A few days ago, I posted the first part of an extended email exchange between me and one of our members, Lilibellt, an Austrian native who now lives in Vienna. Here’s the next part. It gets quite detailed, but even so, we’ve barely begun to discuss the other massive crisis facing Europe. Still, keep Putin in mind as you read this. Peter Dickinson argued in Newsweek yesterday that Europe is still in complete denial about it:
Many inside the EU seem unwilling to admit the 25-year honeymoon period of European peace and prosperity since 1991 is over. They cling to the idea of a return to the old “business as usual” status quo, and appear to believe Russian aggression is only an issue for Moscow’s immediate neighbors.
This policy of obstinate denial is not only morally bankrupt—it also encourages the Kremlin to escalate a hybrid war campaign designed to reverse the results of the Cold War and break up the European Union itself.
We discuss the Putin problem in subsequent email exchanges, which we’ll post soon. I just note it to place what follows in its larger context. Europe has no shortage of problems right now.
Claire: What, specifically, do you think should be done to stem the influx of migrants?
Lilibellt: Four things.
First: Restore lawfulness and secure the Schengen borders. The Schengen-Dublin dilemma shows the chaotic state of Europe at its best. My layman’s understanding of the Dublin III agreement and the Schengen Treaty is that in order to maintain open borders among the Schengen members, migrants and refugees must be processed in the countries they enter first. According to the safe third country rule, people who illegally enter the inland of the Schengen area have to be sent back to the country, within the Schengen territory, whose borders they most recently crossed–
A process for early warning, preparedness and management of asylum crises serving to prevent a deterioration in, or the collapse of, asylum systems, with EASO playing a key role using its powers under Regulation (EU) No 439/2010, should be established in order to ensure robust cooperation within the framework of this Regulation and to develop mutual trust among Member States with respect to asylum policy.
What do the words “solidarity” and “trust” mean in concrete, legal terms? I don’t know and doubt anyone does. But according to (EU) No 439/2010,
For Member States which are faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on their asylum and reception systems, due in particular to their geographical or demographic situation, the Support Office should support the development of solidarity within the Union to promote a better relocation of beneficiaries of international protection between Member States, while ensuring that asylum and reception systems are not abused. [My emphasis]
Austria is definitely a “member state faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on its asylum and reception systems, due in particular to its geographical or demographic situation,” right? Problem is, there are many ways that clause could be interpreted. It could support Austria’s demand that Greece and Italy better control their borders; but it could just as easily support a Greek or an Italian demand that Austria accept more asylum-seekers and process them on Austrian territory. After all, Greece and Italy too have been “faced with specific and disproportionate pressures.”
But before we look at the legal details, let’s focus a bit on the history of the crisis and the region’s geography. It’s important to visualize how complex it is to secure every border by which someone could enter Europe, and how much cooperation it would require among countries that still have no established common mechanism for border control–
Lilibellt: –it’s easy to see that European countries with territory bordering non-Schengen countries were at a great disadvantage in the summer of 2015, when the influx of refugees and migrants increased dramatically. Hundreds of people killed in the Mediterranean. Thousands upon thousands of refugees in Lampedusa and Idomeni, and no end in sight. As far as I know, the EU made no concerted effort to help countries like Italy, Greece, or Hungary deal with this huge number of asylum-seekers. Instead, it turned a blind eye the way Italy and Greece were openly violating the Dublin agreement by not registering asylum-seekers and just letting them move on.
Hungary began building a border fence, first along the border with Serbia, then along the borders of Croatia, Slovenia, and Romania. Hungary was ferociously criticized for its policies both by the German and the Austrian chancellors. The Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, likened Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s refugee policies to Nazi deportations. Maybe I’m not savvy enough, but to me it looked as if unlike Italy and Greece, Hungary had secured its borders — and in doing so, had complied with its duty as the external frontier of the Schengen Area.
