Austria prepares for elections on 15 October which are likely to result in the far-right Freedom Party helping to form the next government. Nick Evans reviews a new book documenting the extremist groups that now dominate the party.
Review of: Hans-Henning Scharsach (with Christa Eveline Spitzbart), Stille Machtergreifung: Hofer, Strache und die Burschenschaften [Silent Coup: Hofer, Strache and the Fraternities] (Kremayr & Scheriau: Vienna, 2007). 240 pp. €22.
The far-right are preparing to join the government in Austria. Last December, the far-right Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was defeated in a re-run of the presidential election by the independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. However, the FPÖ now looks set to make significant gains at the legislative elections on 15 October.
A deadlock between the two governing parties – the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) – brought about the early legislative election. The ÖVP have a young new leader, Sebastian Kurz (currently the Foreign Minister), who is running on a hardline anti-migrant ticket, and are leading the polls. The most likely outcome now appears to be an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, although the SPÖ have also indicated they would consider a coalition with the FPÖ. Neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP have been above using antisemitic and anti-migrant tropes in their own campaigning.
Meanwhile, a new book by the Austrian investigative journalist Hans-Henning Scharsach argues that the Freedom Party, especially in its current form, represents a particular threat to Austrian democracy. The book addresses itself to the ‘civil society resistance’ (p. 10), and is accompanied by a useful website [in German].
Scharsach’s focus is on the relationship between the current leadership of the Freedom Party and the Burschenschaften: extreme right-wing German nationalist fraternities, which favour unification of Austria and Germany in a single ethnic state.1 Both Norbert Hofer and the party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, belong to Burschenschaften. The fraternities dominate the party to a much greater extent than they did under Jörg Haider, who was the leader until a split in 2005. Women have been excluded altogether from the upper leadership of the party (pp. 14–15, 93).
The Burschenschaften go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Scharsach traces antisemitic traditions among the Burschenschaften from the beginning: the burning of books by Jewish and ‘non-German’ authors by the Burschenschaften in Wartberg in 1817 provided a model for the 1933 Nazi book-burnings (p. 30). In the 1960s, the Innsbruck fraternity Suevia still specified that no ‘non-German’ could be allowed to join, and ‘that the Jew therefore has no place in the fraternity’. In 1987, the Burschenschaften nominated Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize (p. 32).
Islamophobic rather than antisemitic tropes predominate in the Freedom Party’s outward-facing propaganda. In 2010, Strache made a visit to Israel, which he described as ‘Europe’s bulwark against Islam’. At the same time, he kept fellow members of the ‘Jewish-free’ Burschenschaften happy by wearing their cap to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem (p. 40).
The Burscheschaften have never made any attempt to break with the history of the Nazi regime. They continue to ‘respectfully commemorate’ Nazi war criminals on their membership lists. Scharsach reveals that such lists include Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the director of the Third Reich’s central security office, a commandant from Treblinka, the concentration camp doctor Hermann Richter, and Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, the SS-chief in charge of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, personally responsible for the murder of at least 1,000 and the deportation of 55,000 Jewish women and men (pp. 50–1).
Under Strache’s leadership, the Freedom Party has styled itself as the ‘social homeland party’ (‘sozialen Heimatpartei’), but Scharsach demonstrates that their record has been consistently to support attacks on workers’ rights and any forms of social protection (pp. 87–90). Scharsach links this with their concept of the indivisible Volksgemeinschaft (‘national community’), a term that Jörg Haider had removed from the party programme in 1997, but that the current leadership reintroduced in 2011 (pp. 66–7). In Nazi terminology, the Volksgemeinschaft excluded non-Germans, but also allowed no place for workers’ organisations such as trade unions, which divided the imagined unity of the national community. In 2015, the Freedom Party joined the small neoliberal party, the (aptly named) Neos, in campaigning for new anti-trade union laws (p. 91).
The Burschenschaften and Freedom Party present themselves as victims of misrepresentation by the ‘mainstream media’, which they habitually refer to by the Nazi term Lügenpresse (pp. 141–4). In fact, they are constantly given a platform by Austria’s largest newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, which is read by almost a quarter of the Austrian population (no British newspaper has anything like that reach). Scharsach documents the feedback loop between the social media accounts of the Freedom Party leadership, the fraternities and the Kronen Zeitung. ‘Fake news’ that appears on fraternity social media accounts is reproduced verbatim by the Kronen, and then reposted from the Kronen by the Freedom Party leadership (pp. 130–3).
The post-war history of the Burschenschaften has also been one of physical violence. In the 1970s, Norbert Burger, who belonged to the Olympia Wien fraternity, joined up with German nationalist terrorists from South Tyrol (Alto Adige) in northern Italy and members of various Burschenschaften to form the violent National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP’s activities included bombing a cinema on Hitler’s birthday, and attacking left-wing youth centres. Martin Graf, a fellow member of Olympia, and the Freedom Party’s chief representative in the parliament before Norbert Hofer, spoke of how he had ‘always treasured Norbert Burger’ (p. 156).
Scharsach’s book is written for an Austrian audience, and its aim is straightforward: to provide an overwhelming body of evidence to demonstrate the threat that the Freedom Party poses to Austrian democracy. He has tried to prove that the Freedom Party has moved to the right under the current leadership, and that alongside its public-facing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric, it harbours extreme misogynist, antisemitic, profoundly anti-democratic politics directly rooted in the tradition of National Socialism.
What the book does not attempt to do is to place the developments within Austria in the context of wider developments in Europe and beyond. Nor does it analyse the social base for the Freedom Party’s support, which goes far beyond the very small numbers of male students and ex-students in the Burschenschaften. It rightly criticises a widespread complacency about the Freedom Party, and provides a very valuable service in gathering together evidence to puncture that complacency. But there are also urgent questions to be asked about a political culture that has allowed such groups to flourish, and about the conditions that could bring what do still remain very marginal views into the mainstream of Austrian politics once again.
1 Not to be confused with Austria’s Catholic fraternities.