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Austria and the Crisis in the European Union.

New York Times Reporter Roger Cohen ("Coan") talks about national and international reaction to the far right Freedom party in Austria. Roger Cohen is the Times’ Bureau Chief in Berlin. He has also reported from Bosnia and wrote "Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo" (Random House) about covering the war in Bosnia.


Other segments from the episode on February 9, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 9, 2000: Interview with Roger Cohen; Review of Thom Jones' and Colson Whitehead's books "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine" and "The Intuitionist."


Date: FEBRUARY 09, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020901np.217
Head: Reporter Roger Cohen Discusses Reaction to Austria's Freedom Party
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last week, the charismatic and popular political extremist Joerg Haider took on new power in Austria, and this has caused a crisis in the European Union.

Wolfgang Schuessel of the conservative People's Party became the new chancellor by entering into a coalition government with Haider's right-wing Freedom Party. This ended the Social Democrats' 54 years in power.

The European Union responded to the new right-wing coalition by downgrading political relations with Austria. The United States expressed its concern by calling home its ambassador for further consultation.

Austria's new coalition government holds 104 seats in the 183-seat parliament. Yesterday the coalition survived a no-confidence motion in parliament, while riot police guarded the building.

Earlier today, we spoke with Roger Cohen, the "New York Times"' Berlin bureau chief, who's been covering the story in Austria. He joined us several times while he was covering the war in the Balkans. He's the author of "Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo."

I asked him to describe Joerg Haider's most extreme views.

ROGER COHEN, BERLIN BUREAU CHIEF, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Joerg Haider is a man who has radical views about immigration. He feels there is too much immigration in Austria. He spoke during the election campaign leading to the vote in October in which his party did very well of "ueberfremdung," meaning too many foreigners. And that was a phrase that's very loaded in German, because it was one used by Goebbels and the Nazis.

So he feels there are too many foreigners in Austria and that immigration needs to be cut back. He has taken an intermittently revisionist view of the Hitler years. Most recently he said that the Nazi regime was barbaric, the most barbaric in the 20th century, but that was just before he entered government.

Before that, he had spoken positively of the employment policies of Hitler. He said Hitler ran a good labor policy, put Germans to work. And in 1995, addressing a group of veterans that included members of the Waffen SS, he said that these were people of good character who stick to their convictions.

It would appear that he has some closet Nazi views, although he is very quick to say that he misspoke when he praised these aspects of Hitler's rule, and that he regrets those remarks and apologizes.

He is also, in an entirely different vein, quite radical on the economic front. Believe it or not, some Austrians see him as a sort of Ronald Reagan, somebody who, after 30 years of Social Democratic rule is going to free up the economy. And there are a lot of young entrepreneurs who back him.

GROSS: What were his campaign posters like?

COHEN: Well, the campaign posters for the last election were indications, I think, of the underlying racism that seems to lurk in his party, perhaps not in all its members, but it's there. There were posters, for example, that appeared to equate any black person living in Austria with drug dealers. There were other posters that were reminiscent of the Nazi years in that they showed young Austrian women, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and suggesting that this was the essence of Austrian goodness, and that this was the true character of Austria.

And generally, he also used on the posters this word "ueberfremdung," the over-foreignerization, if you like, of Austria.

He had other kinds of posters too, but there is this element that is there, and seems to recur (inaudible) too many times for it to be simply a coincidence or a mistake. Haider would have us believe that these were momentary excesses.

And he signed a declaration before moving into the government last week that said everything that he should say. It could be seen as quite a cynical maneuver, perhaps, but he said the Holocaust was a crime without any parallel in history. He said that this government would fight racism, anti-Semitism, would stand up for individual liberties, and so on.

GROSS: So what are some of the views about why he makes inflammatory statements and then apologizes, why he seems to hold extremist views, but then he'll sign a statement that the Holocaust was...

COHEN: (audio interrupt) smooth, fast-talking politician who tends to come out very well on most TV shows he's on. People who are against him seem to be outmaneuvered by him. And I think he knows that in Austria, there is a fringe of voters who find this kind of thing attractive. It's probably not the majority of his support, which came to over 27 percent, getting on for a third of the electorate, in the last elections. It's probably not a majority that is attracted or drawn to his party principally by that.

