If you enter Austria from the west, near Bregenz on Lake Constance, with a little luck and the right meteorological conditions, images of stunning beauty will unfold between the water and the mountains. The peaks divide the weather, with rain fronts and clear skies competing for space, or dense fog spreading across the ground like mystical, glowing steam. When night falls further back in the High Alps in this geological spectacle called Austria, the peaks and summits soon start resembling the heads of animals, like monstrous bodies whose flanks are dotted with villages resembling Christmas ornaments. The geographic drama mellows to the east, flowing into more friendly hills until, finally, behind Graz, behind Vienna, in Burgenland, the Pannonian Basin is reached, and you come to the end of today’s Austria. It’s a beautiful country. That much must be said … before saying anything else.
Everything else concerns the strange paths along which the country, its society and its political classes have been traveling for quite some time — perhaps for a hundred years, perhaps even longer, but at the very least since this winter, since a new government has moved into its offices in Vienna’s magnificent palaces. The country is now governed by a coalition that likes to refer to itself “turquoise-blue,” a reference to the two parties’ political colors — turquoise represents the party of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and blue the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). But going by what we’ve learned about political color affiliations from history, it would be more accurate to describe it as a “black-brown” coalition. The black, of course, is the traditional color associated with conservatives. And the brown is the color of right-wing extremists and the Nazis.
The doubts began on the very first day of the chancellorship of Kurz, a 31-year-old native son of Vienna who comes from an upper middle-class family and has the gentle face of an apostle. Kurz has a few semesters of law school under his belt to go with a successful career as a politician with the mainstream, Christian-conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). He had the option of forming a coalition government together with the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) after October’s election. It still would have allowed him to become chancellor and would have produced the kind of coalition government that Austria has had for decades. But he ultimately decided against an alliance with moderate leftists and left-wing liberals and instead preferred to form a partnership with the hard right and right-wing extremists from the so-called Freedom Party, which is known throughout Europe for its penchant for radical right-wing populism. Since then, a hail of slurs and apersions has spread across Austria, a constant flirtation with the vulgar and primitive, a sketchy interplay of words, actions and symbols.
On the very first day, when the new government first presented itself to the public just one week before Christmas, a photo shoot of the new cabinet took place at the gates of Vienna, located on Kahlenberg hill. As every child in Austria is taught, it is here where the 1683 Siege of Vienna by the Turks was driven back. It is here, according to popular imagination, that the Christian West was saved.
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To understand this political PR campaign as a German, you would have to imagine Angela Merkel calling the media to Leipzig to present her cabinet at the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, the site where Napoleon’s retreat from Germany was sealed. And when asked the obvious question about the meaning of this particular choice of location, the chancellor would reply: Meaning? What do you mean? I have no idea what you’re getting on about.
And that’s precisely how her counterpart in Vienna replied when he was asked what the appearance at Kahlenberg meant. Kurz just made his apostle face and said: the place? It had no symbolic meaning — no, his team chose the location, and he had nothing to do with it.
That’s the way things work in Austria these days. No one has any idea what is actually meant by things. Whether anything is meant at all and, if so, how it is meant. Are, for example, the far-right fraternities in the country, those so-called Burschenschaften that form such an important wing of the FPÖ party, just too lazy to delete the Nazi songs still slumbering in their songbooks? Or do they still sing them here and there out of conviction? How does Austrian society live with the suspicion that there are young people in its ranks who study law or medicine during the day and celebrate the gassing of the Jews with beer in the evening, as these fraternities have been known to do? How can a country stand the thought that people like that might now even be sitting in parliament, where 20 out of 51 members of the FPÖ belong to one of the country’s Burschenschaften, and often one that leans strongly to the right?
It may sound a little over the top to say that Austria is teetering on the edge, a little hysterical to claim that the country and its capital city of Vienna are politically on the brink. But it’s not totally wrong to do so either. It is certainly wrong to keep conjuring up a relapse into the 1930s, as some opponents of the new government are wont to do. But questions about whether Austria remains and still wants to be an open-minded, modern democracy are justified. Or whether authoritarian thinking will continue to infiltrate society. And the extent to which everyday Austrian life, in freedom and prosperity, is being spoiled by a willful, reactionary spirit.
