As you’ve probably read, Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) narrowly lost Austria’s recent presidential election. It was very close. The population of Austria is about 8.5 million; Hofer was defeated by 31,000 votes. The tie-breaking votes were postal votes, and these are now the subject of controversy: the Austrian interior minister has launched a probe into “irregularities” in postal voting. The near-election of Hofer, it has been widely reported, threw Europe into a panic:
There was an audible sigh of relief throughout Europe this week when the far-right candidate very narrowly failed to gain the highest office in Austria.
But the message from Austria is still very clear: Politics have changed, new forces are gaining strength, and there is no immediate turning back. And this applies well beyond Austria’s borders. …
But the reporting on this has been thin in the English-language press, and has failed to explain much about this party’s historical background, what exactly it means to call Hofer’s party “far-right,” and why Austria’s politics have changed.
One of our members, Lilibellt, was born and grew up in Innsbruck, the capital of Tyrol. She now lives in Vienna. She reluctantly voted for the FPÖ. Although she says she’s not a typical FPÖ voter, I suspect her perspective will give you more insight into Austrian politics than you’ll find elsewhere in the Anglophone press.
Lilibellt is 42 years old, and she works in the construction industry, as a project manager. In the past week, she and I exchanged an epic series of e-mails about Austrian history and politics, Europe, and immigration, totaling almost 20,000 words. We wanted to share our exchange with Ricochet, although obviously 20,000 words is too long and confusing for a single post.
Exchanging e-mails (even with a well-informed interlocutor) isn’t the same as journalism. The only way I can feel confident in reporting about this is by seeing it for myself and speaking to as many people, of as many different opinions, as possible. I haven’t set foot in Vienna in nearly 25 years. But Lilibellt has generously offered to introduce me to people on all sides of the political spectrum in Austria, and I plan to take her up on it. Austria is in some ways at the heart of the crisis in Europe, both geographically and historically, and spending time there will be especially interesting for the book I’m now researching.
For now, though, we both thought Ricochet would be interested in our e-mail. We’ll be posting the rest of it here, too, in a series, over the coming week. We’ve reorganized and edited the exchange for clarity and brevity.
PART I: THE MIGRANT CRISIS
Lilibellt: What we’re witnessing right now in Europe – to paraphrase Max Weber – is a battle between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of opinion. Immigration, up to a point, is a very good thing, but we [Austria] have done a very poor job of integrating Muslim immigrants from 10, 20, and 30 years ago. And I think you are with me on the necessity to differentiate between refugees and migrants, if only to help as many traumatized refugees as possible, aren’t you? [I am. — Claire] There is a factual limit to how many people you can let into a country and care for. If the available capacities are used up by migrants (who most likely will be turned away – from Afghanistan, Somalia, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, etc., but only after years of processing them due to our judicial system), there will be no place for real refugees.
After the Yugoslavian war, Austria took in the largest part of the refugees – real refugees – and they overall integrated very well into Austrian society. But this time, three-quarters of the asylum seekers, according to Eurostat, are male. This suggests to me that there is no imminent threat to their parents, wives, and children. They wouldn’t leave them behind unsecured and helpless, would they? [We discuss this statistic and what it means later in our exchange, which we’ll post this week — Claire.]
The official crime statistics show that more than a third of the “asylum seekers” in Vienna are committing crimes. Vienna was one of the safest metropolises in the world, without any no-go areas. When crime reports from the police or in newspapers don’t disclose the nationality or ethnic characteristic of the perpetrators of crime because it would be “racist,” girls and women are kept in the dark. There have been thefts, assaults, rapes (of children and of a 70-year-old woman) and even murders, including the murder of an American woman who was studying in Vienna. The reports that most outrage me are the growing accounts of sexual assault and rape of women and children in refugee camps on Austrian and German soil. How many more unreported cases are there? We can’t even guarantee the security of the weakest and protect the real refugees from the very threats they were fleeing from. It’s a disgrace.