But he knows that it's an element in his appeal. And I think he feels that by zigzagging back and forth, but glancing onto these themes, he can draw some people in. He comes himself from a virulently Nazi family. His father was an enthusiastic Nazi who, like over a million Austrians, fought with Hitler's forces during World War Two. His mother was a teacher, and such an enthusiastic Nazi too that she was not allowed to teach after the war.

He joined this Freedom Party early on. And the Freedom Party had its roots in these Nazi war veterans and people who felt that German suffering after the war, the expulsion of Germans, for example, from Czechoslovakia or Poland, had not been properly noted, and that many Austrians had simply done their duty.

So I think that's the milieu he grew up in, and I think it still holds some attraction to him. And I think quite carefully he plots the way he touches different themes that appeal to different people. The revisionism appeals, perhaps, to older Austrians. The anti-immigration can appeal to blue-collar workers, who, although there's very low unemployment in Austria, may feel down the line their jobs could be threatened by these people.

And so he touches these different elements and draws a wide group of people in.

GROSS: I want to get back to his anti-immigration statements. He's said things like, "You are not at home in your home any more." What's happening in Austria now in terms of immigration, that makes what he's saying so potent now?

COHEN: Well, what's happened is that in the last 10 years, there was a pretty heavy influx, say, of immigrants, many from the Balkans who were fleeing the war there, refugees. And it should be noted that Austria's policy towards these refugees was more open than that of any other country in Europe, with the exception of Germany. Close to 100,000 refugees did pour in. Some of them have gone back.

In addition, with the end of the cold war and the opening -- you know, Austria used to be tucked in the corner. It was the east of the west. It now sits in the middle of Europe, and all these countries around it where labor is cheaper. Some people are coming in from there. So in the last 10 years, in a population of about 8 million in Austria, I believe there've been about 400,000 foreigners who've come in.

Now, in some mainly working class districts of Vienna, I mean, you wouldn't feel this as you wander in between the Hapsburg palaces and the beautiful cafes with their kaffee mit schlag and so on, but you do feel, in some of the working-class suburbs, that the feel of the neighborhoods has changed somewhat. The schools have a lot of Balkan, Turkish children, and some people resent this, feel uneasy about it. And that, I think, is something that Haider has been able to play upon.

You know, countries in Europe do not think of themselves as the United States does, as countries of immigration. The idea that, in fact, they've become countries of immigration is something that, in their psyches and souls, I think, they have to adjust to. It's not -- for example, in Germany, with a population of 80 million, there are now more than 7 million foreigners. But Germany is only, I think, beginning to adjust to this reality and has only recently changed the law allowing for the first time the children of immigrants born here to be assured that they will have German nationality.

That sort of thing still does not exist in Austria.

GROSS: Are a lot of the immigrants from the Balkans and from Turkey, you know, who are now in Austria, are they Muslim, and is that affecting the reception that they're getting in Austria?

COHEN: Well, certainly from Turkey, they are Muslims, and some from Bosnia are Muslims too. And I think that that does at some level affect the reception they receive. I think that Europe at some psychological level still thinks of itself as Christian Europe. It's only very recently that the European Union, after going back and forth many, many times, has decided to offer an invitation on numerous conditions but to (ph) Turkey to join the 15-member European Union.

I remember a French minister once telling me privately, You know, we simply can't let Turkey in, because they're Muslims, and this is not the European identity. He would never have said it publicly, but I think behind the long European resistance to Turkish membership that there's (inaudible). And we should recall that Vienna was besieged twice by the Ottoman Turkish armies. You know, Vienna saw itself as the city in the middle of Europe resisting the Turkey -- long Turkish encroachment which came up through the Balkans, Bosnia and so on, but was thrown back twice at Vienna.

I don't want to overdo these historical themes, but I think that there is still this element in Europe, this feeling of being a basically Christian body. And I think for Muslims here, life still can be complex and difficult.

GROSS: Well, Haider is now the governor of Carinthia. Where is that?