We don’t have the complete picture yet, but some remarkable puzzle pieces are already coming together. Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the FPÖ, is a man whose “youthful sins” include spending copious leisure-time hours with criminal neo-Nazis. A man who, despite having long since reached adulthood, sends out narrow-minded, malicious, xenophobic postings and fake news to millions of people via Facebook every day, complete with fake caricatures, unsubstantiated allegations, deliberate deceptions and broadsides against lawyers and journalists alike.
Another FPÖ member, Herbert Kickl, was handed the Interior Ministry portfolio, a man who served as secretary-general of the party from 2005 to 2018 and is responsible for election advertising that included slogans like “Keep the West in Christian hands” or, even less sophisticated, “Islamization must be stopped.”
As a minister, this man is now ordering raids on government agencies, claiming that “a restrictive asylum policy is a legitimate concern of the population,” and insisting that an “infrastructure” must be created in Austria, “where we can succeed in keeping those who enter an asylum process appropriately concentrated in one place.” Concentration camps? Not in so many words, perhaps. But was that what he really meant? Was that the message he was trying to send to the electorate?
Europe’s Latest Test Case
Like Hungary, Italy and Great Britain before it, Austria is now another test case for Europe. Sitting as it did between NATO and the Eastern Bloc, Austria always insisted on its neutrality during the Cold War, but there was never a doubt that it belonged to the West, both culturally and politically. But that certainty is now being cast into doubt. It seems that many Austrians have grown so tired of the arduous negotiation of compromises that they are instead turning to authoritarian models. That they no longer want to argue rationally, but emotionally. What we are talking about here is the question of whether Germany’s neighbor is, bit by bit, bidding farewell to the democratic way of life. Whether its society still wants pluralism and if it is capable of enduring the thousand varieties of multiculturalism and the processes of migration despite all the difficulties they present.
The best way to approach answers to such questions is to visit this beautiful country, its mountains, its lakes and its rivers. On May 4, 1991, a young politician named Jörg Haider threw himself into the gorge beneath the Jauntal Bridge in Carinthia on a bungee cord to send the message that new times were dawning. On can visit Persmanhof in the Karawanks, a place where partisans once hid until SS men committed one of the last war crimes of World War II, and where it becomes apparent that no country can ever really escape its history.
More than 30 extensive interviews were conducted during the reporting of this story — with fraternity members and book authors, with journalists and FPÖ politicians, with students, cabaret artists, diplomats, historians, engaged citizens and a village mayor at the foot of Grossglockner Mountain in the Alps.
The journey took the reporter through Innsbruck, Villach and Graz, up to Salzburg and, of course, over to Vienna, where a third of all Austrians live and where intellectuals still hold court in the city’s famous coffee houses. It is a city where every alley has history to tell, where Heroes’ Square alone could provide material for a thousand novels, where Empress Elisabeth “Sisi” of Austria lives on forever, where the Lipizzaner do their dance and where the colossal labyrinth of the imperial Hofburg palace all provide hints of how great the Habsburg Empire was until 1918.
Vienna’s Café Engländer, with its red benches and black chairs, is where Robert Misik likes to take his lunch. He always orders “Menu 1” with dessert without so much as glancing at the menu. He’s in a hurry on this day because he has promised his mother he would visit. Misik is the Viennese edition of the dedicated intellectual, a leftist, but casual at the same time, he wears a leather jacket and has a receding headline and a strongly honed sense of humor, which makes a lot of things easier. On the day of our meeting, “Menu 1” is wafer-thin beef schnitzel, breaded and fried — and very Viennese.
Misik is the author of numerous books and he has also written or signed numerous political appeals. He’s always there when the need arises to organize protests against the right. He’s hard working and stands up for what he believes in, including on the internet. He fills his days doing video columns, writing editorials and conducting radio interviews. His latest book, a witty collection of short essays entitled “Love in the Times of Capitalism,” has just been published.