[The protection of refugees] is a very serious concern for me. My husband and I have helped many people with a migrant background over the years. Our most recent involvement was last year, with a Chechen family. My husband, who speaks Russian, organized a very well-paid security job for the father and also helped to find an affordable flat and a school for the children in Vienna. I don’t want to self-congratulate us too much, but I think I can say with enough confidence that within our means, my husband and I have done more to help migrants than many of the vocal advocates of this “welcome refugee” action. And by all means, even more are welcome, either real refugees or migrants with minimum work skills, but on the crucial condition, yet to be established, that breaking the law (any offence, from battery upward) will result in immediate deportation.
Asylum should not be granted to everybody whose life is in danger. (Criminals like drug dealers, and so forth, who are facing the death penalty for these crimes in their home states should be deported regardless – just think about it: In order not to get deported, you only have to commit a severe enough crime – three years in an Austrian prison and you can never ever be deported!) But asylum should, more broadly, be granted to people who are persecuted because of their religion, politics or race, not only when they are threatened with death. (I would think torture is no walk in the park either.)
It’s okay that things change, even become more difficult, but there is something disturbingly casual about the way that a society gives up on hard-fought achievements (yes, especially for women), on internal security, and on selecting who is allowed to enter the country in order to comply with this quixotic imperative of open borders. It is so much easier to destroy than to rebuild. I am not so much angry as deeply saddened, and I still consider myself – but perhaps in an anachronistic way – pro-immigration.
PART II: THE NAZI PAST OF THE FPÖ
Claire: This makes sense, and certainly doesn’t sound like a “racist” or “xenophobic” perspective. But this is the way FPÖ voters are usually described in the Anglophone media. The FPÖ is also usually described as a “far-right” party. This term isn’t helpful: What does that mean, exactly? What is meaningful, and what alarms me, are the party’s links with Putin [we discuss this in a later email exchange], and that the FPÖ was founded, in 1956, by Nazis. The party’s first leader, Anton Reinthaller, was an SS Brigadeführer. Not a “neo-Nazi,” or “someone so offensive that he was compared to a Nazi,” but an actual Nazi, full stop —
Lilibellt: — I am really not sure if I would put it like this. The FPÖ was founded in 1955 through a merger with the VdU [the Federation of Independents]. The first head of the FPÖ, elected in 1956, was – as you stated correctly – an actual Nazi. But before that, the VdU had been for a decade the third political camp, apart from the socialist and conservative party. It was founded by two liberal-conservative journalists (Herbert Alois Kraus, who was court-martialed by the Nazis, and Viktor Reimann, who was in the resistance and imprisoned between 1940 and 1945). Its members were mainly the displaced and returnees from the war, but also former NSDAP members.
I want to point this out, because up until recently there was a battle between the national(ist) and liberal-conservative wing of the FPÖ. It would nevertheless be absolutely accurate to say that the FPÖ was the only political party in Austria with a Nazi as its leader. But then, we need to note that the SPÖ [the Social Democratic Party] was the only party in Austria with Nazis in the actual government (1971). By the same definition, the UN (1972-1981), and later Austria (1986-1992) had a Nazi as president, remember Kurt Waldheim (ÖVP)? [Austrian People’s Party]
Claire: Yeah, I remember him. I also remember that in 1958, Reinthaller was replaced by Friedrich Peter, another Nazi. He joined the NSDAP in 1938 and volunteered for the Waffen-SS at the age of 17. Simon Wiesenthal revealed that he had served at the western and eastern fronts as an Obersturmführer in the 10th regiment of the 1st SS Infantry Brigade, parts of which were detached to Einsatzgruppe C, which systematically exterminated hundreds of thousands of Jews. His unit was almost exclusively engaged in this activity —
Lilibellt: —and he went on to have a long and successful political career, which is typical of the shady resumés of many postwar politicians (in all Austrian parties). In 1966, the extreme right, nationalist members left the party and founded a new, short-lived party, the NDP [National Democratic Party]. In the meantime, Friedrich Peter had become their ideological opponent. He forced them out in order to strengthen the liberal-conservative wing of the FPÖ. This took place five years before the most famous postwar Austrian chancellor, Bruno Kreisky — who was Jewish and the leader of the Socialist Party — was sworn in as Chancellor along with five Nazis as his ministers!