COHEN: That is in the southern part of Austria. In fact, there are a lot of immigrants from, notably, Slovenia to the south who've come there. One thing that should be noted about Haider is the words, up to now, at least, have not really been matched by deeds. This is the complaint of some people who feel that the sanctions from the European Union against Austria have been too draconian or too rapid.

There's no evidence -- I mean, he hasn't set up camps for immigrants in Carinthia, let alone, you know, expel people back across the border, while what he has said is, Basta, this is enough, and made clear that he has some old-fashioned notion of what Austrian nationality or nationhood or national identity should be.

But Madeleine Albright said, "We'll be looking at the deeds, not the words of Haider." The European Union's approach has been more radical, somewhat different. But the fact is that Haider, while his rhetoric has been intimately odious, his acts have not yet corresponded to his words.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the "New York Times" bureau chief Roger Cohen. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Roger Cohen is my guest, joining us from Berlin. He's the "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief. And we're talking about the new parliamentary coalition in Austria, which includes the right-wing Freedom Party.

Describe this new ruling coalition. How much power does the right wing Freedom Party actually have in this coalition?

COHEN: Well, it has a considerable amount of power. In fact, the Freedom Party came in second in the election, marginally larger vote it had than its coalition partner, the conservatives. The largest party was the Social Democrats, and they tried to recreate their old coalition with the moderate conservatives, and that failed. And that's when events precipitated recently, and the Freedom Party came in.

So in theory, Haider could have actually claimed the chancellorhood. It's become (ph) chancellor this time, and his party is larger. But obviously, seeing that that would be tactically foolish, Haider has allowed the head of the conservative party, Schuessel, to become the chancellor. He himself has not taken a place in the government and has remained in Carinthia.

And the Freedom Party, of the 12 ministerial positions, has six. It is an equal partner. These ministries include the justice ministry, which is obviously sensitive, in that the justice minister has some power to direct the activities of prosecutors, which could be directed against immigrants or immigrant cases and that kind of thing. Also controls the defense ministry.

So the Freedom Party has real power. Haider is a clever tactician. I think by remaining in the background, possibly hoping to benefit from this European outcry, which has turned him into a kind of European antihero in some circles, and has also fed this Austrian sense of being persecuted -- some opinion polls now show him up from the 27 percent he gained in the election in October to over 30 percent. He is clearly lurking in the background and hoping when he comes in that he will come in at the level of chancellor.

GROSS: The Freedom Party got 27 percent of the vote. How much do you see that vote as being a reflection of endorsement of Haider's views, and how much of it do you see as just like a vote against the Social Democrats, who've been in power -- who had been in power a long time?

COHEN: Well, I think frustration and fatigue with the Social Democrats certainly played a role. But there were other options. The people of Austria could have voted more massively for the conservatives, who've also been in power for a while, so perhaps they didn't want that. So I think there is an element in Haider's support that comes from deep frustration with the fact that Austrian politics has been paralyzed.

However, people who voted for him know very well who they were voting for. He's been around prominently on the political scene for more than 15 years. He steered his party from having 4 or 5 percent of the vote in the '80s to its current 27 percent. So these are Austrians for whom the occasional revisionist statements about Hitler or the clear anti-immigrant message that much of his campaigning has carried are acceptable. There are, apparently over 1 million Austrians, over 27 percent of the voting population, who feel that these things are acceptable.

And I think this is what has caused grave concern elsewhere in Europe, where the right in general is going through a kind of existential crisis, because the center right in Europe always defined itself against communism. Well, communism is gone, so people are asking, Why should these moderate right -- what exactly do these moderate right parties stand for?

And we've already seen the implosion of the Christian Democrats in Italy, who've virtually gone out of existence, a crisis of Christian Democracy in Germany, and now the legitimizing of the extreme right in Austria through its entry into government. That is why the level of alarm in Europe has been high.

GROSS: Now, exactly what action has the European Union taken against the new Austrian government?

COHEN: Well, diplomatic relations have been downgraded. This means that Austrian ambassadors in other European countries will only be received at what is called a technical level. Bilateral meetings with Austrian ministers have been stopped, bilateral visits.

