The Freedom Party’s goose-step forward

October 17, 2017

Austria's elections on October 15 produced a victory for the center-right People's Party, but second place--and a likely part in the next government--went to the far-right Freedom Party, a virulently anti-immigrant party with fascist roots. The Freedom Party came in just ahead of the center-left Social Democrats.

During the election, People's Party adopted much of the Freedom Party agenda, helping to push the entire climate in Austria further to the right. Now, People's Party leader Sebastian Kurz is likely to form a coalition government with the Freedom Party, signaling renewed attacks on immigrants and workers.

In an article written before the election for revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, Nick Evans reviewed Stille Machtergreifung: Hofer, Strache und die Burschenschaften (Silent Coup: Hofer, Strache and the Fraternities), a book by Hans-Henning Scharsach about the history of the extremist groups that dominate the Freedom Party today, for insights about the grim direction of Austrian politics today.

THE FAR right is preparing to join the government in Austria. Last December, the far-right Freedom Party's (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was defeated in a rerun of the presidential election by the independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. However, the FPÖ now looks set to make significant gains in the legislative elections on October 15.

A deadlock between the two governing parties--the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ)--brought about the early legislative election. The ÖVP has a young new leader, Sebastian Kurz (currently the foreign minister), who is running on a hard-line anti-migrant ticket and is leading the polls. The most likely outcome now appears to be an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, although the SPÖ have also indicated they would consider a coalition with the FPÖ. Neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP have been above using anti-Semitic and anti-migrant tropes in their own campaigning.

Meanwhile, a new book by the Austrian investigative journalist Hans-Henning Scharsach argues that the Freedom Party, especially in its current form, represents a particular threat to Austrian democracy. The book addresses itself to the "civil society resistance" (p. 10) and is accompanied by a useful website [in German].

People's Party leader Sebastian Kurz is likely to govern in coalition with the far right Freedom Party
People's Party leader Sebastian Kurz is likely to govern in coalition with the far right Freedom Party (Dragan Tatic | flickr)

Scharsach's focus is on the relationship between the current leadership of the Freedom Party and the Burschenschaften: extreme right-wing German nationalist fraternities, which favor unification of Austria and Germany in a single ethnic state. (Not to be confused with Austria's Catholic fraternities.) Both Norbert Hofer and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache belong to Burschenschaften. The fraternities dominate the party to a much greater extent than they did under Jörg Haider, who was the leader until a split in 2005. Women have been excluded altogether from the upper leadership of the party (pp. 14-15, 93).

THE BURSCHENSCHAFTEN go back to the beginning of the 19th century. Scharsach traces anti-Semitic traditions among the Burschenschaften from the beginning: the burning of books by Jewish and "non-German" authors by the Burschenschaften in Wartberg in 1817 provided a model for the 1933 Nazi book-burnings (p. 30). In the 1960s, the Innsbruck fraternity Suevia still specified that no "non-German" could be allowed to join, and "that the Jew therefore has no place in the fraternity." In 1987, the Burschenschaften nominated Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize (p. 32).

Islamophobic rather than anti-Semitic tropes predominate in the Freedom Party's outward-facing propaganda. In 2010, Strache made a visit to Israel, which he described as "Europe's bulwark against Islam." At the same time, he kept fellow members of the "Jewish-free" Burschenschaften happy by wearing their cap to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem (p. 40).

The Burscheschaften have never made any attempt to break with the history of the Nazi regime. They continue to "respectfully commemorate" Nazi war criminals on their membership lists. Scharsach reveals that such lists include Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the director of the Third Reich's central security office, a commandant from Treblinka, the concentration camp doctor Hermann Richter, and Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, the SS chief in charge of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, personally responsible for the murder of at least 1,000 and the deportation of 55,000 Jewish women and men (pp. 50-1).

Under Strache's leadership, the Freedom Party has styled itself as the "social homeland party" ("sozialen Heimatpartei"), but Scharsach demonstrates that their record has been consistently to support attacks on workers' rights and any forms of social protection (pp. 87-90). Scharsach links this with their concept of the indivisible Volksgemeinschaft ("national community"), a term that Jörg Haider had removed from the party program in 1997, but that the current leadership reintroduced in 2011 (pp. 66-7). In Nazi terminology, the Volksgemeinschaftexcluded non-Germans, but also allowed no place for workers' organizations such as trade unions, which divided the imagined unity of the national community. In 2015, the Freedom Party joined the small neoliberal party, the (aptly named) Neos, in campaigning for new anti-trade union laws (p. 91).

THE BURSCHENSCHAFTEN and Freedom Party present themselves as victims of misrepresentation by the "mainstream media," which they habitually refer to by the Nazi term Lügenpresse (pp. 141-4). In fact, they are constantly given a platform by Austria's largest newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, which is read by almost a quarter of the Austrian population (no British newspaper has anything like that reach). Scharsach documents the feedback loop between the social media accounts of the Freedom Party leadership, the fraternities and the Kronen Zeitung. "Fake news" that appears on fraternity social media accounts is reproduced verbatim by the Kronen, and then reposted from the Kronen by the Freedom Party leadership (pp. 130-3).

The postwar history of the Burschenschaften has also been one of physical violence. In the 1970s, Norbert Burger, who belonged to the Olympia Wien fraternity, joined up with German nationalist terrorists from South Tyrol (Alto Adige) in northern Italy and members of various Burschenschaften to form the violent National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP's activities included bombing a cinema on Hitler's birthday, and attacking left-wing youth centers. Martin Graf, a fellow member of Olympia, and the Freedom Party's chief representative in the parliament before Norbert Hofer, spoke of how he had "always treasured Norbert Burger" (p. 156).

Scharsach's book is written for an Austrian audience, and its aim is straightforward: to provide an overwhelming body of evidence to demonstrate the threat that the Freedom Party poses to Austrian democracy. He has tried to prove that the Freedom Party has moved to the right under the current leadership, and that alongside its public-facing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric, it harbors extreme misogynist, anti-Semitic, profoundly anti-democratic politics directly rooted in the tradition of National Socialism.

What the book does not attempt to do is to place the developments within Austria in the context of wider developments in Europe and beyond. Nor does it analyze the social base for the Freedom Party's support, which goes far beyond the very small numbers of male students and ex-students in the Burschenschaften. It rightly criticizes a widespread complacency about the Freedom Party and provides a very valuable service in gathering together evidence to puncture that complacency. But there are also urgent questions to be asked about a political culture that has allowed such groups to flourish, and about the conditions that could bring what do still remain very marginal views into the mainstream of Austrian politics once again.

First published at

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