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From Pan-Germanism to new populism in Austria

When it comes to European exclusionary politics, the Austrian case is a puzzling story of a historically rooted right-wing extremism which managed to overcome the outdating of its main ideological component – thanks to anti-immigration xenophobia.

Right wing extremism in Austria is traditionally linked with the Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – FPÖ). The party’s history goes back a long way – the beginning of the Austrian Pan-German movement in the 1880s. During the last decades of the Habsburg Monarchy, Pan German parties like Georg Schönerer’s Alldeutsche Partei defined the two essential elements of Austrian right-wing extremism: “Anschluss” (annexation to the German Empire) of most of the Austrian part of the empire, and an ardent nationalism, which included a biological or “racist” anti-Semitism. The key motive underlying this agenda was the fear that the Austrian Germans could lose their dominant role in a multi-ethnic Austria.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the two successor parties of the Schönerer tradition (Großdeutsche Volkspartei – Pan German People’s Party, and Landbund – Farmers’ League) became more and more influenced by the rise of the NSADP, first in Germany and then in Austria. When the democratic Republic of Austria became conquered by the anti-parliamentarian, semi-fascist (but also anti-Nazi) catholic conservative camp (the Christian Social Party and its allies) and the authoritarian dictatorship under Engelbert Dollfuß and Kurt Schuschnigg was established, most of the (former) Pan-German electorate as well as the leadership had already joined the (between 1933 and 1938 illegal) NSDAP.

Austrian Nazis played an important role within the leadership of the Nazi regime. Arthur Seyß-Inquart and Ernst Kaltenbrunner – who was a member of one of the Austrian duelling fraternities, the traditional backbone of Austria’s Pan-Germanism - were among the most prominent Nazi leaders found guilty by the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg.

New beginnings: anti-establishment populism and revisionism

When the Allies re-established Austria’s independence and democracy in 1945, the Pan-German tradition was ostracized in Austria due to its identification with Nazism. Only when the former members of the NSDAP were reintegrated step by step was the Pan-German tradition back in party politics. Out of different groups mainly consisting of former Nazis, the FPÖ was founded in 1955. The party’s first chairman was a former SS-general, Anton Reinthaller, who had started his political career in the Pan-German Farmer’s league before joining the NSDAP. His successor was another former SS-officer, Friedrich Peter, whose SS-unit had played an active role in the extermination campaign behind the Eastern front, beginning in 1941.

To a certain degree, the party accepted the changed political environment. The longing for the Anschluss was dead. Austria’s independence was accepted. The party nevertheless insisted there was a special (“cultural”) relationship between Austria and Germany. But from the outset, the FPÖ focused on a revisionist narrative. On the surface, it consisted of downplaying Nazi crimes and the German responsibility for World War II. In the background, this vague or soft form of revisionism was (and still is) often transformed into an open Nazi nostalgia.

As the party was not very successful in the first three decades of its existence – usually getting about 5 percent of the votes at national elections, the FPÖ had to reinvent itself at the beginning of the 1980s. Under the leadership of Jörg Haider, it began to tone down its historical narrative and put a new emphasis on a more populist “anti-establishment” agenda. This strategy was very successful. The merger of the old roots – Pan-German nationalism and revisionism – with a new orientation was the precondition for the party’s rise to a voting share of (sometimes) more than 25 percent.

Old elites – new electorate

The FPÖ is an almost unique case bridging the gap between two models of European right-wing populism: the western - and especially northern-western – type strongly tied to its fascist roots, and the central-eastern type showing a pre-fascist profile – like the Hungarian Jobbik. The FPÖ’s leadership is still recruited from the same milieu the Pan-German movements and parties tapped into during the first decades of the twentieth century. Most of the party’s top leaders have still been socialized in the duelling fraternities (Burschenschaften, Corps) where the tradition for exclusive nationalism but also for aggressive anti-Semitism runs deep. The socio-economic profile of the party’s leadership also reflects the traditional bourgeois background of the Schönerer era.

But the party’s electorate has changed significantly. The FPÖ of the beginning of the 21st century is more “blue collar” than any other Austrian party, including the social democratic SPÖ. The party’s rank and files have remade the FPÖ into a working class party, if this terminology can still be used. The party’s electoral successes are the result of the FPÖ’s ability to articulate the fears of the (comparatively) underprivileged segments of Austrian society. The FPÖ is using the well-known technique of directing the anger of the so-called 'losers of modernization' against specific groups which are scapegoated. This tactic is nowadays especially turned against migrants, and among them first and foremost against those coming from Islamic societies. Most noticeably, they are made responsible for criminality and for the assumed decline of domestic security.

On other matters, the party has taken political u-turns. While until about 1990 it promoted Austria’s membership in the European Communities, it has become the main political voice opposing Austria’s participation in the ongoing European integration process. The FPÖ, coming out of a tradition which favoured the full integration of Austria into a Greater Germany, has profiled itself now as the main defender of Austrian sovereignty, particularly against the European Union.

The FPÖ could play a significant role on the European level. Due to Austria’s geopolitical position, it could become the bridge between the west European extreme rightist populism (like the Dutch Freedom Party or the Danish People’s Party) and the more traditional nationalistic extremism of the central-east European far right. As the far right in Europe is still lacking an organized European dimension, the FPÖ could be the missing link necessary for the establishment of a European party family of the extreme right. Such a party group may develop its violent wings. But it will first and foremost have to picture itself as the defender of the sovereign European nation state against external dangers: supranational EU institutions and migration.

About the author

Anton Pelinka is a professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University. His books include Politics of the Lesser Evil: Leadership, Democracy, and Jaruzelski's Poland (Transaction, 1999); (co-ed, with Ruth Wodak) The Haider Phenomenon in Austria (Transaction, 2002); and Democracy Indian Style: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Creation of India's Political Culture (Transaction, 2003)


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