In a blaze of self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and sinister conspiracy theories, far-right Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian resigned last week as Austria’s vice-chancellor. One would expect a government minister caught offering government contracts to someone he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch in return for her financial support to show some humility.
Rather, the man better known as "H.C." left the political arena much as he had entered it.
"Rumors of foreign-funded dirty campaigning or secret services operations have long hung in the air," Strache began. "Over the past three years, I’ve had to life with a great deal of slander and defamation but what was staged [in Ibiza] is on a whole other level."
It was a disinformation campaign, he said, a targeted political assassination, a commissioned work that repeatedly violated criminal law. As he weaved his conspiratorial web, there was one name Strache kept coming back to: Tal Silberstein.
Back in 2017, Silberstein, an election strategist who worked on Ehud Barak’s winning 1999 campaign, was an advisor to Austria’s Social Democrats. That August, Israeli police detained Silberstein on allegations of corruption and money laundering and the Social Democrats quickly cut their ties with him.
A month later, Austrian media revealed Silberstein had been behind fake Facebook pages that sought to tarnish Kurz and his supporters as racists, anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.
Silberstein’s name became a by-word for dirty campaigning but one that, even outside of the far-right, quickly took on anti-Semitic undertones. Left-alternative candidate Peter Pilz said that his "biggest goal in politics" was to make Austria "Silberstein-free." And at campaign’s end, Kurz said he saw the election as a "referendum on whether we want to have Silbersteins in Austria."
Members of the Jewish community aligned to his People’s Party warned him then of the dangers of such off-hand remarks; Kurz said he didn’t realize its implications.
Two years later, Silberstein maintains an outsized presence in Austrian political life. In order to make clear the scale of the offence committed against him, the name Strache reached for was Silberstein’s: "Silberstein-style" dirty disinformation campaign unsurpassed in its perfidy and maliciousness, he said. Freedom Party general secretary Christian Hafenecker, too, attacked the alleged "dirty Silberstein methods" behind the video.
Such things are to be expected from the far-right, but that Kurz - who has sought to distinguish himself as being pro-Israel and anti-anti-Semitic during his time in office - took up Silberstein’s name anew was especially troubling.
In an interview with the German tabloid Bild, he said it was "possible" Silberstein was behind the candid video. "If we’re talking about the methods used, it reminds me a lot of Tal Silberstein, who has applied similar methods all over the world."
The Austro-Israeli novelist Doron Rabinovici rightly warned Kurz not to play such a "wholly irresponsible game" with anti-Semitic stereotypes.
There is nothing at this stage to suggest that Silberstein has anything to do with the Ibiza tapes, and he has denied any involvement. There was nothing to suggest, either, that he had any connection with the Social Democrats’ opposition to the new 12-hour working week, with the construction of a new mosque in Vienna, or with the mobilization of the trades unions. But that didn’t stop the Freedom Party from throwing his name around then too.
That Silberstein just keeps coming up speaks to something rotten at the heart of Austrian political culture.
Comparable to the cult of Soros-hatred in Hungary, which stems from its prime minister Viktor Orbán, it shows the enduring power of the myth of the omnipresent, omnipotent Jew on the far-right of European politics.
During the 2017 election in Austria, it was not uncommon to see Soros’s name graffiti-style scrawled over Social Democrats’ election posters, but unlike Soros, the name Silberstein has no purchase beyond Austria’s borders. But evidently, Soros and Silberstein play the same role in the corrupt far-right mind: that of the phantom Jew at the center of a far larger, darker conspiracy.
In 2018, the now-disgraced former Freedom Party chief whip Johann Gudenus accused Soros of being behind the "waves of migration" that reached Europe in 2015 and thereafter. Then, it was Kurz who defended Soros, meeting with him Vienna to discuss moving his Central European University from Budapest.
That Kurz reaches for the name Silberstein is not because he himself is anti-Semitic - far from it. He references Silberstein perhaps because he simply isn’t aware of the power of his own words, but even likely, because the far-right has made it both acceptable and even advantageous to do so.
The Silberstein myth, then, shows above all that the legacy of the far-right’s empowerment will not necessarily be legislative but rhetorical; the policies they pushed may not stand but their introduction of conspiratorial tropes and scapegoats will.
The next government can, if they so wish, undo the Freedom Party’s damage to the Austrian constitutional state and the lives of migrants, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable groups. Harder both to quantify and unpick is the toll inflicted upon political discourse.
As Rabinovici says at the end of his most recent play, "Anything Can Happen," the far-right has succeeded in Europe not only because they have made what was once unspeakable speakable - but because they have found an audience who is willing to listen.
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