Another major turning point was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s press conference in the late summer of 2015, in which she announced Germany’s unilateral suspension of Dublin III for Syrian refugees, which meant, defacto, that all refugees and all migrants could come to Germany directly without threat of being deported to a safe third country (such as Hungary or Greece). But if there’s no registration at the Schengen borders, how do you know who’s a Syrian refugee and who’s not until they’re in Germany? Her message, “We can do it,” was heard loud and clear around the world, especially today, with social media and the Internet. So Syrian refugees, and refugees from other countries who were pretending to be Syrians, and migrants who had conveniently lost their papers — they all set off for Germany. By now I’ve lost track of which countries have suspended Dublin III and Schengen.
This is what I meant when I quoted Weber. An ethics of responsibility would demand from politicians non-ambiguous formulations, hard distinctions, and the definition of a clear, feasible objective with all the hard measures and heartbreaking pictures that come with it. Ethics of opinion, on the other hand, are laws and treaties as vague as Dublin III, or Merkel’s announcements that “We can do it,” or her references to the inviolability of human dignity (Article 1 Par. 1 of the German Basic Law – which now applies to the whole world, in effect), or, “There is no legal limit to the number of asylum seekers in Germany.” That may be correct according to the Geneva Convention, but it is certainly not feasible in reality. Her speeches don’t give people any specific answers, but they give them the good feeling of being on the right side of history (this time around). All the hard measures will be taken and the heartbreaking pictures will surface anyway, and maybe more so, but who cares, we had the right intentions!
Austria, in any case, reinstated border controls in January–
Claire: –how well did that work? What was the daily influx before that, and what was it after that?
Lilibellt: As far as I can tell, along with other measures, it improved the situation. The trend peaked at 12,000 asylum requests per month in October 2015, and now it’s reversing. Last April there were “only” 4,000 asylum requests. But it could also be seasonal, we can’t draw conclusions until the end of summer.
Claire: What does it take, in terms of manpower and resources, physically to patrol all of Austria’s borders?
Lilibellt: Hard to say, because I’m no expert. It seems to me that the mountainous provinces of Vorarlberg, Tyrol, and Carinthia have natural barriers against the south (Italy and Slovenia) and the west (Switzerland), and aren’t too hard to secure save for the mountain passes. For the time being, border controls in some places, for example at the Brenner Pass between Tyrol and Italy, have been suspended. But security measures are in place if needed. There’s a realistic possibility that Italy will hold up its end of a recent agreement to prevent illegal aliens from crossing the border to Austria, if only out of self-interest. If Austria reinstates border controls at the Brenner Pass, it would hurt Italian tourism. In the east, Hungary has already secured its borders, so I’m not sure if Austria needs to take any further measures. Until now, there seemingly hasn’t been a large number of refugees coming from the north. Slovakia, like Hungary, is a member of the Visegrad Group, which opposes refugee quotas for Europe.
That leaves a non-mountainous area of 90 miles on the southern border, with Slovenia. The government has built a fence there. In the winter there were almost no asylum requests. All in all, I think 90 miles is manageable, even for a little country like Austria. But as we discuss later on, I don’t think border walls or fences are the best way to deter migrants. Far more important is the restriction of benefits. If you have the right incentives, you can finally deal only with the real refugees.
Claire: Given that steps have been taken to secure the border, and given that the flow of migrants fell sharply as a result, why were you so unhappy with the government’s performance? Is your chief complaint now a matter of the ease with which criminals can escape deportation? Or was your vote intended to send, in a sense, a vote of no-confidence to Merkel and the rest of the EU, a warning that they need to get it together?
Lilibellt: Because like many others, I suspected that these measures were primarily taken to avoid an FPÖ president. The numbers of asylum requests are down, but like I said before, really conclusive data won’t be available until the end of summer. If you look at the graph, you see that the numbers of asylum requests this spring compared to last year are the same, the decrease is only in comparison to previous (warmer) months. The unusual numbers in May and June may just be because spring was unusually cold this year.
