A Letter from Vienna

Vienna's pleasantly dated atmosphere provided the backdrop for the rise and fall of the far-right Freedom Party, a product of Austria's undigested fascist past.

The Vengaboys perform during a protest against the FPÖ on 30 May 2019 in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)

When I moved to Vienna I was immediately struck by the city’s sense of time, as if it moved backwards and forwards simultaneously. What is new is wrapped, encased, preserved, and conserved in the old. Horses and carts (for tourists) travel next to 1970s trams, part of an on-time-to-every-minute public transport system. Apartments in Vienna’s old buildings are still rent-controlled. The city is one of the world’s biggest landlords, owning the largest amount of social housing in Europe. The welfare system is still intact despite attempts to make it increasingly ‘Austrians only’. Beneath this, there is stagnation. ‘Everyone’ is comfortable; ‘no one’ wants to leave. When I asked one friend why this is the case, he replied: because of the ‘Sozialstaat’ — the welfare state means that life in Vienna is incomparably easy. Resentment towards anyone who might threaten this cohesion is easily stimulated.

In 2017, the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma made a film based on the Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Children of the Dead. This tells a story of the living dead condemned to repeat their fate. The film’s characters do not speak directly; their language appears on 1920s style title cards, on grainy, dust-flecked Super 8. The film-makers updated the story, so that the immigrants seeking food and shelter are Syrian Muslims. The traces of past patterns emerge in a present-past landscape, much like Vienna today.

Austria’s far-right ex-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache began his political life crawling through bushes as a member of neo-Nazi groupuscules in the 1980s. In 1988, Strache joined protests against the Burgtheater performance of Thomas Bernhard’s Heldenplatz (a play which describes every single Austrian as either a Catholic or a National Socialist). This was two years after Kurt Waldheim was elected Austria’s president, despite being on the US watch list for Nazi-involved war criminals. Ironically, Waldheim tried to have the play censored because it defamed Austria.

The ‘Ibiza-gate’ scandal revolves around a video made in July 2017 in which Strache, the leader of the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria, founded by former SS officers in the 1950s), his sidekick Johann Gudenus, and Gudenus’ wife Tajana, met with a woman introduced as ‘Alyona Makarova’, the purported niece of a Russian multimillionaire oligarch, in an Airbnb rental in Ibiza. During this 7-hour meeting, Strache and Gudenus agreed to various corrupt business deals including privatising water and selling off the tabloid Kronen Zeitung (which is not state owned) in exchange for its use as a propaganda organ for the FPÖ. But the meeting was a set-up. The woman was a decoy.

The video was released the week prior to the European parliament elections, leading to the FPÖ exiting its coalition government with the long-standing and increasingly hard-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Strache and Gudenus were forced to step down, Herbert Kickl, the chief ideologue and conspiracy theorist of the FPÖ, was asked to leave his position as minister of interior. Following this, the FPÖ and the Social Democrats voted for no confidence in the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, forcing his resignation. The government collapsed. The greatest defeat of the far right in its current phase was a set-up. We cannot thank a strong left movement, or any righteous or moral victory, but only the far right’s own stupidity. Still, in their year and a half in office the coalition government managed to increase the length of the working day to 12 hours, and to cut benefits for the poor, single mothers, immigrants, and anyone sending money to a foreign country. Their slogan was ‘Fairness’.

Austrian history may repeat itself, but the names change. In line with the ‘War on Terror’, since 2006, the FPÖ’s enemy is the Muslim. Sebastian Kurz jumped on this train in 2017 and cited the ‘threat’ of a ‘parallel society’ in his efforts to shut Muslim kindergartens, going as far as having his team falsify a €36,000 study into them. Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch terrorist, donated €1,500 to ‘Manfred’ Sellner, leader of the Austrian faction of the alt-right group Generation Identity, for whom Herbert Kickl, opened a ‘Defend Europe’ event in 2016. Continuing in this vein, on 11 January 2018, Kickl’s response to the decreasing numbers of refugees entering Austria, was to say he would ‘concentrate’ them. This language, purposefully reminiscent of Nazism, is used in efforts to please the FPÖ base who regularly call, at least online, for the reopening of camps such as Mauthausen. In April 2018, the FPÖ politician at the heart of the most recent scandal, Johann Gudenus (son of the FPÖ’s renowned Holocaust denier, the late John Gudenus), claimed that there are ‘valid’ reasons to believe that migrants entering Europe are orchestrated by George Soros. It is not neo-fascism, because it is not new. It is the same old value system, sometimes dressed in the same old Dirndls and Lederhosen, sometimes modernised with identitarian t-shirts.

When living in a new city you notice things that you would not see in your home city. Vienna is an aesthetic city, yet it is intellectually tortured. People herd in small cliques, sitting in beautiful, preserved coffee houses, in bars, or apartments. There is not much social fluidity. It is a city characterised by isolation. The ‘Wieder Donnerstag’ demos have taken place every Thursday since 4 October 2018. They are attended by anywhere between 500–10,000 people. Their persistence and the space they open up is an achievement in itself, as an attempt to cut through social isolation. They take a new theme every week, with the only constant being that they are ‘against the government’. They are themselves a rebirth of the Thursday demos from the FPÖ’s first surge, under Jörg Haider in 2000. The high point of the government’s fall from grace during ‘Ibiza-gate’ took place during the weekly demonstration, and catapulted the Vengaboys and the Vengabus back into the vision of Antifa across the world. Seeing them playing ‘We’re going to Ibiza!’, throwing glitter and beach balls into a crowd of screaming, protesting party-goers, was a strong pill.

A recurring slogan in the post-war decades declared: ‘Austria is free’. Austria narrowly avoided being swallowed into the Soviet bloc in 1955, and was ‘freed’ from Hitler’s Third Reich. Austria was ‘free’ from the necessity to address its perpetrating role in the Nazi Holocaust. At the demonstration, I saw someone holding a placard, ‘Austria is Free’ scrawled on it. I decided to ask the person what it meant to them. They affirmed that it was a sincere analogy to Austria’s ‘liberation’ from Nazi rule. Indeed, the FPÖ are simply understood as the legacy of those Nazis who continued to hold rank in the upper echelons of society. Yet the desire to live innocently, encapsulated by the phrase ‘Austria is Free’, also articulates a wish to be free of responsibility.

On the Ringstrasse, adjacent to Ballhausplatz, where the blissful and euphoric demonstrations took place, a set of images made by Luigi Toscano, of survivors of the Holocaust, were attacked. First, they were smeared with swastikas, then they were slashed with knives. After this, they were carefully sewn up and guarded by Caritas and the Muslim Youth Organisation in Vienna. The government is gone, but fascism is alive and well in Austria.