Peter was subsequently the cause of the Kreisky-Wiesenthal conflict [the feud with Nazi hunter Wiesenthal]. He negotiated a coalition between the SPÖ and FPÖ in 1983, and he condemned the subsequent leader of the FPÖ, Jörg Haider, for his remark that the Third Reich at least had produced a good employment policy, unlike the SPÖ. Finally, Peter even left the party in 1992 over disagreements about the FPÖ’s new-found opposition to Austria’s EU accession —
Claire: — You used to be a leftist who protested against having the FPÖ in government. How did the party come to speak for you?
Lilibellt: I voted FPÖ, first, for reasons of political hygiene: For a parliamentary system to work, it is vital to be able to vote a government out of office every once in awhile. But that seemed more and more unlikely in a country where the major parties have been bound together in a coalition for decades, with few interruption. Now, as they’re losing more votes from election to election, the Green Party and the Neos [The New Austria and Liberal Forum] are preparing to jump in to ensure the continuation of the status quo in exchange for one or two ministerial posts. So I went from being a protester against the government because of the participation of the FPÖ to being a supporter of the very party that I opposed years ago. The only opposition party left is the FPÖ.
Claire: Has the party changed to allow you to be more comfortable voting for it? Is your view, “Their history is unpleasant and embarrassing, but they’ve changed, and if they’re the only ones willing to address [the migration crisis], what choice do we have?” or do you think, “Of course we don’t really want them in power, this is a protest vote to show how desperate and angry we are that there’s no proper opposition party?”
Lilibellt: Actually, both. Just to clarify, it is impossible to vote for any party in Austria that never had any Nazi members, except probably for the Green Party and other small parties, because they were founded much later. But even then you can’t be a 100-percent sure. That is the proverbial ambiguity of the Austrian soul. The numbers of Austrian resistance fighters were modest. The FPÖ still has some members with contacts on the [hardcore nationalist] far right, just as there are classical liberals in their ranks. I am not deluding myself. I was nevertheless determined to vote for the FPÖ in the presidential elections no matter what, because all other parties were indistinguishable in their stance on the so-called refugee-crisis —
Lilibellt: — Yes. Basically, after WWII the two major parties, ÖVP and SPÖ, split Austria up between them. You can call the coalition between ÖVP and FPÖ with Haider, from 2000-2007, an interregnum. Haider had to give up on becoming vice-chancellor because he was such a controversial figure. International protests had already started, and the Austrian president was reluctant to inaugurate this government at all. There were weekly protests on the streets, as you mentioned earlier – what fun it was, I never felt so self-righteous again in my whole life.
Claire: The sanctions were finally lifted. Remind us what happened to Jörg Haider?
Lilibellt: So Haider, whose personality wasn’t suited for standing in the second tier, split the party and founded a new one – the BZÖ [Alliance for the Future of Austria]. A very interesting turn of events indeed. In the ‘80s, Haider — with the help of the nationalistic faction of the Freedom Party — staged a coup against then FPÖ-leader Norbert Steger. Steger represented the classical-liberal wing of the party; he ousted the more nationalistic members and was, contrary to Haider, vice-chancellor of a SPÖ/FPÖ coalition (1980-1984) and vice-president of the Liberal International.
Then, 20 years later, Haider staged another coup, but this time against the nationalist wing of the party. His political star was rising again, but then he was killed in a car accident (under – depending on who you ask – more or less suspicious circumstances). After his death, there were rumors that he had been having a homosexual affair with his assistant. He was a political talent of a lifetime – a very sharp mind, with a deep knowledge of history and rhetorical skills. He was a man of means, too, and not dependent upon holding political office for income. Politically, he was an opportunist if not a cynic. He was surely one of the last Austrian politicians to read von Mises, Friedman, Schumpeter, et al., and I think the liberal way of thinking was closer to his heart. But when it came to power he chose whichever side was more likely to win. He had no reservations at all about extreme nationalists and revisionists, though! What disgusted me the most were his connections to the Gaddafi family. He was very close to one of the Gadhafi sons. It would have been hard for me to vote for the FPÖ if he’d still been on top of the ticket, even for the above-mentioned political hygiene reasons. I think you can relate in light of the Trump candidacy —
Claire: What exactly happened to the FPÖ after its separation from the BZÖ?