To Misik, Kurz’s new government is the product of what he describes as the “the end of a 30-year process of gradual deadening.” It’s a process that began back in the 1980s, he explains, when the FPÖ began shedding its many skins and began its rise under Jörg Haider. This path led to the first national coalition government between ÖVP and FPÖ in 2000. The chancellor at the time was Wolfgang Schüssel, a man who wore a bow tie and who, practically on his own, destroyed the last remnants of credibility that the country’s politics still had.
The European Union imposed sanctions against Austria for seven months at the time, a sign it was united against right-wing extremism. It is an act that would be inconceivable today. But it’s also likely that the well-meaning move actually strengthened extremist and anti-EU tendencies in Austria. Many Austrians, after all, pride themselves on their stubbornness. They have always been easy to reach with “we’ve had enough”-type slogans — of the kind the FPÖ has masterfully applied in all policy areas. Indeed, the party’s opponents are not particularly surprised that the right-wing populists were once again able to ride such slogans to a spot in the government coalition. “We have progressed,” says Robert Misik, “from the unthinkable to the unspeakable to the unbearable.” That is very well stated, even if you have to read it twice.
“We’re masters at looking the other away, of denial and suppression,” says Anneliese Rohrer, sitting in the conservatory of the distinguished Café Landtmann on Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse, where the colossal Burgtheater stands directly in front of the high windows. Rohrer, who will turn 74 this year, has a successful career behind her as a newspaper journalist, and the courageous woman continues writing today. Her opinion on the current state of politics in the country is expressed in the name of one of her books: “Character Flaw: The Austrians and Their Politicians.” In light of the Kurz government, Rohrer describes her attitude toward life these days as “queasy and helpless.” The fact that 70 years after World War II we have to worry about the state of democracy again, she says, “is incomprehensible.”
On the day of our meeting, the new government has only been in office for 40 or 50 days, an ice-cold, dark day in February. The government has just announced that subsidies will be cut for the integration of refugees, for German-learning courses and other programs. Rohrer says the move is “pure malice” given how it will intentionally marginalize people.
Rohrer says everything is worse this time around than in 2000. First, because Haider couldn’t stand the fraternities. And, second, because this time the FPÖ has been targeting government institutions. The Constitutional Court, university boards, police forces and institutions are to be “re-colored” — a reorganization, she says, that should be concerning to everyone.
Of course, parties have always sought to stack government posts with their own people, but the Freedom Party of Austria is in a league of its own. The party has signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and maintains cordial relations with many right-wing extremist parties across Europe, including Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Front National in France. The week before last, cheerful selfies of FPÖ Vice Chancellor Strache together with Italian racist Matteo Salvini went viral.
Hands on Many Levers
The FPÖ is a party which makes no secret of its admiration for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. It is a party that has always been in tune with the white nationalist Identitarian Movement, which in Germany has attracted the scrutiny of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, which is responsible for monitoring all forms of extremism. It is this party has its hands on many levers in Austria today.
Members of the FPÖ are now responsible for the police and intelligence apparatuses, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), which monitors extremists in the country, the army, the diplomatic service and the social welfare authorities. Perhaps Chancellor Kurz wasn’t paying very close attention when his “turquoise-blue” coalition took shape, but the FPÖ now not only holds the office of vice chancellor, but also the Interior, Foreign, Defense, Transport and Labor and Social Affairs ministries, all of them key government portfolios. This raises some extremely basic questions: How do government officials in Vienna see international cooperation in the future? Which foreign intelligence service, which police, which judicial authority, which military apparatus would exchange knowledge and data with a government that includes friends of Putin, Orbán admirers and Salvini fans?
One could attempt to employ charm to gloss over everything, as Austrian government spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal does. He is constantly firing off greetings in every direction in flowing, dance-like moves so that nobody can possibly feel ignored.
On one early spring morning, Launsky-Tieffenthal is strutting through the richly stuccoed halls of the Chancellery in Vienna. Chancellor Kurz has invited reporters to a background interview on the forthcoming Austrian Presidency of the European Council, the powerful EU body representing the member states. Kurz’s chief of staff will be present, as will the foreign minister. In greeting, Launsky-Tieffenthal notes that we had never met before. “Glad to have you here,” he says.
