I feel as if we should congratulate voters in Austria for – on the balance – refusing to vote the Far-Right ‘Freedom Party’ to power.
In what was a very closely and nervously watched election in Austria yesterday, the Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer (who had won the first round of the election, with 35% of the vote – the party’s most successful ever result), was defeated by Left-leaning and Green-Party-backed Alexander Van der Bellen. Many, both in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, may have breathed a sigh of relief. The result, however, was very, very close, with Hofer receiving 49.7% of the vote: making it clear that the battle isn’t over and that the Freedom Party (FPÖ) is still very much in play for the coming months and years.
But in a year that has seen a surge to the right in multiple countries, and with a year approaching that will see several nervous elections in several Western nations with the specter of Far-Right parties looming, the result in Austria is perhaps a welcome reprieve from the encroaching darkness that threatens to envelop Western civilization.
The fact that Hofer was expected to win may have, in the end, mobilised a lot more people to vote against the FPÖ.
The protesters pictured above are shown holding posters that read “No Nazi inside Hofburg palace” and were among the many voters who mobilised to prevent Austria becoming the first Western European nation since the end of World War II to elect an openly Far-Right leader to government. (Photo Credit: REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader).
For all the talk, rightly or wrongly, of the Breitbart-driven Donald Trump campaign or the UKIP-driven Brexit campaign being bound up in extreme-right ideologies (for the record, I don’t think Trump or Farage are extremists, but they both do willingly associate with very dodgy people), in Austria – and with the Freedom Party – those associations are much more ominous, because of the historical precedents.
It is the same reason that I believe Germany, in general, will not elect a Far-Right party to government – despite all of the claims or predictions that this is in danger of happening next year.
When Barack Obama, fresh from the Trump victory in the US, recently visited Angela Merkel and told her that she and Germany were now the ones who needed to carry the flame for liberalism and 21st century society, he was – on one hand – saying that Germany and not the United States would have to be the flag-bearers for liberal democracy and progressive social politics in the immediate years ahead, but also – on the other hand – warning her that she can’t afford to lose.
If she were to lose and Germany was to shift to the hard-right, it is difficult to see the socio-political situation in Europe not being radically regressed or altered in the years ahead. Many in Germany have watched this Austrian election with particular anxiety, because some saw it as an indicator of how things might go in Germany.
Some Jewish citizens in Austria expressed understandable anxiety about the FPÖ attaining government, including at least one Holocaust survivor whose appeal to voters to reject the party went viral.
The fact that a Holocaust survivor was startled enough by the social and political climate to feel the need to speak out is very relevant, in my view. Because, in my opinion, the lurch towards potentially extreme ideologies and ‘Populist’ or mob-rule solutions that is currently going on is something that only happens when societies or populations have started to lose their sense of historic events or their connection to history.
People who are now too far removed in time from the events of Nazi Europe or European fascism are often failing to see parallels or dangers. At this point in time, an 89-year-old woman who was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust was still around, among others, to act as a living reminder of how badly things might go when the masses fall for a populist leader or movement that prods at people’s anxieties and prejudices and thrives on talking about racial or cultural ‘purity’ and demonising migrants or foreign influences.
People like her, however, aren’t going to be around forever – which is something I wrote about during the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
And when the last of those people die out, not just in Austria, but in Germany or France, Poland or anywhere else, the palpable memory or sense of those events – and the warning they provide us for the present and future – will be in danger of fading away completely. That has already started to happen, of course – if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be seeing the surge of Far-Right parties and followers (including Holocaust denial and Neo-Nazism) that we’re seeing in the Western world.
In the case of the United States, there isn’t an actual history of major or overt fascism for people to take as the same ‘warning from history’ (although there is of course a history involving the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacists, both of which were connected – to whatever degree – with the uglier side of the US Presidential Election and will be involved in the incoming administration).
But in Europe the situation is different, which is why the growing popularity of extreme-right parties or figures in almost every European nation (France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, even the Netherlands – *all* countries deeply, deeply involved in or effected by the Holocaust and 1930s Fascism) is so baffling and so disturbing.
For the record, some 63,800 Austrian Jews fell victim to the Holocaust.
In Austria, the Freedom Party’s founder was Anton Reinthaller: not just someone ideologically questionable, but actually a former Nazi functionary and SS officer. Although it might not be fair to hold that against everyone who belongs to the modern-day party – which has tried to distance itself from its past and origins – the sheer symbolic power of a party founded by a Nazi winning a presidential election in Austria in 2016 would be extraordinary; which is why the election garnered so much international coverage.
I’m relieved it didn’t happen.
But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into breathing easy; it was very close and the FPÖ is still a major force in Austria. Moreover, people shouldn’t take the Austrian result as any proof of a ‘liberal’, ‘left’ or ‘center-left’ pushback against the right-surge beyond Austria: next year could see outcomes that don’t mirror Austria, but go the other way. Clearly, the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II don’t really have as much hold on or relevance to as many people anymore as they did for previous generations: otherwise there would be no way a country like Hungary would have an openly anti-Semitic (and as it happens, highly anti-Muslim) government. Two-thirds of Hungarian Jews were liquidated between 1941 and 1945.