That's to say the Austrian ministers will be allowed into European Union meetings with the other 15 ministers. There are no legal grounds for suspending Austria from the European Union, because, as I said, there are no acts, there are no deeds on the part of Haider that could lead to such a suspension. The European Union's treaties, if there was gross abuse of human rights or anything of that kind, they could suspend Austria, but they haven't done that.

And the third measure is that in international organizations, the European Union has said that it will not promote any Austrians for senior posts. Already, for example, the Portuguese president, who was prime minister, who was to have visited Austria early in March, coinciding with the grand social event there, the ball in Vienna, which he was going to attend as the most honored guest, he has canceled that visit. Prince Charles has canceled a visit. There are signs that the tourist industry, Austria's most important, could suffer somewhat.

So those are the steps that Europe's taken.

GROSS: So the European Union treaty does say that it can suspend a member if that nation threatens democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. this is a principle that has not put into -- not been put into action yet.

COHEN: No, it never has been put into action. But I think, Terry, we're watching a very interesting change of mood and change of character of the European Union. It was the treaty of Amsterdam, signed during the 1990s, that moved the European community from a community to a union. It is now a political union, and included in the treaty are these references to the values of the European Union, and the grounds on which with gross infringements of human rights, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, countries can be suspended.

As you said, it's never happened. But what I think we're seeing is that the European Union, which started out life in reality as a trade bloc -- I mean, it was there, put forward by its founders to stop war on the continent and has been successful in that, but there was always a political ideal. The reality was for a long time that of mainly a trade bloc. And during the '90s, all Europe's energy, really, was focused on the creation of one currency, the euro, this shared European currency that has now come into effect and will actually be on the streets in 2002.

But that phase is over, and Europe is now, I think, trying to develop a political identity, a kind of a European patriotism. It (inaudible) in Kosovo, that after the gross failures in Bosnia, it had fought alongside the United States, and it portrays the battle there as one for similar values. That's to say, to stop the ethnic persecution of peoples in Europe, which was the grounds for enormous loss of life, suffering, and the kind of collective European disaster of the 20th century, which handed power to the United States.

So I think Europe now feels it is a political as well as an economic union, that it has these values, that there is a delicate moment of transition of the parties of the right in Europe. And that -- those, I think, are some of the reasons why this stand over Austria has been so uncharacteristically speedy and strong.

GROSS: Roger Cohen is the "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, the controversy over the European Union's decision to downgrade political relations with Austria. We continue our conversation with "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief Roger Cohen.

And Maureen Corrigan reviews two hardcover hits from last year that have just been published in paperback.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief Roger Cohen.

We're talking about international alarm over Austria's new government, a coalition which includes the far right Freedom Party. The party is led by Joerg Haider, who is anti-immigration and has spoken approvingly of Hitler's labor policies.

The European Union reacted to the Freedom Party's inclusion in the new government by downgrading political relations with Austria.

What was the process like in the European Union's discussion of whether or not to downgrade political relations with Austria? And who were the leaders in that discussion, arguing the pro or con side?

COHEN: Well, it was a very hasty decision, Terry, taken more or less over the weekend before Haider's arrival in government. One government has openly expressed some dismay at the way the decision was taken, the Danish government, which said it got a phone call kind of three minutes before the statement was made, and said, you know, Sign on to this.

It seems to have grown originally out of a Holocaust conference that was being held in Stockholm about a week before Haider got into government. That's where concern -- a lot of European leaders were there, and it had become apparent that the talks had begun between the conservatives and Haider. The driving forces were France and Germany, Germany because of the concerns over any development of the far right in Germany, and its own particular sensitivity, of course, to anybody who could speak approvingly of any aspect of Hitler's rule.

France, because the president, Chirac, has worked hard to keep the National Front, which still, although it's disintegrated somewhat recently, or split, rather, the National Front did at times get up to 15 percent of the vote. That's Jean-Marie Le Pen extreme right party. So Chirac was very concerned that there shouldn't be any kind of endorsement for a party like the National Front.

At the same time, the government is a center left government, or a left government, and they, of course, have no time for the extreme right, as -- nor does Tony Blair. Most of the governments in Europe, including the Italian, are broadly at the left, and so they were reasonably amenable to moving very swiftly once France and Germany -- which are always the driving forces, nothing much happens in Europe unless France and Germany really want it to. And they both, for different reasons, were very keen to make a very strong statement very quickly about Haider.

