29.10.2017 Author: Seth Ferris

Austria: The Most Threatening of the Far Right Triumphs for Europe and the EU


In 1967 the actor Richard Harris played the lead in the film of the musical Camelot. He acted the part well, but his singing could best be described as “hopeful”. In effect he spoke the lyrics on pitch, in a tone of trembling hysteria designed to disguise this.

Unfortunately this convinced Harris that he was a real singer. He released several albums, which included songs such as the notorious MacArthur Park, the one about leaving the cake out in the rain. This was a hit to begin with, due to Harris’ celebrity, but soon became the subject of relentless parody, and Harris’ promotion as a singer was recognised as the PR stunt it was.

A few years later Telly Savalas was at the height of his TV fame and likewise asked to make a music album. He also couldn’t sing very well, but he knew it. So he largely spoke his songs, in the voice already wowing people on screen.

When Savalas did try and sing, you saw why he did it this way. But few people cared, because he was playing to his strengths. The music-buying public stayed with him much longer, because he did what they already knew he could do without pretending to be something he wasn’t.

This is the difference between the AfD, the far right party which did so well in the recent German elections, and the FPÖ, which has now done even better in Austria. The AfD’s random collection of standard far rightist mantras wins it votes. But those votes are merely wilful posturing by people who want to make a noise because they are outsiders. If the AfD was obliged to contribute something positive it would collapse overnight, and it will never be asked to join any German government.

The FPÖ plays to its strengths – the fundamental weaknesses and guilt of the Austrian people. It claims to stand for the “real Austria”, and both friend and foe know that, unfortunately, it does. That is why it is highly likely to enter into the next Austrian government, despite the fact Austria was made an international pariah the last time it allowed this to happen.

It is typical of Austria to follow the pattern of Germany. Both countries were re-invented as republics in 1918 and tried to pretend their imperial pasts never existed, and both have turned broadly right or left at the same time. But Austria’s far right is much more advanced than Germany’s would-be “Champagne Hitlers” because its people didn’t change their spots as much. Germany is still apologising for World War II. Austria still thinks World War II, and those who remember how most Austrians welcomed the Anschluss, should apologise to it.

The FPÖ is the antithesis of what modern Europe claims to be, but it will always represent a fundamental element of the Austrian national psyche. The complexes of Austrians have created it, and will always be fed by it. Sooner or later Europe will have to stop labelling it as neo-Nazi, as if it will go away like Hitler did. If you want Austria you will get the FPÖ in one form or another, and if Europe doesn’t like that, it will have to find a way of addressing this reality sooner or later.

All guilty so all innocent

In his seminal work ‘Ajax, The Dutch, The War: Football in Europe During the Second World War’  Dutch Jewish author Simon Kuper points out that every act of defiance of the Nazi occupiers seems to be celebrated in the Netherlands by some sort of monument, but the Dutch were generally “grey and cowardly” during the war, doing the Nazis’ bidding. It was Dutchmen who closed the doors of the trains bound for the extermination camps, while in Bulgaria, a German ally, even the government refused to do this.

Kuper suggests that every act of rebellion is celebrated for this very reason: the Dutch know their past too well to allow it to become the official history. Austria is in the same position, but more so. Austrians have inherited an inglorious past which can’t be the Austria of today. But they can’t seem to get over it whilst remaining Austrian and this is what is propelling the FPÖ.

The rump Austrian state founded after World War One didn’t really want to exist, but was denied any connection with the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire it had once ruled, which that war had swept away. It was like being evicted from a palace and plonked in a council house on a rough estate, where you were sneered at for being different.

It demanded unification with Germany, but this was forbidden by the allies, who were determined to punish the old Empire for starting the war even after its death. This gave Austrians the sense that they were being punished for the crime of being ethnic Germans.

Though the Anschluss was achieved by Hitler and Mussolini acting against the Austrian government, many Austrians welcomed it as a means of regaining self-esteem. It was inevitable that many Austrians would serve the Austrian-born Adolph Hitler, whether forced to or not. When they were forced to face what they had done, this heaped shame upon shame, and the post-war world wasn’t going to let them forget it.

Many remember the outcry when former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was elected President of Austria in 1986. Waldheim wasn’t an FPÖ member, but had served in the Nazi Wehrmacht whilst it was committing war crimes in Greece and Serbia. He had lied about this in his official autobiography, claiming he had been invalided out two years before his unit massacred civilians a few yards from his office.

The UN didn’t seem to be damaged by the allegations against Waldheim, but they made many Austrians feel they were being persecuted. Many who didn’t even vote for Waldheim felt that anything said about an ex-Nazi who wouldn’t tell the truth was an attack on Austria itself. After all, he was hardly the only one. Austria long refused to investigate or prosecute senior Nazis who were Austrian citizens because this would so damage the credibility of the country, so much so, that it would not be able to sustain itself as a state.

Therefore many Austrians will always feel that the rest of the world is conspiring against them. This is not a baseless allegation either: the CIA had always known about Waldheim’s wartime activities, but not released the information until it could damage Austria rather than the UN. The fact that Austria is a rich country, but still hasn’t got over its national humiliation, has only made people more interested in building a defensive, highly protectionist state, where Austrians can dominate the foreigners who have imposed this humiliation, and their values, upon them.

