Europe’s newest right-wing government took office on December 18; this time in Austria. The two parties that form the government are the Freedom Party and the People’s Party. During the fall campaign, they vilified refugees, attacked Vienna (Austria’s liberal, big-city capital), and—less loudly—promised major tax cuts for the rich. This won them a combined 57.5 percent of the vote. Austria thus appears to be the newest member in the Central European club of “illiberal democracy,” as Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán proudly calls it. But the Austrian situation is—for those of us who prefer our democracy liberal—both scarier and less scary than that of its neighbors.
First, the bad news: The leader of the Freedom Party and the new vice chancellor of Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache, has been photographed more than once participating in paramilitary exercises with banned Nazi groups. Newspapers in Munich and Vienna published these photos along with Strache’s case-by-case denials, which usually amounted to vague explanations about “paintball games” that he had not realized were “political.” Also, Strache was once arrested by police in Germany for marching with neo-Nazis there, and he participated in the shouting-down of a performance of Thomas Bernhard’s famous 1988 play Heroes’ Square, which criticized Austria for its failure to deal with its Nazi past.
The Freedom Party has long been at the center of this failure. Some media in the United States, including The New York Times, have said that the party was founded by neo-Nazis. This is inaccurate. The party was founded by the original Nazis in the 1950s and led by Nazis until the 1980s. Technically, they were ex-Nazis, but the “ex” applies only because Hitler’s Germany, of which Austria was a province, had been defeated.
The first chairman of the party was Anton Reinthaller. He started as a Nazi activist opposed to Austria’s First Republic after World War I, then became a member of the Reichstag after the country joined Nazi Germany in 1938. He went on to hold numerous high-level positions in Hitler’s government, including in the cabinet. For this, he served a jail sentence under American occupation forces. Reinthaller died in 1958 and was succeeded as Freedom Party leader by Friedrich Peter, another former Nazi Party member and an officer in the SS. Peter ran the party formally until 1978 and then played an informal role well into the 1980s. This is the political lineage of Vice Chancellor Strache. (Strache has denied being a neo-Nazi.)
In the 1990s and 2000s, the Freedom Party was led by Jörg Haider, an adept of Trumpism avant la lettre, who combined populist demagogy on race and immigration with neoliberal economics, all while promising to destroy the corrupt establishment. Haider, who was born after World War II, danced freely around the limits on far-right rhetoric that had prevailed in the first postwar decades. Some of these antics were too much for even SS-Obersturmbannführer Peter, who criticized Haider in 1991 for saying that at least the Third Reich had had “a proper jobs policy.” Peter thought the party should cultivate a more responsible image; Haider realized the rules were changing as memories of the Nazi period faded.
Throughout the 1990s, the Freedom Party developed the hallmarks of its current style: scare tactics about refugees; attacks on bien-pensant urban intellectuals, artists, and the media; and pledges to reduce taxes. When I lived in Vienna in the late 1990s, Freedom Party activists would distribute leaflets informing you how many foreigners had moved into the neighborhood recently. The refugees then were from the Bosnian war. Today, they’re from the Syrian war. Their political function in Freedom Party rhetoric is the same.
The other half of the new government is the Austrian People’s Party, led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 31, who has already served as foreign minister. The People’s Party had always had a traditional conservative orientation and helped build Austria’s democracy after 1945. But during the last election, Kurz adopted many of the Freedom Party’s positions, much of its inflammatory rhetoric, and its media-driven style. Also, he changed his party’s traditional color from black (historically the color of conservative Catholic opposition to left-secularism—think Stendhal’s The Red and the Black) to turquoise; making it much closer, if not quite identical, to the Freedom Party’s blue. This was all part of Kurz’s pledge to introduce “a new style” in Austrian politics.
In contrast to Trump, the new Austrian leader has not doubled down on overheated campaign rhetoric, but has seemed at pains to strike a statesmanlike tone, promising, for example, not to pursue an anti-EU course, and pledging that Austria will fulfill its “duty” to remain mindful of the Nazi past. In late December, an official from Kurz’s party confirmed government funding for a memorial in Belarus to murdered Austrian Jews.
For its first move, in an attempt to underscore its supposed commitment to “the little guy,” the new government announced a reduction in the unemployment-insurance tax on income between about $18,000 and $27,000 per year (income below that level isn’t subject to the tax). This will result in a gain of, on average, only about $350 per year for the affected families. But buried deep in the published coalition agreement are draconian reductions in benefits for those who might actually need to draw unemployment insurance, to say nothing of the major tax cuts planned for the country’s wealthiest citizens, who will walk away with a lot more than $350 a year.
Meanwhile, an early fight is already brewing over refugees. The Freedom Party wants to reduce the public benefits paid to newcomers—even those whose asylum claims are granted—below the level paid to native-born Austrians. And a Freedom Party leader in the new Parliament has called for the 13,000 refugees now living in dispersed housing in Vienna to be placed together in a camp on the edge of the city. The mayor of Vienna, Michael Häupl, a Social Democrat, has pledged to do whatever he can to fight these moves, including in court, and has styled himself and his city as the firm opponent of what he attacks as the new government’s plans to destroy Austria’s generous welfare state.
Which brings us, finally, to the good news: If there is any European country where the Social Democrats still have a chance to play this kind of oppositional role to the disease of right-wing populism, it might just be Austria. First, the Austrian Social Democrats are not as tainted by neoliberalism as center-left parties in other European countries. Unlike their counterparts in the West, they never really took the Blairite Third Way; they retain credibility as opponents of trickle-down populism. Second, unlike their counterparts in the East, they cannot be criticized as water carriers for global capital or for selling off the economy to foreign investors. Orbán, in Hungary, and the Law and Justice Party, in Poland, blame the center-left technocrats who prevailed over the transition from communism for all the disappointed dreams of the 1990s. This is the essence of their politics. But this won’t work in Austria for the simple reason that the country was never communist and had no “transition” to be disappointed about. Third, Austria’s Social Democrats achieved a decent result in these elections, performing about the same as they had the previous time. The party is by no means in the woeful condition of, say, the French Socialists. Besides the welcome combative tone taken by Häupl and other Social Democrats, these are all reasons that the advent of this right-wing government in Austria feels not like the end but like the beginning of a battle.
Kurz and Strache might be thinking along exactly these lines. In the new government, the Freedom Party was awarded control of all the security-related agencies, including the crucial interior ministry, which in European countries is the ministry that controls domestic intelligence and the police. The new interior minister, Herbert Kickl, who used to be Jörg Haider’s speechwriter, is one of the Freedom Party’s most extravagantly racist and xenophobic leaders. On the ministerial staff he has placed a man who ran a website that Austria’s own Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism describes as “extremely xenophobic,” with “anti-Semitic tendencies” and a “pro-Russia ideology.”
That such people have been placed in charge of internal security is a frightening development. The German journalist Werner Perger thinks it might be taken as a signal to the opposition “of what awaits them” should they protest the new government’s actions too strongly. Perger hopes that “democrats nevertheless will not be intimidated.” Here we have a perfectly mainstream and sober-minded journalist speculating, in the respected weekly Die Zeit, on whether the opposition in a Western democracy will be persecuted by the police. I can think of no better commentary on the shabby state of European politics today.