There are no longer crowds of refugees waiting at the stations for trains to Germany, or waiting, and even sleeping, in front of the interior ministry, or the social services, or — for example — in front of the house I live in. The distribution of the refugees has definitely improved.
But between the two rounds of the elections, Chancellor Faymann resigned and a new government was sworn in. And just yesterday, the new chancellor, Christian Kern, backtracked on proposals to limit asylum requests. The new state secretary for immigration, Muna Duzdar, who’s of Palestinian origin, is a strong open-border supporter. Exactly what I expected if [Green Party candidate] Alexander Van der Bellen won the presidential contest.
I voted for [the FPÖ candidate] Norbert Hofer because I wanted to avoid a situation like this, where the government continues ignoring half the people after the election. On top of that, large parts of the media, the president, and the government keep referring to FPÖ voters as resentful, unsuccessful, poorly educated, misinformed xenophobes in need of their guidance and understanding. A highly dangerous mix that will fuel resentment and radicalization on the other side even more. I really worry. The first refugee camp on Austrian soil — uninhabited, they were going to arrive soon! — has already been burnt down. Until now, arson like this only happened in Germany.
Let me repeat that I would rather see stronger measures taken to send rejected asylum-seekers back home, and separate refugees from migrants in a faster, less bureaucratic way, than to limit to asylum requests. In short, it should be about the real refugees and not (yet) about the limitation of access for real refugees. But the concern I mentioned in the first part of our interview — that last summer’s failure to distinguish between migrants and refugees would harm the real refugees — has already come to pass. Germany is examining the possibility of declaring an official limit to the number of asylum applications it will process this year. Austria already declared one. Well done, EU and Frau Merkel.
And just as Dublin and Schengen are incoherent, the same is true of the European legal system. So there’s an appeal process for asylum-seekers not only at a national level, but the European one; there are European Court rulings that refugees can’t be sent back to Greece and Hungary, because they aren’t considered safe third countries. Expediting the selection process would surely be in violation of one of the many agreements and treaties in place. So it’s generally “easier” – especially in light of Germany examining the same possibility right now, perhaps confronting the same dilemma – for Austria to limit the number of asylum requests. Total madness.
Claire: What were the economic effects of sealing the borders—was commerce affected, trucking, imports and exports? How did businesses that rely on trade with the rest of Europe respond?
Lilibellt: Really sorry, but I don’t have enough insight to answer that question. Anyway, Austria will likely lift the suspension under the new SPÖ Chancellor Kern — and Greece and Italy still haven’t secured their borders.
Claire: Let’s remind people here that these are maritime borders, and perhaps explain what happened with Operation Mare Nostrum. In October 2014, Italy ended its search and rescue operations after critics in Italy and Europe claimed that the rescue mission was just creating incentives for more migrants to attempt the sea crossing. The Italian government had been spending nine million Euros a month on it. Italy asked the rest of the EU for funds to support the operation; it refused. But cancelling the operation didn’t result in a decreased rate of crossing. Within a month, a thousand people had died in shipwrecks.
… is arguably more for show than substance – a microcosm of everything that is hampering a pan-European response to the current crisis. …
Frontex actually has little power and struggles to operate in the straitjacket imposed by the collective failure of member states and Brussels to fully commit and cooperate with it – despite the current crisis. …
… Our investigation has also uncovered official warnings about the way the agency oversees the return of illegal migrants.
And even its intelligence-gathering role is hampered by a lack of member states’ action.
Frontex risk analysis during the past three years correctly predicted a surge of refugee numbers streaming through the central Mediterranean, Greece and Hungary.
The trouble is Europe did not act on its findings.
The consequences of these EU-wide failures has been to create an environment in which thousands of people have drowned at sea and where smugglers have made fortunes from refugees fleeing war.
