Opinion

Delighted by the Downfall of Austria’s Far Right? Hold On

We’ve prematurely celebrated the demise of Austrian Nazis one too many times. Despite the graft-and-corruption scandal that's just ousted the Freedom Party from government, has anything really changed?

Kurz and Strache address a news conference after a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria, March 14, 2018.
\ LEONHARD FOEGER/ REUTERS

The news out of Vienna last week endowed the word "schadenfreude" with rich new depths of gratification. It was a juicy moment of respite for anyone feeling overwhelmed by Europe’s neo-fascist resurgence.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the country’s vice-chancellor and head of its far-right Freedom Party, was caught in a corruption scandal and forced to resign, triggering snap elections in September. In a secretly filmed video from a villa in Ibiza in the lead-up to the 2017 election, Strache is seen offering a woman purporting to be a relative of a Russian oligarch lucrative government contracts in exchange for backdoor support for the Freedom Party. 

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Her reiterated comments that the financial arrangements weren’t so legal didn’t dissuade Strache, who enthusiastically leapt on her idea to buy a controlling stake in Austria’s largest newspaper and realign its editorial position with the Freedom Party.

For a figure who’d long marketed himself as a "Mr. Clean" who had come to sweep away the dirty dealings of more politically flabby opponents, it was a pure example of hypocrisy and graft. But it exposed the fatuous idea that any far-right politician steeped in racism and bile can govern with clean hands.

The Freedom Party, like so many other far-right parliamentary parties, has constantly engaged in a waltz between outright incitement and racist doublespeak. 

Founded after World War II by actual Nazis, it claims to have relinquished anti-Semitism; it frames its anti-Muslim venom in terms of "protecting" women from the hijab and maintaining Austria’s ethnic and cultural identity. Days after expelling a party official for calling immigrants "rats," Strache warned that the Austrian homeland is threatened by a "population exchange," the same "great replacement" language beloved of white supremacist shooters around the world.

Strache himself trolled the world’s Jews when he visited Israel in 2016 and stage-managed a photo-op at Yad Vashem, exhibiting his genocide-sensitive side. The Israeli government boycotts any direct contact with the Freedom Party and its ministers; Austria’s Jewish community campaigns against its political normalization

When protesters heckled outside his party’s annual ball, held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2012, the same Strache commented: "We are the new Jews," and "This is like Kristallnacht." 

Now Strache has gone, the Freedom Party might be able to claim it has cleaned up its act. But all it takes is to dig a bit into the background of the party’s new leader to see that’s an obvious illusion.

Norbert Hofer has been called the "moderate" and "friendly" face of the far right; his first press conference after the Strache "Ibiza-gate" scandal attempted to broadcast humility and pragmatism. But one of his dearest affiliations offers a clear window into the exclusionary uber-nationalism and Third Reich nostalgia inseparable from Hofer and his party.

Protesters carry posters reading "Don't let Nazis rule" during a demonstration against Austria's Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far right Freedom Party in Vienna, Austria. November 7, 2018
\ LEONHARD FOEGER/ REUTERS

Like many prominent Freedom Party politicians, Hofer is a member of a pan-German nationalist fraternity called Marko-Germania of Pinkafeld, which glorifies "the German fatherland, independent of existing state borders," and "rejects the fiction of an ‘Austrian nation,’ which has been planted in the brains of the Austrians since 1945." 

The longing for Anshchluss has never gone away, and nor has the conception of "Austrian" as an inherently racial definition.

Fraternities like Marko-Germania, as the head of Austria’s Jewish community wrote here in Haaretz after the elections, "require proof of Aryan ancestry, and their endorsement of the vicious anti-Semitic 1896 Waidhofen resolutions, which banned Jews on racial grounds, has never been withdrawn." Austrian far-right expert Heribert Schiedel characterizes these fraternities as being "at the interface of legal far-right German nationalism and neo-Nazism."

Sebastian Kurz, the boy wonder of Austrian politics who rode to victory in 2017 and promptly invited the far right to share power, made a fateful and crudely immoral choice to legitimate the Freedom Party. He handed over to them Austria’s most prestigious and sensitive ministries. 

Now, of course, he talks about how disappointed he is by Strache’s behavior. But the far right will always be the snake who bite your hand. As Alina Polyakova recently wrote in the New York Times, "Austria should serve as a warning call that the far-right parties cannot be ‘civilized’ - or trusted." 

Part of Kurz’s disappointment must surely be that only two years after the last election, he now has to campaign all over again to seek reelection. And since the rest of the Freedom Party’s ministers resigned en masse on Monday, he has to organize for technocrat caretakers to do their work. And the elections for the European Parliament are even sooner: less than a week away.

But is this all really good news for the forces of light and liberal democracy in Europe? Can a scandal like this really undermine support for the parliamentary far right in Austria?

The sole poll since the Freedom Party’s expulsion from government shows its support has fallen by 5 percent, down to 18 percent. Ebullient forecasts that it would win a couple of more seats in the EU elections (up from four in 2014) will be discounted down too.

But bringing down the far right because of base corruption, even it’s flavored with openness to Kremlin influence campaigns and authoritarian control of the press à la Viktor Orbán, is still frustratingly pedestrian.

Precisely 1,316,442 Austrians voted for the Freedom Party in 2017, because the party’s platform resonated with them. And thanks to Kurz, that grotesquely xenophobic platform is no longer just a piece of paper or the ravings of a peripheral extremist; it was being implemented - in spirit, if not in all its details - in the heart of government.

Marine Le Pen, queen of Europe’s ethno-nationalists and key player in the pan-European far-right coalition contesting the EU elections, sees this. After the video emerged, she commented that the Freedom Party "has 25 percent of the [Austrian] electorate, so [the accusations] won’t make the party disappear."

And if Kurz’s own horribly insufficient, ethically incapacitated summary of the scandal is anything to go by, Austria’s far right will hardly be disqualified in the eyes of its base.

He criticized Strache and his party’s response to the video thus: "I have not had the impression that there is an understanding for the dimension of the whole affair…I also had the feeling there is not the necessary sensibility to handle these accusations."

"Necessary sensibility" is surely not an attribute that could ever have been credited to the Freedom Party. Its raison d'être is to provoke and revolt the sensibilities of those who hoped that postwar Europe would follow a linear, not circular, path. 

And that Sebastian Kurz is now offended by its "insensitivity," after two years in which he has cozily cohabited with the party, exposes both his historical ignorance and the damage he has inflicted on today’s Europe. His appeasement of, and collaboration with, the far right is a moral stain and precedent that will have far-reaching consequences beyond Austria’s borders.

Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon