80 years on from the Anschluss, Austrian populism is remarkably stable

The far-right Freedom Party is stronger than at any point in its history

March 11, 2018 09:47

Eighty years have now passed since the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, a move known as the Anschluss. It marked a critical part of Hitler’s Heim ins Reich (“Back home to the Reich”) foreign policy that sought to bring ethnic Germans back together under a Greater Germany.

It was also a moment that had major consequences for Austria’s Jewish community, which faced an almost immediate campaign of violence and harassment that culminated in the Kristallnacht pogrom a few months later and deportations to concentration camps.

Clearly, the situation in Austria today is very different from the 1930s. Few people today talk about reunification with Germany.

Public support in democratic institutions is strong. The European Union, too, has shown a clear determination to monitor antisemitism closely, with a major report on antisemitism across Europe due this year. 

And, while many Austrians in the 1930s had become fascinated by the rise of Adolf Hitler, the direction of travel today has, if anything, reversed.

Following the meteoric rise of the 31-year-old leader of the Austrian centre-right People’s Party, Sebastian Kurz, many conservatives in Germany — including Angela Merkel — are now looking to Austria for political solutions. 

But for those with a long political memory, Austria will always generate unease.

We often forget that Austria was one of the first nations in post-war Europe to give significant support to the national populist right. It was in the 1980s when Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party burst on to the scene, winning large numbers of votes on promises to slash immigration, tighten law and order and push back against the “corrupt” establishment. 

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Haider seemed to praise the employment policies of the Third Reich, voice his support for members of the Waffen-SS and give frequent dog-whistles to the tradition of pan-German nationalism that had underpinned the events of the 1930s.

His party became so successful that, in 1999, it was supported by one in four Austrians and was invited into a governing coalition with the centre-right, long before the global financial crisis.

The situation today has actually not changed too much. National populist parties are often portrayed as temporary flash protest votes, but in Austria they have remained remarkably stable. Haider himself is no longer present — he died in a car crash in 2008 — but the Freedom Party that he led and steered into the mainstream is firmly at the forefront of Austrian politics.

After a period of infighting, the party was revived under its new leader Heinz-Christian Strache. Fond of rapping and campaigning for youth support in nightclubs, Mr Strache has visited Israel to reinforce his claim that his party is not antisemitic.

But a collection of antisemitic songbooks found at a student fraternity closely associated with the party would suggest otherwise. The book included songs celebrating the Holocaust and lyrics calling for the fusion of Germany and Austria to form a new “German Empire”. As with the French National Front, the leadership publicly renounces antisemitism but you do not need to search too hard to find evidence of it among the lower ranks.

In many respects, the Freedom Party today is stronger than at any point in its history. Not only is it in government, with access to resources and international contacts, but, like other national populists in Europe, it is benefiting from the arrival of a more favourable issue agenda.

The 2016 refugee crisis, ongoing concerns about past immigration and specific anxieties about the capacity of Islam to integrate into Western societies are providing a ready audience.

The centre-right is more willing than ever to work with them. This may ensure that the party’s more extremist sympathisers actually get nowhere near power but, as always with Austria, observers should continue to watch the events extremely closely.

Matthew J Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and Senior Visiting Fellow at Chatham House

March 11, 2018 09:47

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