Greece is an archipelago, and I truly think it never occurred to people before this started happening that so many people would risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean in rubber boats: It was assumed this was a reasonably impenetrable natural barrier. I also suspect that people keep thinking about this without thinking about the context in the MENA region. It used to be possible, for example, to make (extremely dirty) deals with Qaddafi: “You keep anyone from escaping, we’ll pretend we don’t know how you make that happen, and we’ll invest in your oil.” And Syria of course used to be a Baathist dictatorship with a very strong state; now it’s a failed state and a refugee factory with no authority strong enough to control its own borders.
There’s no easy solution to this that doesn’t involve killing people who are trying to escape these places. In a way, the collective non-decision to let them drown is a passive-aggressive way of deciding, “We will protect our borders with force. If you try, you will die.” No one has to shoot them, but not rescuing them amounts to the same thing—
Lilibellt: —The EU didn’t help. No question. But since everybody wanted to get to Germany, Austria, and Sweden anyway, Italy and Greece waved through most of the arriving migrants without processing them.
Lilibellt: That’s true, but the refugees don’t apply for asylum in Greece (in contrast with Italy):
Lilibellt: –Austria wasn’t any better, the state-run railway company transported thousands of migrants to the German border. You can’t overlook the irony here, the man who was in charge of the company back then is now our new, sworn-in chancellor – actually a human trafficker himself. If you did the same thing with your private vehicle, you would end up in jail. Craziness all around, and not many journalists who seem to care.
But let me continue to my second point: Don’t process refugees and migrants on national territory. Create an offshore detention facility protected by the military, e.g. on a Greek island or in North Africa, with clear preferential treatment to refugees.
Claire: Do you know if any Greek island or African country has expressed a willingness to do this? Greece is already de facto a refugee holding pen, and I suspect wouldn’t agree to this being formalized.
Lilibeltt: If I remember correctly, Greece has and will again very soon receive bailout payments. Am I being too simplistic, or do I see some leverage here? (And there are islands without inhabitants.) I concede that Greece is having a hard time right now, but it is partly self-inflicted, and they can’t accept refugees refusing to be transported to other places. Hard decisions will have to be made and the pictures won’t be pretty.
Claire: It’s not pretty, no, especially because everyone’s response is, “Keep them somewhere else.” And since politicians are responsible to their national electorates, rather than a larger “Europe” (no matter how hard the EU pretends it has authority), everyone tends to blame their immediate neighbors for the problem rather than looking at the impossible problem — the conflicts that are prompting people to flee.
Austria’s not a superpower, it doesn’t have an “Eritrean policy.” Turks are asking, “Why the hell are we responsible for all of this? We’re not even part of the EU, we’ve taken more refugees and spent more money than any other EU country, and now you don’t even want to let our citizens travel to Europe? How insulting can you possibly be!” — it’s all understandable, at the national level.
Lilibeltt: Third point: Urgently negotiate readmission agreements with Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan, Somalia, Chechnya. Doing this is mentioned specifically in European treaties, but the European Commission can’t be bothered; they’re too busy calculating the penalty payments for member states that don’t accept their refugee-quotas. If the EU is unwilling to do it, Austria should conclude bilateral treaties.
Claire: What’s wrong with the readmission agreements as they’re now written, and what would the goal of these negotiations be? Is there evidence that the EC can’t be bothered, or might it be that they’re trying, but it’s taking a long time and they’re not getting much cooperation from the governments in question? I’d think cooperation would be good with Morocco and Tunisia. Neither country is apt to be producing many legitimate refugees, so in principle there should be very few, or no, unskilled job-seekers coming from there to Europe. I don’t know whether the Afghan state has enough control to negotiate treaties expeditiously. Wouldn’t any agreement with Chechnya have to be negotiated with Russia? I don’t know how that would work–
Lilibeltt: –I was a bit sarcastic there. Yes, they are negotiating right now, but I sense a lack of urgency. What I should have written: Urgently finalize negotiations with those countries. I stand by the last sentence: If the EU doesn’t succeed in doing so in the near future, we should begin bilateral negotiations. Afghanistan and some others will be difficult, therefore there have to be detention facilities, not only for migrants of certain nationalities, but also for migrants who have conveniently lost their papers.