GROSS: Was the decision to downgrade political relations with Austria controversial within the European Union? Are there people within the union who are saying this is a bad idea, this was a democratically elected government, like it or not?

COHEN: Oh, yes. There is -- in fact, I think it's growing, if anything. The initial response was that this was a positive move. The European Union has acted decisively, that Haider's language and values were unacceptable, and so on. There's a bit of an Oops! feeling, I think, in some circles, certainly in Germany, the opposition Christian Democrats and the liberal party have been very strong in the last few days in saying that it was an exaggerated reaction.

There have been mumblings elsewhere. There's a great deal of debate as to the legitimacy of the European action. I think just as Austrians are free to elect the government they choose, the other countries of the union, who didn't act as the union, they acted as 14 individual governments, they are free to take the measures that they wish.

But the fact is that unlike the United States, which registered its displeasure by recalling its ambassador for consultations, the United States has not actually downgraded relations or stopped bilateral contact, so have more flexibility in how to deal with the situation. By imposing sanctions from which it's virtually impossible to retreat, I think, as long as Haider's in power, the European Union has effectively committed to undermining a government that, as you say, was democratically elected by the Austrians.

So that is an unprecedented situation whose evolution, I think, will be certainly interesting, but also unpredictable.

GROSS: Do you think the European Union is trying to send a message to voters in other countries, saying, Listen, if you guys elect, you know, somebody from the right wing, your country might be punished too?

COHEN: Well, I think the union is trying to do a couple of things. Certainly it's trying to sound a note of alarm that the taboo, which has meant that parties of the center right in Europe did not allow -- align with the extreme right was a good taboo, it was one worth preserving. It's now been broken by Haider. It was also infringed in Italy in the mid-'90s when the post-fascist party of a man named Fini (ph) briefly got into government.

So I think the union has been trying to send a message that this kind of alliance is bad news. The other thing that the union is doing, or at least some parts of the European Union, is trying to advance the power of the union. There are some people who want a United States of Europe. They want a truly federal Europe in which -- Americans look at Europe, and they still see Britain and France and Germany. And those nation-states are still realities, of course.

But they are not -- no longer nation-states in the sense that the United States is. They do not have -- Britain does, but the others don't have full sovereignty. Why not? Because they've traded in part of their sovereignty to this new political entity, the European Union, which now, for example, controls the currency, the euro. Imagine the United States with the federal government no longer having control over the dollar, with no national treasury. Well, that is effectively the situation in Europe.

So this union, which is kind of a thing, a beast, a hybrid, there's never been anything like it in history, it's neither, yet, a federal European government, but nor are the states within it entirely sovereign any more, this seems to be the union kind of staking out greater power for itself.

Now, that's controversial. Britain, of course, has not joined the euro precisely because it has qualms about being absorbed in this way.

GROSS: What can you tell us about the impact the European Union's decision to downgrade political relations is having on Austria, both on -- you know, on the government and on public opinion?

COHEN: Well, I -- it's hard to read at the moment. But I think that there certainly -- there are two reactions. The people who hate Haider, and there are a lot of them, feel it was the right thing to do, and feel that this kind of pressure could make the government's life really difficult, and that would be a good thing, and will be positive. There's also people in Austria who feel it was an unduly severe -- Haider's people, obviously, resent it deeply, and moderate -- some moderate Austrians, who may not support Haider, feel that it was an excessive measure that has given Haider enormous publicity and from which he may be able to benefit.

I think the psychology of the Austrians is important to understand. They feel -- they were led to believe, after the war by the allies, that they were the first victims of Hitler. Why did the allies do that? Because they wanted Austria in the allied camp. And so they told Austrians that they'd been victims of Hitler, just like Britain or some other country.

In fact, the reality was very different. Many, many Austrians -- not all, by any means -- had supported and fought alongside Hitler. So unlike in Germany, there hasn't been this analysis and confrontation with the past.

