What was the Jewish community's involvement in your trials?

"The community was involved only in the first stage, in the libel trial in which the community itself was the defendant together with me. In the trial against Zur Zeit, they were not involved at all. They wrote about it in their newspaper and that was all. The president of the Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant, did not even answer my letters on the matter. The Jews everywhere in the Diaspora are Diaspora Jews, and they think about their personal affairs."

A chance to help

Ariel Muzicant admits that the Jewish community's support of Pfeifer was flabby: "Karl Pfeifer spurred a very courageous move," he says. "I am sorry that the Jewish community did not help him more. You have to understand that the community here is in the midst of a prolonged struggle with the right and the extreme right. We have about a hundred cases against Haider that we are busy with in the courts, and I alone have 14 cases against Haider. Initially, we were involved in the Pfeifer affair, but I think that only at a later stage, did we understand the significance of the case that he was conducting against Zur Zeit."

Perhaps now Muzicant will have an opportunity. Last week, after he lost to Molzer in the court in Vienna, Pfeifer decided to apply to the European Union's Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg with a request to intervene in the matter of the court rulings that confirmed the claims that he is morally responsible for Pfeifenberger's death. Even before that, his attorney applied to the Austrian state prosecutor to reverse Judge Trieb's ruling and convict the weekly Zur Zeit of libeling Pfeifer.

"Judge Trieb's ruling is a real scandal," says Hans Rauscher, a senior commentator at the independent newspaper Der Standard. "A ruling that determines that Zur Zeit acted at the limits of journalistic norms when it wrote that Pfeifer caused Pfeifenberger to commit suicide is very extreme, and it is quite extraordinary that a court rules that a journalist, in the course of his journalistic work, caused someone to commit suicide. I don't believe that this ruling will stand the test of the European Human Rights Tribunal."

Are the rulings against Pfeifer an example of what is happening in Austria under the government of the right?

Rauscher believes they are: "Our hands are full of rulings of this sort," he says. "In Austria a public debate has now got underway about the right's control of the legal system. We have a justice minister from the Freedom Party [Dieter Boehmdorfer - Y.E.], who in the past was Joerg Haider's personal, very personal, attorney. And this is manifested all the time, especially in decisions concerning the appointment of state prosecutors and judges. This is also evident in statements like that made by Haider himself only a few days ago after the Constitutional Court prohibited him, in his role as governor of Carinthia, to take down road signs in the Slovene language. After the ruling, Haider said that the Supreme Constitutional Court needs to be reined in."

In recent days, in the wake of Haider's attack on the Constitutional Court and its president, Ludwig Adamovich, the head of the Green Party, Alexander van der Bellen, warned of the breakdown of the system of checks and balances in Austria.

According to Anat Peri, a historian who has written a study entitled "Joerg Haider's Anti-Semitism" at Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem: "The appointment of judges has always been a very political matter in Austria, and the Social Democrats also exploited this toll up until two years ago, when they were in power."

However, she adds, "There has never been such crude use made there of the court system in order to serve political ideology. In Israel, they have written about this government as if the problem were that Haider does not speak nicely. We are talking about a far broader problem of the denial of the freedom of speech and the freedom of opinion, and also of the legitimization of anti-Semitic statements."

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