Sheep in wolf’s clothing

Waldheim’s conservative People’s Party, led by Sebastian Kurz, has been asked to form the next Austrian government as it won the most seats. But it did this by stealing a lot of the FPÖ’s clothes, spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric and tax cuts for the sake of them. This leaves the FPÖ in the driving seat in negotiations, as Kurz knows he got to where he is by taking advantage of it, but can only stay there if he lets the FPÖ take advantage of him in return.

Kurz’s rightward drift may have attracted some FPÖ voters, but not enough to knock them out of contention: they finished on 51 seats, only one behind the second-placed Social Democrats and 11 more than last time round. The FPÖ benefitted from this policy overlap as much as Kurz did. When it comes to agreeing coalition terms it is these common areas, which are more strongly associated with the FPÖ, which will have to be at the heart of them.

The FPÖ is saying that there is no need to rush the coalition talks. If it remained in opposition, Kurz would no longer be able to deliver, or represent, what people voted for. The Social Democrats have put distance between themselves and the FPÖ, but its own previous coalition with the People’s Party collapsed acrimoniously. The combined People’s Party-FPÖ vote of 57.5% is much more clearly for a common programme than the combined People’s Party-Social Democrat vote of 58.4%, or any other combination of party totals you could name.

The FPÖ says that the price of coalition is the Interior Ministry. This deals with immigration issues. If there was only one area the public associated the FPÖ with, it would be immigration. If it could only have one ministry it would want that one, and granting this wish this would give Kurz every reason to appoint a strongly pro-European member of his own party to the Foreign Ministry, as this is the area where the two parties disagree most, and coalition is supposed to mean balance and consensus.

Furthermore, Kurz could be happy to trade off the Interior Ministry in exchange for a demonstrably more effective Foreign Ministry than the one in the last People’s Party-FPÖ coalition in 1999-2006. When that coalition was formed the EU imposed sanctions on Austria because the FPÖ was considered a threat to democracy. These were eventually lifted however when it acted sensibly in government, and its roots in the Austrian population became clear.

It is highly unlikely the EU will go down the sanctions route again, and the implication that Austria is still right and the EU still knows it was wrong will prove a valuable bargaining chip in the months to come. Kurz also needs success in this area to balance anything the FPÖ may do at the Interior Ministry. If both parties get the ministries of their choice, much will rest on how their performance is compared by the electorate. If Kurz gets more out of the EU with his guy, following People’s Party policy, than the FPÖ does from bashing migrants in the name of democracy, he may not need the FPÖ so much next time round.

Gateau in the flesh

All this leaves the EU in a much more precarious position than the German election did. Frauke Petry has left the AfD because she cannot sanitise it, and give it a place in the mainstream. The FPÖ achieved that long ago, but did so whilst remaining as Eurosceptic as ever, making the other parties turn to it rather than the contrary.

The EU has not yet worked out a consistent policy which will address one of the FPÖ’s main desires: greater regionalism within the EU. When the four member states of the Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary and Poland) joined the EU together in 2004 the EU thought the group would wither away, as it had achieved its stated aim of achieving European integration for those countries. Instead, they began to co-operate more with each other and less with the EU, as they had different reasons for joining the EU than the older members, who they did not have many positive things in common with.

With the older EU members still constructing a two-speed Europe in which the dependent states know their place, the FPÖ wants Austria to join this increasingly Eurosceptic grouping and make it more so. This would be a serious matter, because Austria is not as easy to isolate as the existing Visegrad countries. It is a more developed democracy, and a very wealthy one: the EU may not have Switzerland, but Austria is the equivalent. Second tier countries forming their own rump is one thing, an entitled member of the rich man’s club joining it in preference to getting more benefits from you is quite another.

If Kurz keeps the Foreign Ministry out of FPÖ hands this will alleviate the EU’s problem, but only for a while. If too many countries feel they are in the second tier, they may have the numbers to create a different sort of Europe which has a different set of ideals – the “Europe of Fatherlands” the FPÖ speaks of. If the EU can’t address this, it would be better off disbanding than continuing under a different set of principles, as the latter option would also bring with it a geopolitical power shift, and no one contemplates one of those unless they are in very desperate circumstances.

The FPÖ also wants the EU to lift its sanctions against Russia. This actually strengthens the EU’s hand, as it can portray “sanctions lifters” as far rightists and therefore not representative. But it also helps the FPÖ domestically to support the country’s traditional enemy and then be lambasted by Europe for it despite the support the party has in Austria. The EU will need to come up with new reasons to keep the sanctions regime in place if it wants to prevent Austria leading a new type of EU, which would end the careers of too many people who are only in the EU because they are has-beens back home.

The renewed participation of the FPÖ in the Austrian government will make the EU think hard about what it should be, just as it is gloating over its regeneration in the wake of the UK’s incompetent attempts to leave it. Even if the FPÖ doesn’t handle foreign affairs or economics, you can’t deal with Austria without embracing the reasons the FPÖ is there. But if you do that, you only strengthen the FPÖ in the short term.

If both the FPÖ and the EU play to their strengths the FPÖ wins, and you can’t criminalise a whole member country and expect anything good to result from that. It is doing that which gave the FPÖ those strengths, long before it was even thought of. The UK is anything but the straw which will break the EU’s back, but Austria just might be, however pro-European it is in theory.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.