So Austrians feel, again now, that they're being persecuted, they're being misunderstood, they're unsure about their identity. They've been through the Waldheim affair in the '80s, when they elected a president who was known to have a Nazi past, and they have great difficulty coming to terms with their past. They feel people sometimes treat them unduly harshly.

And so when something like this happens, that only redoubles those kinds of sentiments.

GROSS: What are some of the other principles that the European Union stands for that have forced countries within the union to change some of their policies so that the policies became compatible with the European Union's policies?

COHEN: Well, apart from the traditional areas of activity of the European Union, like agricultural policy, where there is a Europe-wide policy to which, you know, farmers have to confirm if they're going to get subsidies for certain products and trade policy, where the European Union acts in unison, and, you know, the definition of goods and articles which have to conform in their consistency, weight, measurements, exhaust regulations for cars, and all this regulatory side of the European Union, has been building up for a long time and has -- is sort of broadly accepted, the freedoms of Europeans to move around to different countries, although they do it much less than Americans move between different states, and to work freely there.

However, it's entirely -- I don't think there is any precedent for this kind of forceful statement that a government has a party in it that is un -- incompatible with the principles of the union, and therefore that relations with that country will be downgraded. That's not happened before. It didn't happen when the Italians put a post-fascist party in their government in 1994, when Fini's extreme right party allied with Belasconi (ph). Now, Fini hadn't made any approving statements about Hitler. Still, his party came very much at that time from the extreme right. It's since evolved.

Why did Europe not intervene then? Well, you could say Fini's different from Haider. But I think much more than that, it's that Europe's changed, Europe's evolved. In the '90s, it was still worrying about the euro, it was grappling with what it was going to be now that the cold war was over. That decade has now passed. We've gone through the wars in the Balkans. And Europe has -- I'd say it's in sort of crusading mood.

It's discovered -- it feels passionately that after this most destructive century and entering -- there's something millennial about this, I think, too, that entering this new century, Europe wants to turn the page. It wants to revitalize itself. Some people want to rival the United States with the United States of Europe. And so it's trying forcefully to create what George Bush once called a Europe whole and free, that's to say, a Europe from Portugal all the way across to Rumania that is part of a union, and even to Turkey, where the kinds of values I discussed earlier exist.

And it's that change in Europe's character, I think, that explains why the reaction to Haider has been so much stronger than, in fact, what was a complete absence of any reaction to Fini.

GROSS: My guest is "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief Roger Cohen. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Joining us by phone from Berlin is the "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief, Roger Cohen. He's been following the reaction to Austria's new coalition government, which includes the far right People's Party.

Roger Cohen, you're from England, and you're now based in Berlin for the "New York Times." What effect do you think the European Union is having on the identities of -- you know, on personal identity? Are people identifying now in Germany as German or as European?

COHEN: Well, Germany's a special case, Terry. I mean, ever since World War Two, Germans have had a problem with national identity. I mean, patriotism, apart from affection for the Deutschmark and maybe for the soccer team, was basically out. So now the Deutschmark has gone too. I mean, Germans have always wanted to call themselves Europeans, pretty much since World War Two. If anything, I think now that the war is a bit more distant and the capital's moved back to Berlin, there's some stirrings of Germans saying, Well, hang on a sec, you know, Germany doesn't -- wasn't just the 12 years of the Third Reich. We can be proud of Goethe and Schiller and Beethoven and so on.

So that there's a -- maybe some kind of embryonic sort of reassertion of German national identity. I think there are many different phenomena going on here. I think there's a young sort of dynamic business yuppie class in Europe that moves pretty freely between borders, works as easily in Lyons as it does in Duesseldorf, you know, will move up to Stockholm. These are people who speak two or three languages, who have very much a globalist vision, who feel European, who feel at home throughout Europe, whose business horizons are certainly European, it's one currency, after all, and the European Union has 260 million people, it's a bigger market by far than the United States.

Side by side with that, there are people who feel threatened by this, who feel threatened by globalization. There's a retreat into regionalism in some areas, people identifying strongly with Brittany or with Lombardy or with some other part of Europe. There are different shadings. Britain, for example, is very resistant to the European Union as anything other than a trade -- essentially, a trade bloc.