Last point: There should be massive financial and military support for refugee camps in the region.
Claire: Absolutely agree with you about that. Do you think it’s necessary for Austria to become more involved in settling the conflicts that are producing so many of these refugees? I don’t think the influx from places such as Syria and Libya is apt to stop until the civil wars stop. The push factor is just too high.
Lilibeltt: Yes, correct. As much as I wish that America would be more involved, I also agree with people on Ricochet who think it’s time for Europe to take on some responsibility. You can’t always leave the dirty work to Americans and then condemn them for waging war or having self-interested motives. “Oil, you know!” “Austria is politically neutral like Switzerland, so conveniently, we are off the hook.” Those are the opinions of most of my fellow Austrians.
Claire: But you do support both the EU and the letter and spirit of the Geneva Convention, it sounds. Is this a common view among people who voted FPÖ? You sure wouldn’t know it from the press, if so.
Lilibeltt: I say: EU: Jein (Yes and No) – another time. The EU directives on asylum go beyond the Geneva Convention. (I support the Geneva Convention within its “natural” limits: For example, a country can’t grant asylum to as many people as it has inhabitants; or at least, I wouldn’t support that, it must be feasible enough that a democratic majority will be comfortable with it. But this is common sense, isn’t it?) The FPÖ says, EU: Yes (with the emphasis on Union of Nations, not a United States of Europe – paraphrased from their party program).
Claire: The vagueness of Dublin III is a recipe for conflict. Every country blames the other, no one to has sufficient legitimacy to take responsibility, and no one, therefore, takes responsibility — leading each member state to an even greater lack of “solidarity, trust, and smooth functioning” with the other.
And for everyone who will automatically say, “The problem is the EU, get rid of it,” I have to ask: Then what? Re-hire the same bureaucrats to negotiate a new treaty that at best will say exactly what EU No. 439/2010 does? Someone will have to negotiate these treaties if there’s to be any cooperation — and they will require an EU-like structure to implement.
Lilibeltt: The downfall of the EU was the Greek bailout — also under Merkel — in violation of the Maastricht Treaty. A much more complex problem than it looked on the surface, much like the refugee crises, but that’s the problem with this kind of lawlessness, it comes back to bite you. Losing trust is so much easier than gaining trust. I don’t see the EU recovering from this, and that’s the most scary part: What will a Europe without the EU look like?
Claire: My instinct, based on the reality of power politics, is that the US will ultimately either lead these negotiations and dictate a solution to this problem (to a reasonable approximation of sanity, at least) or cede Europe to Russia. But we’ll pick up that point from here next time–
Lilibeltt: –what I’m sensing and guessing is that the people (not the politicians) of middle Europe, at least, distrust America more than Russia. The reasons for that are simple: The hard left (anti-capitalism) and the hard right (latent and open anti-Semitism, nationalism) are indistinguishable in their anti-Americanism. The political center to a large extent thinks America is the reason for all of this turmoil in the first place, either because of the Iraq War (among those who lean left), or because of Obama’s naivete (among those who lean right).
Claire: On top of that, if the European state that would naturally dominate decision-making, by virtue of wealth and power, tries to dominate decisions like these, the rest of Europe goes nuts, because Germany’s history of trying to do that has left … bad memories, shall we say. Neither France nor Germany can impose their will on the situation because the whole point of the EU is to contain that rivalry. And Britain is useless; they can’t even decide if they want to be part of Europe. So effectively, the smaller states are the victims of the chains Germany and France have placed on themselves.
This is where our conversation ends, for now. To be continued.
Thank you so much for the contributions that have allowed me to focus my attention on stories like this. I’d of course be hugely grateful for support toward defraying the costs of travelling to the countries affected by this (starting with Austria), seeing what’s happening with my own eyes, and then writing about what I see:
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.