Heinz-Christian Strache started his political career in the 1980s as a young man crawling around in the woods with neo-Nazi paramilitary groups and getting arrested by the German police.
He then made it all the way to the vice chancellorship of Austria before he was stopped, finally, by a video that shows him drunkenly fantasizing, with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch, about collecting piles of illegal campaign cash and firing unfriendly journalists at Austria’s largest newspaper, all with the goal of turning his country into a Russia-funded autocracy.
The video, filmed in 2017, was made public by German media Friday evening; Strache resigned the following day.
Neither about the neo-Nazi crawling nor about the autocracy fantasizing has Strache ever taken any responsibility. The neo-Nazi thing was really just a “paintball game.” The video was, it had to be admitted, embarrassing, but Strache dismissed it, in his resignation speech, as the kind of “boastful,” “macho behavior” anyone might engage in who’s had a few too many. Let him who has never drunkenly planned a fascist dictatorship cast the first stone!
The most important fact about the secretly made video that caused Strache’s downfall is that it provided no new information about him at all. What could possibly be surprising in hearing Strache dream about the same kind of political project that he must have discussed with his friends in younger days back at the “paintball game”? Without any deviation, from the start of his career to the end (if this is the end), he has pursued that same project.
At the time of his resignation, Strache was governing Austria as leader of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), a group founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, in a coalition with the old mainline conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). Like right-wing politicians in so many countries today, Heinz-Christian Strache had elevated the refusal ever to take responsibility for anything into the essence of his political technique. The ÖVP, in bringing Strache and the FPÖ into government, made that technique its own, and poisoned European politics into the bargain.
From the time this coalition government started, in December 2017, until the moment it ended, on May 18, Austria lurched from one outrageous spectacle of right-wing iniquity to another, from one embarrassing scandal to another. None of the spectacles and none of the scandals had any impact, other than to cheapen, by their very accumulation, the notion of political responsibility itself.
An FPÖ-linked club was caught using a songbook that called for the gassing of the “seventh million.” An armed police unit was sent by the FPÖ-led interior minister to raid the government agency that is supposed to monitor the neo-Nazi threat in the country. A local FPÖ official published a poem comparing immigrants to rats. A state-level FPÖ club published a poster portraying Muslim immigrants the way Jews were portrayed in Der Stürmer. The FPÖ leadership then attacked the journalist who pointed this out. Countless Facebook posts were made or shared by FPÖ activists and officials with Nazi or Nazi-like content. The white-supremacist terrorist who killed 51 people in New Zealand in March had been in contact with and donated money to a right-wing group tied to the FPÖ.
It was discovered that the recipient of that donation deleted e-mails from the terrorist 41 minutes before the police searched his apartment, leading to suspicions that he’d been tipped off by far-right activists inside the police force. Because of such suspicions, other European countries and the United States had already stopped sharing vital security-related intelligence with Austria. And this list is only a selection of some of the worst incidents.
All the while, what was clearly happening was said not to be happening. ÖVP head Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s 32-year-old chancellor, who brought Strache’s FPÖ into government, has led his country with a mix of immaturity and cynicism. After each and every one of the FPÖ’s outrages, Kurz would say something about how unacceptable it all was and demand that his coalition partners “distance themselves” from whatever bad thing had been done. It was always self-evident that all this “distancing” was never going to mean anything. On the other hand, there was a juicy tax-cut bill in the works, so what was one supposed to do?
Now that the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition of irresponsibility has collapsed, Austria will hold new elections at the end of the summer. We still do not know who was behind the video that led to this moment. Why was the video made in 2017, before the Austrian elections in the fall of that year, but not made public until now?
It seems that someone was waiting for the most propitious moment to kneecap Strache. On the principle of cui bono, it’s possible that Kurz had something to do with it. The ÖVP will come out of new elections as the strongest party, and it may even be able to govern alone.
Kurz’s political project has been to “reform” the ÖVP, purging the last vestiges of Christianity-based market skepticism and co-opting the essence of the anti-foreigner and anti-EU rhetoric of the FPÖ, packaging the whole thing in slick marketing language for a new generation of rightist neoliberals who lack the sense of historical responsibility their elders had. With the FPÖ reduced to rubble, there will be a pool of voters Kurz could try to durably integrate into his own party. All the other opposition parties—including the formerly ruling center-left Social Democratic Party—are small and ineffective these days. Strache, on the video, dreams of creating a regime like that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Perhaps Kurz, and not Strache, will turn out to be the Austrian Orbán.