Antisemitism and parliamentary rhetoric

Press Release ( - VIENNA, Austria - May 17, 2016 - A project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF investigates the relationship between parliamentary debate and the development of democracy in post-fascist societies. Using Austria as an example, the researchers demonstrate how political rhetoric influences national identity and democratic culture.

Detailed analysis of parliamentary debate has so far been neglected in parliamentary studies as well as in contemporary theories of democracy. The political scientist Eva Kreisky and her team (Nicolas Bechter, Karin Bischof, Marion Löffler) from the University of Vienna seek to close this gap with a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF. Under the heading “Antisemitism as a political strategy and the development of democracy”, the project sets out to analyse antisemitic rhetoric in Austria’s parliament from 1945 until today. “It is our hypothesis that antisemitism is a useful indicator of democratic evolution, since modern democracies need to come to terms with pluralistic societies”, says Eva Kreisky. The researcher views the plenary debates in parliament as a symbolic stage illustrating the limits of what can officially be said. “In our project we investigate whether, in what way, to what extent and at what periods parliamentarians have used antisemitism as a rhetorical political strategy in parliament since the Shoah and how this practice has undergone change”, notes Kreisky.

Methods and scope

Taking typical features of parliamentary speeches into account, the team developed a system of categories which they use to screen a body of about 3,500 stenographic records. Prior to detailed analysis they conduct a keyword search to identify likely antisemitic statements: “Schlussstrich” (clean break), “Rothschild”, “Verhetzung” (hate speech), “Hochfinanz” (high finance) or “Emigranten” (emigrants) are among these keywords. Apart from content-related criteria such as the topics addressed, lines of argument or semantics, the scientists also include characteristics of parliamentary debate such as calls to order or instances of ethos and pathos in the analyses. “We have put a great deal of effort into developing a methodology which is not about reconstructing deliberations resulting in a law being adopted, but about highlighting the symbolic processes taking place in the plenary. These processes are based on different approaches which you might call rhetoric battle strategies”, is how Eva Kreisky explains the objectives of this basic research project.

Heightened awareness

Parliamentary rhetoric and democratic culture are closely interlinked. Parliament is part of a fabric of social structures which have an impact on these two aspects but are also marked by them. Accordingly, topics may be thrust into parliament from outside, such as growing concern over antisemitic incidents, but there are also lingering resentments. During the Second Austrian Republic, the understanding of what is considered to be antisemitic has evolved. Parliamentary debates demonstrate heightened sensitivity to antisemitism in reacting to scandals erupting in society and vice versa. The Austrian case shows that the reproach of antisemitism often equates to a lack of democratic awareness. “Fundamentally it can be said that open antisemitism is no longer tolerated in parliament”, notes Kreisky in summarising the ongoing analyses. At the same time, more subtle ways of encrypting antisemitic allusions are detectable. But parliamentarians also display a heightened awareness of language, which means that even veiled allusions rarely slip by without objection. In this respect, Kreisky underlines, one must distinguish between plenary debate in parliament and other political arenas.

Austrian approach to democracy

The democratic identity of Austrian parties since 1945 has been strongly marked by a commitment to seeking consensus. Eva Kreisky stresses, however, that this has not banished suspicions of anti-democratic attitudes rooted in experience from the interwar years. Moreover, Austria has a tradition as regards the rule of law that reduces democracy to a set of formal processes and considers elections as being the main element of democratic participation. “This may also be interpreted as reflecting a certain mistrust with a view to how ‘easily seduced’ the population is”, notes the political scientist. Austria’s specificity in terms of a post-fascist society is the fact that Austria did not see itself as a perpetrator but rather as “Hitler’s first victim”. Focusing on the external “enemy” helped the crimes committed during the Austro-fascist period to fade into the background.

In the context of post-fascist societies, antisemitism research uses the term secondary antisemitism to denote a phenomenon that manifests itself in the deflection of blame, a reversal of the roles of perpetrator and victim and in denial. “In all probability there are, however, numerous similarities with other post-fascist states which have not been widely researched and emerged only after the end of the Cold War, such as blatant antisemitism in Hungary or Poland”, concludes Eva Kreisky.

Source : Austrian Science Fund FWF

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