Concerning the accusation that these parties and movements – the Freedom Party included – are highly anti-Semitic; they no doubt are anti-Semitic on a basic level towards ordinary Jews, particularly Jews living in Europe – and those anti-Semitic ideologies have always existed. But they also appear to be highly friendly with the right-wing government in Israel at the state-level. This odd duality gets more and more curious the more you look at it.
It seems to often be a case of real anti-Semitism, but not anti-Zionism (as in, a hatred of ordinary Jews but support for Israel’s right-wing Likud government); in some cases, such as with the FPÖ and with Le Pen’s Front National, they have carefully appeared to move away from the deep-rooted anti-Semitism over time in order to appear more palatable as political parties (whereas lower-level supporters of Far-Right or ultra-nationalist ideologies tend to be openly, savagely anti-Semitic, because they’ve no need to pretend otherwise).
In fact, the Far-Right parties have generally been much more able to distance themselves from traditional anti-Semitism because they don’t *need* it anymore: because they have something much easier to exploit and profit from – Islamophobia and the Refugee Crisis.
Which is why every such party, without exception, thrives on a platform of opposition to multi-culturalism and immigration in general, and on a platform of anti-Muslim rhetoric most specifically. The focus on Muslims allows them to hide the anti-Semitism: most intelligent people (including most perceptive Jews, especially those with memories or connections to the 1930s and 40s) don’t fall for this trick – like the 89 year-old Holocaust survivor, they can see exactly what’s going on. Unfortunately, plenty of others either do fall for it or they don’t care.
The reason the Far Right appears to be on the rise right now is because they are able to manipulate and direct popular (and legitimate) anxiety or angst in regard to immigration, multi-culturalism, national identity and whatever else, and harness it to their own cause. People’s legitimate concerns – along with all of the fall-out from the United States’ phony ‘War On Terror’ and wars in the Middle East – mean that such parties and movements can step out of the fringes and into the mainstream again in a mass way that hasn’t happened since the 1930s.
And helping transform those mainstream concerns about immigration levels or multi-culturalism into a more openly anti-Muslim platform is very easy. Of course, there is an argument to be had about mass immigration, integration, and all the rest of it, all of which has arguably been handled very badly by the Left or Center-Left or Center-Right parties in recent years: but in any civilised, 21st century society, those issues or concerns should never be the excuse to let the Far Right or fascism return to Europe.
What’s rather extraordinary is that the anti-Muslim campaigns are becoming virtually identical to the anti-Jewish propaganda of the 30s – they are simply the useful, present tool whereby fear or mistrust of a foreign element in society can be used to reinforce focus on the nationalist/racial identity and the idea of it being under threat. Again, most perceptive Jews see it for what it is – because their community has been through this already. Which is why you have people like the Polish Jewish businessman coming out and saying he fears a second Holocaust is near in Europe and this time it won’t be Jews but Muslims.
Warnings like that don’t get anything like as much serious media coverage as they should: but what’s sadder is that, because of where we seem to be now, that kind of warning or prediction will just be dismissed by a lot of extreme-right supporters as ‘propaganda’ from ‘a Jew’ (and many would probably add that the Holocaust was a ‘hoax’ anyway).
All of this is pretty grim stuff: but it all needs to be seriously considered. Thankfully, enough voters in Austria were able to stem the tide – at least for the moment. But their battle isn’t over; and elsewhere in Europe, the battle is just about to happen. Frankly, almost every European election to come now might be a contest between the creeping forces of the Far-Right and the maligned and beleaguered ‘Establishment’ parties that have never properly recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and are now being undermined by the Refugee Crisis.
What also should be understood about this ‘Populist’ movement towards the Far-Right – all of it centered on anti-refugee, anti-Islam rhetoric – is that it is international, with various parties in different countries working together. We can note, for example, that Marie Le Pen endorsed Hofer and expressed solidarity as the voting in Austria began on Sunday. As did Nigel Farage. And like Le Pen’s Front National, the Freedom Party has been in a cross-party alliance in the European parliament with its other European counterparts, particularly the anti-Muslim Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom and Italy’s Northern League.
What will likely happen is that various elections will go different ways and there will remain some sort of balance of power in the West, at least for the immediate future. But there is a serious danger of a pan-European shift to the right in the coming years. Consider: if this Austrian election had gone to the FPÖ, then both Austria and Hungary would have hard-right governments and something like a Far-Right Bloc would potentially form, with countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland already seeming vulnerable to that kind of direction.
Europe is clearly in trouble: and is probably facing its most dangerous and important ideological battle since the 1930s. But, for today, I applaud and congratulate those voters in Austria who came out in numbers to prevent what had seemed like an inevitable victory for the 1930s gang. It offers some timely hope that voters, at least in some countries, are very aware of the stakes.