So I think Europe's in flux, just like this city of Berlin is in flux. It's -- there are many -- the place is changing as this whole Haider phenomenon shows. And you have this supranational federal structure growing, changing, advancing every day. But nobody's decided where it's headed, what the end point is. Why? Because if they did try to, they'd never be able to agree.

GROSS: Roger Cohen, you've spoken to us in the past on FRESH AIR about covering the war in the Balkans. Now you're out of a war zone, you're in Berlin covering that part of the world for "The New York Times." What's it like for you now to be out of a war zone after having been in one for the better part of, what, two years?

COHEN: Yes, it's -- well, I'm not a war junkie, I'm not longing to go back to the war zone. There's no question, however, in my mind that for sheer intensity of journalistic experience, there was nothing like covering the Bosnian war. And any war -- I mean, I was in Beirut in the '80s too, and it was similar to those people and things and more or less all experience is stripped down to its essentials, and that yields, I think, very powerful, for anybody who's sensitive to that, yields very powerful experiences that can be lastingly enlightening, I think.

And also powerful journalistic copy, because I think when the head and the heart come together in journalism, and people talk a lot about objectivity, but I think if there's not strong feeling -- and not in the absence of the use of the mind too -- but I think when both come together, that can be very powerful.

So Germany is a very different kind of experience. Where I do find parallels, and I do find Germany -- where I never dreamed, incidentally, of living, but here I am -- where I do find Germany very stimulating is, like in the Balkans, you only have to go very slightly beneath the surface in any family to discover trauma of some kind or another, whether it's a grandfather who was a Nazi or the loss of all the family's property in Poland or the Czech Republic, or a grandmother who was raped by the Russians when they arrived in Berlin in 1945, or some other trauma or being investigated by the Stasi, secret police, in East Germany -- there is trauma and upheaval present in Germany almost throughout the population, in the same way that the desperate last century in Balkan -- in the Balkans produces that.

So I do find some parallels here in that sense. And I'm somebody who likes writing about people, because I think that stories of individuals can most effectively and evocatively tell wider stories. So in that sense, I find Germany very rich territory.

GROSS: In a recent piece, you described Berlin as being an edgier city than Paris, Rome, or London. In what sense is Berlin that edgy now?

COHEN: Well, I think it's edgy because it's such a weird, unfinished place. It's in a state of absolute flux. I mean, the government's come back here, but the chancellory of Schrodt (ph) is not even ready. So he's living in -- or working in Harnike (ph), the former Communist Party leader's offices in the former East Berlin with stained-glass windows of worker heroes praising the great communist revolution. And here's the chancellor of Germany living in his office.

That gives you some taste, perhaps, of the bizarreness of some of what is going on here. There's still a lot of property that the ownership's uncertain, and a lot of kind of impromptu clubs that have set themselves up there. There are a lot of people from various parts of Germany who are coming here intrigued, I think, by this open-endedness of Berlin. And Berlin -- it's not a beautiful city at all, but it's not harmonious like Paris, but there are an awful lot of ghosts wandering around here. It's an extraordinary place in that the history of it is so many-layered. It's tried five times in the last century to be a capital under the kaiser and under Weimar and under Hitler and under the communists in the East, and now it's trying again. It's failed four times, so you can't be sure it's going to work this time.

And I think all that creates this sense that Germany, unlike other countries of Western Europe, is not a sort of finished product. It's edgy because it's uncertain. It's not quite sure where it's headed, at least the city isn't. And so I think that gives it a liveliness. I mean, Parisians hate it when you say Paris is a gorgeous place to live, but it's a bit of a museum. But it's true, I think. And Berlin is the antimuseum. It's got a lot of history in it, but it's also re-become the capital just six months ago after a more than 50-year interlude from the fall of Hitler.

And so it's building something as uncertain as the future of the European Union I mentioned. And that gives it this restless feel.

GROSS: Roger Cohen, thank you so much for talking with us.

