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.