Lilibellt: Haider went back to being governor of Carinthia until his death. Many members of the FPÖ joined Haider’s BZÖ, which was still in a coalition with the ÖVP. H.C. Strache picked up the pieces that were left of the FPÖ. There were and are hardly any liberals left in the party; but on the other hand, the hardcore nationalists disappeared too. (Mostly, they died.) Strache is no Haider — not even a miniature version of him. He’s a descendent of Sudeten Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after WWII, raised by single mother in Vienna. But in 2006, pictures surfaced of him at the age of 19, showing him the uniform of a Wiking-Jugen [German neo-Nazi youth organization, banned in Austria in 1994]. That lent credibility to allegations that he had been intimate with neo-Nazi-circles until his mid-twenties.
Haider had invented a very distinct, snarky speaking style; many FPÖ-members – including Strache – imitate him to this day. Strache worked very hard to lead the FPÖ back to its glory days by broadening its base and bringing in new members without problematic backgrounds. The FPÖ is now at its core a social democratic party, concentrating on Austrian problems — and it’s critical of immigration.
Claire: We’ll get back to that, but what do you think about the other parties and candidates in the recent election?
Lilibellt: I didn’t bother to watch any of the other candidates. I already knew them from previous elections or from political offices they had held. I had already made up my mind to vote FPÖ, and they run, for the most part, rather dull candidates, so I wasn’t even very interested in Norbert Hofer. I knew he was the third president of the Austrian parliament, but nothing else about him was memorable to me. Then he initiated a signature campaign to protect the use of cash. [After the EU decided to withdraw the 500 Euro bill, rumors circulated in Austria that the EU planned to completely abolish the use of cash.] So I listened to the man for the first time and – imagine my surprise! – I was really impressed. Hofer wasn’t your typical FPÖ candidate. He didn’t display the aggressive, provocative, vindictive, snotty demeanor common to protest candidates (just look at Trump).
Twenty years ago, Hofer would have been a candidate for the conservative party. He’s from a deep black (equivalent to deep red in America) family in a little town called Pinkafeld. He joined the FPÖ early on. He emphasized his positions in a calm, self-confident manner; they were common sense, and would have been proposed in exactly the same way by any conservative politician only a decade ago.
So I looked him up: He had no known connection to any neo-Nazi organization. He was raised in a politically Christian, socially conservative family. He’s the co-author of the new FPÖ-program. He’s remarried to a geriatric nurse and he has three children. He’s a practicing Christian. After a paragliding accident almost left him paralyzed, he can now only walk with a stick. I see Norbert Hofer more in the tradition of Norbert Steger, but this remains to be seen and perhaps is only wishful thinking on my part.
In conversation with journalists and political opponents he came across conciliatory, but not obsequious, never apologetic. That impressed me the most. For example: When he was asked about his firearms in a shrill, almost hysterical tone by a female reporter he explained to her – not in a condescending way, he was very earnest and friendly – how focusing on the shot is almost meditative. The expression on the face of the reporter was priceless. He was good-natured overall. This is a conservative man through and through, with a conservative temperament and demeanor. If he’s a co-author of his party program, it means he is not only the front-man, with a friendly face, but also one of the brains behind the party. “I have to take a closer look at the FPÖ as they are now,” I thought to myself. That’s what I’ve been doing in my spare time since when I am not writing emails to you explaining why I voted FPÖ.
Do you see the difference?
I asked Lilibellt many more questions — about the migrant crisis, human trafficking, Turkish immigrants in Austria, Merkel, Putin, and other issues in Austrian and European politics. We also discussed the similarities and differences between the Austrian and the American electoral campaign. We’ll post these exchanges in the coming days.
In the meantime, please do ask her any questions you have about what things look like from Vienna. And please contribute if you’d like me to get out of my armchair and do my own reporting from Austria: Lilibellt and I are in complete agreement that far too few journalists are doing this, particularly along the migrant trail.