Can Europe Make It?

Contesting liberal democracy using the racialisation of space

Such proposals and appeals have not been seen or heard in Vienna and Austria since Nazi times.

Ruth Wodak
6 March 2019, 1.36pm
Herbert Kickl, Minister of the Interior of Austria, after meeting German Minister of the Interior Seehofer (CSU) in Berlin. September, 2018. Kay Nietfeld/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Every day, we are confronted with new provocations by the Austrian government which would have been deemed unimaginable just a few years ago: For example, the suggestionby the Austrian minister of Interior Affairs, Herbert Kickl of the radical right party FPÖ, to rename “reception centers” for asylum seekers and refugees (Aufnahmezentrum) into “departure centers” (Ausreisezentrum). This label implies that the safe haven, the space where refugees would finally not have to fear for their lives, is not a place to stay but – by definition – a place from where one should leave. This might seem quite absurd at first; however, in the context of extremely restrictive migration policies and explicit racist rhetoric of exclusion against so-called “illegal migrants”, this label indicates that asylum seekers are not welcome; indeed, that they should immediately leave again. They are not wanted in Austria. One might even speculate that this new label might be a cleverly chosen euphemism, actually carrying the meaning of “deportation center”.

This label implies that the safe haven, the space where refugees would finally not have to fear for their lives, is not a place to stay but – by definition – a place from where one should leave.

Far-right rhetoric is currently full of such euphemisms. Minister Kickl recently suggested – after a state employee had been killed by a migrant who had already committed several criminal acts and should have left Austria – that potentially dangerous migrants and asylum seekers should be preventively incarcerated – which criteria would be used to determine potentially dangerous people, however, has remained completely unclear and vague. Another euphemism was launched: “preventive detention” (Sicherungshaft). Legal experts and the political opposition are, of course, vehemently opposing such a measure, which contradicts the Austrian constitution and all principles of equality and freedom. Moreover, in the Austrian context, such a measure and its name evokes many negative associations with the Gestapo of the Nazi regime. The Nazi term Schutzhaft implied that:

"Regimegegner und andere "missliebige“ Personen willkürlich inhaftiert, ohne dass dies einer zeitlichen Begrenzung unterlag. Dieses geschah anfänglich überwiegend durch Mitglieder nationalsozialistischer Organisationen wie der SA und der SS, später durch die auch aus SS-Angehörigen bestehende Gestapo. Die Gefangenen wurden in – der nationalsozialistischen Partei unterstehenden – Haftstätten, den sogenannten Konzentrationslagern, festgehalten und misshandelt. Es war Gerichten nicht möglich, eine Inhaftierung in ein Konzentrationslager in Frage zu stellen.“

[Opponents of the regime and other ‘unpopular’ persons were arbitrarily detained without a time limit. This was initially carried out mainly by members of National Socialist organizations such as the SA and the SS, later by the Gestapo, also comprised of SS members. The prisoners were detained and mistreated in detention centers controlled by the National Socialist party, the so-called concentration camps. It was not possible for courts to question imprisonment in a concentration camp.]

However, Kickl does not really care if something is legal or not, if implementing his proposal would violate any laws or even the constitution. If a minister of interior affairs explicitly states that: “because I am simply sick and tired of being slowed down/deterred by legal regulations" ("weil ich es schlicht und ergreifend satthabe, dass wir uns von rechtlichen Bestimmungen ausbremsen lassen“), then such a minister would usually have to resign in any liberal democracy. Sadly, this is not the case in Austria.

Kickl even repeated and reinforced this statement by recently declaring in a TV interview that “I still believe that the principle applies that the law has to follow politics and not politics the law” (“Ich glaube immer noch, dass der Grundsatz gilt, dass das Recht der Politik zu folgen hat und nicht die Politik dem Recht.“) In other words, he believes that legislation should follow the will of the government. The law which he refers to, by the way, is the Declaration of Human Rights (proclaimed by the United Nations 10 December 1948). One could legitimately raise the question which historical period is Kickl referring to?

But spaces are not only closed and restricted for strangers from outside. The racist rhetoric employed by the Austrian radical right FPÖ provides another example of such exclusionary practices which draw on the Nazi nativist discourses: their slogans recontextualize antisemitic and racist appeals of the 1930s which excluded Jews from council housing and other apartments, schools and professions, for example:

"The slogan must be: no more Muslim migrants allowed in council housing in Döbling [the 19th district in Vienna, a wealthy area]." [1]

Such blatant anti-Muslim racism implies grave danger for any pluralist and liberal democracy, because it is hugely divisive, excludes specific people on behalf of their religion, and is instrumentalized to trigger nativist movements. Racialization in this instance began with the forced relocation of a group of persons distinguished as (morally) different and identified by a particular ethnic feature – their religion – to a physical space that was isolated from other areas of the city. These examples relate to the racialization of spaceacross many dimensions.

Extensive historical research illustrates that such proposals and appeals have not been seen or heard in Vienna and Austria since Nazi times (SOS Mitmensch 2019: 4). In such rhetoric, migrants are de-humanized and their number is exaggerated implying an invasion by another dangerous culture which would subsequently destroy the “pure” Christian Austrians, a threat scenario which subsequently legitimizes the moralization of borders and walls.

[1]See “Die Devise muss lauten: Keine weiteren muslimischen Migranten in Döblings Gemeindebauten!“ The translation necessarily neglects the rhyme in this slogan.(SOS Mitmensch 2019: 34)

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