We stride up a massive staircase once used by legendary Austrian Empire diplomat Prince von Metternich in the 19th century. Located behind the Stone Hall is the Congress Hall, actually named after the Congress of Vienna, which once sealed the end of the Napoleonic era here. There are five heavy chandeliers in the hall, under which a TV-friendly podium has been set up for Kurz and his colleagues, all in white.
The background discussion, it turns out, is actually a press conference — the room is full, Launsky-Tieffenthal greets the guests and they drink cappuccinos out of dainty cups served by waitresses. A few hours later, Launsky-Tieffenthal will reply by text message to a casual question that came up during our chat about the color of the broad, flesh-colored frieze that skirts the base of the ceiling around the entire hall. “Pompeii red,” the text reads.
An Obsession with Migrants
The chancellor takes the stage right on time and he seems well rested standing between the Austrian and European flags flanking the podium. You don’t get the slightest sense that he feels at all burdened by the high office he now occupies. He speaks about Europe, or, to be more specific, about “the fight against illegal migration.” In Austria, after all, the two issues are currently one and the same.
Whenever Kurz raises his gentle voice, words begin tumbling out, the meaning of which could have been conveyed in a much more concise manner. And he never forgets to emphasize his own achievements. “You’ll remember,” he says, “that I was one of the first …” Or: “Even as foreign minister, I noted to my European counterparts early on that …”
Kurz never misses the opportunity to incorporate foreigners, and the problems he associates with them, into what he says. And he exploits any opportunity to share his own very streamlined version of history — namely: “as you are certainly aware,” he shut down the Balkan Route practically on his own.
Thanks in part to Kurz’s performances, Austria’s societal debate is also obsessed with migrants and all the trouble people have with them. And it’s not just about refugees, but also foreigners of all stripes, including Germans, Slovenes and Hungarians. Somehow, there are always too many of them, allegedly taking up all the public housing, filling up the universities and snapping up all the tickets to the Vienna State Opera so that people born in the country can’t get them. During the press conference, Chancellor Kurz says a “continuous consideration of the migration problem” is needed, and that this is largely Austria’s contribution to Europe’s future. Of course, much more will be heard from the country about that subject now that Austria has assumed the helm of the EU Council Presidency for the next six months.
“Kurz is a PR product,” says Florian Klenk, sitting inside the city’s Zum Schwarzen Kameel restaurant, where a charismatic head waiter named Maître Gensbichler keeps an eye on bourgeois society between generously filled sandwiches and delightful apricot pancakes. Klenk is editor-in-chief of the Viennese city magazine Falter, which has established itself as the central organ of civil resistance in the growing cacophony of Austrian politics. The magazine’s circulation is increasing, not just in Vienna.
Klenk, born in 1973, holds a doctorate in law and is famous in Austria as an investigative journalist. In the course of his reporting, he regularly uncovers dirt on the police, the judiciary and various other institutions. He recently brought to light a shocking scandal about Austrian peacekeeping troops. He’s a man who knows his way around the country, even its less savory corners.
Klenk is, on the one hand, quite alarmed. Alarmed that the FPÖ is increasingly and brazenly encroaching on the democratic sphere and that things have become so debased that the interior minister can hire a writer from the extremist fake news platform Unzensuriert.at (uncensored.at) as his spokesman, without any consequences. He also believes that Kurz is the first Austrian chancellor to be a “right-wing populist with a friendly face,” to emerge on the European political stage, one who could be in office for a long time to come.
But on the other hand, Klenk says, this government, or at least the coalition with the FPÖ, will fail because the ÖVP is putting pressure on its junior partner to enact policies that go against the interests of populists’ own base. For example, legislation is being drafted that would go against the interests of the poor and vulnerable in society, against the sacrosanct social housing and workers’ rights. “That will kill the FPÖ in the long term,” Klenk says.
Later that evening, he starts to philosophize about his country. He’s sitting in Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a large place, half cafe, half restaurant and in a pseudo art nouveau style with lots of paneled, mirrored niches. “It’s difficult to make judgements about Austria,” he says, “Because you never know where you are. It’s like these niches, with the mirrors. When you go by, you see it ahead in the mirror, whereas in fact it’s behind you. And if you come from the right, you see it first in the mirror from the left. It’s like that here. That’s how things work.”