COHEN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Roger Cohen is the "New York Times" Berlin bureau chief. He spoke to us from Berlin.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews two hardcover hits from last year that just came out in paperback.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Roger Cohen
High: "New York Times" reporter Roger Cohen discusses the national and international reaction to the far right Freedom Party in Austria. Roger Cohen is "The Times'" bureau chief in Berlin. He has also reported from Bosnia and wrote "Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo," about covering the war in Bosnia.
Spec: Austria; Media; World Affairs; Government

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Reporter Roger Cohen Discusses Reaction to Austria's Freedom Party

Date: FEBRUARY 09, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 020902NP.217
Head: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan Reviews `Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine' and `The Intuitionist'
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Two just-published paperbacks have given book critic Maureen Corrigan a chance to catch up on her back reading. Here's her review of "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine" by Thom Jones and "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Paperback books are yet one more proof that F. Scott Fitzgerald was way off when he uttered that portentous pronouncement, "There are no second acts in American life."

There are nothing but second acts in American life. We're a sentimental people, always willing to grant another chance. That's why we welcome back former flatliners like John Travolta, Florence Henderson, and Cher, why we'll watch a whole TV season's worth of reruns, why our churches and political races are packed with born-agains, and why, economic considerations aside, we like to buy paperback books.

Paperbacks are a second shot at redemption, both for good books that have lost their newborn sheen and for those readers like me who missed their debut and then became distracted by newer, noisier books.

Two of last year's hardcover hits have just reappeared in paperback, Thom Jones's tough-guy collection of short stories, called "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine," and Colson Whitehead's weird, genre-pilfering Frankenstein's monster of a novel, "The Intuitionist."

These two books have nothing in common except for this: When you try to compare them to any other books, you come up blank. They're both so idiosyncratic in voice and worldview that the only other book each resembles is its own earlier hardcover incarnation.

Like a lot of eventually successful writers, Thom Jones himself is a second act. A former boxer and janitor, he populates his short stories with punch-drunk losers who keep on rising off the mat for one more wild swing at life.

In some of the marvelous 12 tales in this collection, that metaphor becomes literal. The title story, for instance, features a young boxer named Kid Dynamite who makes it to the finals of the Chicago Golden Gloves, wins his match by a split decision, and then is forced to retire from the tournament because of a bloody gash under his eye. Ordinarily, boxing scenes rank just above computer software discussions on my personal boredom meter. But Jones's description of Kid Dynamite's last fight is funny and awful and rat-tat-tat beautifully paced.

The thing I like most about Jones's stories are the pitch-perfect voices of his working-class characters. In a story called "Daddy's Girl," an old woman named Junkie looks back on her life, starting out in the Depression, with her sisters, Tooty, Moony, Ida, and Mary Lou. Reflecting on her own name, Junkie says, "Pa always called me Junk, which is not to say he didn't love his kids, but he didn't like women, and this is one way it slipped through, by calling me that name."

Hers is a rueful comment that hovers just below self-awareness. The suck-it-up, self-dismissive attitude of a certain generation and class also is compacted in that sentence.

In Colson Whitehead's novel, "The Intuitionist," heroine Lila May Watson, the nation's first black female elevator inspector, is fighting hard for a second chance. Lila May is what's known in the trade as an intuitionist. She can walk into an elevator and read its mind, sense its illnesses. But when a city elevator she's just checked out crashes with the mayor inside, Lila May's career goes into free fall. She suspects she's been set up by a rival and more traditional school of elevator inspectors called the empiricists.

Lila May's investigations take her far down into an underworld of mob goons and far up into the heady heights of elevator metaphysics. Her struggle for justice eventually turns into a search for the ultimate gravity-defying elevator, the mythical black box.

Whatever label you want to stick on Whitehead's spectacularly imaginative novel, whether it be a mystery, an allegory, a spiritual meditation, it's above all one of the most riddling and suspenseful stories about race and upward mobility in America that I've ever read.

"Verticality is a risky enterprise," says our narrator. You can sure say that again.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Sonny Listen Was a Friend of Mine," stories by Thom Jones, and "The Intuitionist," by Colson Whitehead.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today was Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Ann Marie Baldonado directed the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Maureen Corrigan
High: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan reviews two popular books from last year that have just been published in paperback: "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine" by Thom Jones and "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead.
Spec: Art; Media; Thom Jones; Colson Whitehead

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Book Critic Maureen Corrigan Reviews `Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine' and `The Intuitionist'
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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