Austria after Hans Dichand

The death of a powerful media patriarch is also the end of an era in Austrian politics. After Hans Dichand, the spell of his flagship newspaper may no longer work, says Anton Pelinka.
Anton Pelinka
20 August 2010

When Hans Dichand died on 17 June 2010 at the age of 89, an era in  the relationship between media and politics in Austria ended. Dichand, who founded the Neue Kronen-Zeitung in 1959, was more than the publisher of Austria’s biggest-selling daily newspaper. In its best days, the Krone reached 40% of Austria’s readers. Dichand’s flagship made Austria’s media-market the most concentrated in the European Union: in no other country does one daily paper dominate to the same extent.

Dichand ruled over his empire in the style of William Randolph Hearst, who controlled a rather similar empire in the United States in the first half of the 20th century; and of Axel Springer in (West) Germany in the 1960s-80s. All three combined significant business success with a specific political message.

Dichand, like Hearst and Springer, was both a brilliant entrepreneur and a political missionary. His success as a publisher was based on a kind of catch-all strategy: giving everybody something. His paper had a huge sports segment. Animal protection was always a prominent issue. The different local editions catered to specific interests in the particular area. The Krone published regularly the pastoral views of prominent Catholic bishops - and at the same time, every edition included Playboy-like pictures of semi-nude girls.

The shaping figure

In political terms, the Krone did not follow a specific party line. On the contrary, Dichand seemed to expect the parties to follow his line. The Krone staff consisted of a number of prominent journalists with personal links to political parties - especially to the Social Democrats (SPÖ). The connections Dichand had established with Austrian politics were used to influence political decisions - not to be influenced by them.

Hans Dichand’s political beliefs did not fit easily into any traditional dimension. In the decades under Dichand’s control, the Krone followed only a small number of topics with any consistency. The most controversial was a combative stance on issues related to the second world war; in his early 20s, Hans Dichand was a member of the Greater Germany submarine fleet, and was always willing to defend the “honour” of what he called the “war generation” - meaning the German Wehrmacht.

But Dichand was neither a Nazi nor a neo-Nazi (and he badly wanted to be recognised as a friend of the state of Israel). When his prominent columnist Richard Nimmerrichter (writing under the Nestroy-era based pseudonym “Staberl”) used anti-semitic rhetoric, Dichand - albeit after hesitating for a long period - had him fired. At the same time, when he defended Kurt Waldheim, who as Austria’s president (1986-92) had somewhat obfuscated his record as a Wehrmacht officer, he also opened all the gates of hate-speech  - against everybody who dared to criticise Waldheim.

This was the Hearst- and the Springer-like approach that Hans Dichand used. When he decided it was time for a political campaign, the whole paper - everything from the editorials and the daily poetry to the carefully edited letters to the editor - acted like an ensemble of armies under a single command. However his publishing-style may be described, it could never be called internal pluralism.

His final campaigns were directed against Austria’s membership of the European Union. When Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister from 2004-08, seemed to be too much of a Europeanist, the Krone used any kind of weapon to destroy her politically. And it won; Plassnik’s party, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), was cowed, and Plassnik herself lost her cabinet post after the 2008 election.

An even more impressive gesture of political subjugation happened in the same year, when both Austria’s social-democratic chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and his designated successor Werner Faymann promised Dichand - in an personal, open letter - never again to violate Dichand’s iron rule regarding EU policies; namely, that an agreement equivalent to the Lisbon treaty must be put to a referendum (even though this is not constitutionally required in Austria).

The last campaign

The king is dead. Who will become the new king? But also: will there be a new king? The post-Dichand era has to face the consequences of a rather diffuse ownership structure. Hans Dichand was the paper’s only publisher, but he owned only 50% of the Krone; the other owner is the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ).

The most important question is whether Hans Dichand’s personal heir, his son Christoph, and the WAZ will be able to develop a modus operandi. The WAZ was never happy with Hans Dichand’s personal style. The Germans were interested more or less only in the profit the Krone was able to produce - and not at all in Dichand’s politics. One solution would be a buy-out that would give either the Dichand family or the WAZ sole ownership. 

It is difficult to imagine that Christoph Dichand (assuming that he is the eventual winner in the potential conflict with the WAZ) will be able to have the same kind of prestige his father enjoyed; difficult too to expect that the success-story of the Krone will go on and on.

The paper’s readership reveals a structural problem. The readers are disproportionally old and without higher education; younger, better educated Austrians regard the Krone as primitive and outdated. And it is at least possible that the politicians of Austria’s establishment parties, the SPÖ and ÖVP, will gradually realise that a paper’s circulation is not the only indicator of its ability to shape political attitudes.

The last figure who tested this proposition was Heinz Fischer, the Austrian president. When running for re-election in 2010, he was opposed by Hans Dichand from the very beginning of his campaign - for the sole reason that he had dared to ignore Dichand’s advice not to sign the Lisbon treaty after its parliamentary ratification. Fischer won the election easily - even against the Krone. Perhaps other politicians will learn to see this as a lesson. Now that the great and myth-laden patriarch no longer runs Austria’s most successful daily paper, there is every reason to break the spell. 

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