At last, an opportunity has arisen to kill baby Hitler. Thus read a poster in The Titanic, an Austrian newspaper, in the wake of this year’s legislative elections. These words captioned an image of the newly appointed, 31-year-old Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz, with the crosshairs of a gun trained on him.
Depictions of political leaders as the Führer may be a banal element of modern life the world over, but considering the success of the far right in October’s election, perhaps Austria’s relationship with its most infamous son deserves closer examination.
The rise of the far right
Kurz, head of the People’s Party (PP), won the election with 31.4% of the vote, after tacking a long way to the right during a campaign dominated by dissatisfaction at high levels of immigration and cosy coalition politics. He now seeks an alliance with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which itself won 27.4%.
Keen students of European politics may be experiencing déjà vu, given that the exact same issues also dominated the German election a month prior. In that election, the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland, (or AfD) was the major talking point.
The AfD in Germany and FPÖ in Austria share many similarities. Both parties’ campaign posters railed against Islamisierung (or Islamicisation) of their respective countries, spurred on by the migrant crisis; both are inherently Eurosceptic and have promised a range of tax cuts to their lower and middle income voter base.
However, the far right has proved doubly popular in Austria than its Teutonic neighbour. In an interview with Jericho, Austrian political scientist Anton Pelinka stated that this is “for very understandable historical reasons. The far right [has been] much more of a taboo in Germany than in other European countries.”
Why though? What accounts for this difference in attitude to the far right from these two wartime allies?
Differing attitudes to the Second World War
With the allied forces sensing victory, the foreign ministers of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union met in Moscow in 1943. At their summit they discussed the future of Austria; they were determined not to allow the war to end with the notion of Großdeutschland (or Greater Germany) intact.
The state of Austria had to be psychologically separated from Germany. As such, the Allies officially declared that the Anschluss (the broadly welcomed Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938) made Austria “the first victim of Hitlerite aggression”.
The artificial separation of the two states, despite their societies holding rather similar attitudes towards the Nazis – indeed, Austrians were overrepresented in the SS, especially in the staff at concentration camps – led to Austria assuming far less war guilt than Germany.
Professor James Koranyi at Durham University argues that this was done inadvertently. “The strong emphasis on German guilt and responsibility has,” he notes, “… distracted from Austrian Nazi legacies. You could say that Austrian memory politics has merely replicated what German memory politics demanded: to make Nazism a truly German memory issue. Hitler is certainly not really understood as Austrian, neither on the German nor on the Austrian side.”
Whilst German political culture was forcibly reinvented by the allies (though differently in East and West), Austrian politicians who had served in the Wehrmacht were allowed to re-enter society. This most famously included Kurt Waldhiem, a German intelligence officer during World War Two who successfully hid his past and was elected Austrian president in 1986.
The war memory today
That is not to say that Austrians are unaware of their country’s role in the Second World War. According to a poll conducted earlier this year, just 26% of Austrians said they agreed that Austria was the first victim of the Nazis.
Philip Schnattinger, an Austrian at the University of Oxford, told Jericho that the issue “is not about people not knowing that Austrians were Nazis, but about a share of the population believing that the Nazis had at least a good part right. From this group of people the FPÖ was conceived.”
In Germany by contrast, there was outrage when Bjorn Höcke, a key figure in the AfD, stated that he thought Germany should re-examine how it looks at the war. Germans are, he noted, “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of [their] capital … [we have] mentality of a totally vanquished people.”
Urban vs Rural
The are of course other factors than war guilt that account for the success of the far right in Austria.
Across Europe it has become a matter of course to label far-right voters as the “losers” of globalisation. Indeed, many of those interviewed for this article did just that. However, James Koranyi believes that the issue is more nuanced. “It tends to be more urban centres where the FPÖ does less well,” he says. “But in many ways we see a reproduction of other populist movements which indicate a cultural clash rather than a socio-economic issue at the heart of it all. After all, wealthy set, more rural areas vote FPÖ.”
This belief in the importance of the rural/urban divide is also stressed by Schnattinger: “Austria is not necessarily far-right, but fundamentally conservative. Vienna, with two million people, is the only large city of the country; six million other Austrians live in essentially rural areas.”
Perhaps Germany, as a more urbanised, industrial society, is less likely to hold conservative values dearly. In fact, East Germany, a predominantly more rural part of the country, has seen far higher turnout for the AfD.
Discipline and Age of Party
Another key distinguishing factor between the FPÖ and AfD is the latter’s relative youth as a party. The AfD were formed in 2013 as a reaction to the German-led bailout of Greece whereas the FPÖ were founded in 1956 and have been an important part of the Austrian political scene ever since.
This has led a disciplined party message so as not to be considered overly extremist. “As far as attitudes to the far-right are concerned, there is simply a more significant portion of Austrian society that don’t consider the FPÖ as far-right, but as patriotic conservatism” continues James Koranyi.
Indeed, a successful far-right campaign is hardly new in Austria. In 2000, the FPÖ under Jörg Haider received 27% of the vote, while the conservative People’s Party tailed closely on 26%. That is relatively similar to the recent result, even without the additional polarisation of the current migrant crisis.
Part of the mainstream
Bernhard Weidinger, who monitors far-right activity at the Documentation Centre for the Austrian Resistance, has observed the carefree way in which the far-right is absorbed into the Austrian political mainstream. He notes that, unlike in France and Germany, where there is a cordon sanitaire (an implicit arrangement that all other parties will unite to halt the far right) “both parties of the centre [use] the FPÖ, at the very least, as a token in negotiations with one another)”.
This is unlikely to ever occur in Germany. Above all else, attitudes to the war, and Hitler, remain the key differentiator between the two political cultures. James Koranyi describes a “strange discussion last year in Braunau (Hitler’s birthplace) on what to do with the house where he was born. It was a curious othering of Hitler as an object of memory that didn’t really belong to the place. Likewise, the recent presidential elections in Austria highlighted how Hitler and Nazism has left no stain … Nearly 50% in Braunau thought it was okay to vote for the far-right candidate!”