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Europe's Next Test Case

A Journey Down Austria's Path to the Right

Part 2: Learning How Austria Ticks

Armin Smailovic / DER SPIEGEL
By Ullrich Fichtner
Monday, 7/9/2018   01:01 PM

Austria is one of the last remaining paradises for print journalism. There are papers across the country -- from the serious national newspapers like Der Standard and Die Presse, to the good regional publications and the impressive newsweeklies such as Profil and then the Kronen Zeitung, a mass-circulation daily, that is essential reading to understand how the nation ticks.

The newspaper has a print run of 700,000 and reaches 3 million readers a day in a country of 8.8 million inhabitants. To reach that kind of audience, a German newspaper would have to have a print run of 7 million and a readership of 30 million. That's something that even Bild, the biggest-selling paper in Germany, couldn't dream of attaining.

The "Krone" as it's called, is pure tabloid, with a rapid stream of political reports, folksy stories, family dramas, crime, sports, attacks on politicians, there's a solid level of xenophobia, it looks down on minorities, gets riled up over lax judges and allows bishops to write columns in which they spread the gospel to the people. On the positive side, a democracy that can withstand a paper like the Kronen Zeitung for a long time without major damage can be considered relatively stable. At least on the one hand.

On the other, though, the Krone shares a lot of the blame for the fact that there is little progress in the liberalization of Austrian society, argues Doron Rabinovici. The writer is sitting in Café Korb, where the walls are painted the color of egg yolks. He says the newspaper is one of the reasons that, in contrast to Germany, "there's no firewall against right-wing extremism." The paper is constantly flirting with racism and shows open disdain for democracy. "The terms are constantly being blurred," Rabinovici says, "and that starts with the fact that they are always being described as right-wing populists when they are in fact right-wing extremist populists."

Rabinovici is a fixture in the contemporary German-language literary world, a permanent part of Vienna's intellectual life. Five years ago, he brought his "The Last Witnesses" to the Burg Theater -- a shocking and critically acclaimed play that included the participation of witnesses to the Nazi pogroms of 1938. Rabinovici also organized the mass protests at Heldenplatz against the first ÖVP/FPÖ coalition in 2000. Around 250,000 people responded to his appeal: "We are Europe -- no to the racist coalition." In January, he once again tried to organize a similar rally. This time, only 70,000 people turned up.

Rabinovici, a relatively short man with a sharp mind, is bitterly disappointed with the political developments of recent years. He says the current government is more dangerous than that of 2000. Back then, Austria was the exception in Europe, but today its authoritarian tendencies are part of the mainstream. Democracy is in retreat, even in its previous bastions in Europe and America, "and none of us know how we are going to get out of this."

Falling Back

Rabinovici sees three crises overlapping that are also grist to the mill of the extremists, in Austria and beyond. First, it's no longer possible to finance the welfare state as we once knew it due to the shifts being caused by globalization. Second, supranational organizations, such as the European Union, haven't succeeded in credibly replacing the nation-state. And third, the nation-states are under such pressure that they are falling back to protectionist ideas, hot on the heels of the reactionaries, nationalist and racists.

This, he says, is the situation Austria finds itself in. The new government is "taking steps every day against foreigners," and spreading anti-Semitic catch-phrases. A love of the "heimat," that uniquely German concept that combines home, hearth and a deep suspicion of the other, is becoming the patriotic duty of every citizen, and every conflict is presented as us against them. Last year on Twitter, a local politician branded the writer, who moved to Vienna from Tel Aviv as a child, as "Rabinovici the well-poisoner." That's how things are in today's Austria.

Unbelievable things are written and said on social media, on TV or in newspapers, without causing much of a debate. When, for example, a former bishop from Salzburg says that same-sex relationships cannot be blessed by the church because, after all, "it isn't possible to bless a bordello, a concentration camp or a weapon either," the story merits but a single column in the back pages. When the FPÖ general-secretary suggests on Twitter that a critical academic "get psychiatric help" to cure himself of his "ignorant hogwash," it no longer triggers a scandal.

The issue of women wearing headscarves, on the other hand, is given prominent standing in the media, as if people in Austria didn't have any other problems that needed addressing. The issue of stiffening penalties again sex crime offenders is never put to rest. And the result is that the public culture of debate continues to erode, and people only briefly perk their ears when some local politician in the mountains leans on the right-wing lexicon when fulminating against Muslims.

That someone is Peter Suntinger, who has been mayor of the small town of Grosskirchheim for 21 years, far away from Vienna. "We are a strictly Catholic community. We won't accept any Muslims, they simply don't fit in."

Grosskirchheim is in the state of Carinthia, located on the high Alpine road that accesses the country's highest mountain, the Grossglockner. The highest section of the village lies at an altitude of 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) and is covered in snow into May in some years.

Dressed in traditional Austrian livery, Mayor Suntinger lists out his problems over a cup of coffee. The biggest one is the fact that Grosskirchheim is shrinking. It's a problem for the remaining population, for the town's economic foundations, for transportation connections and, ultimately, for the town's integration in Austrian public life. Tourism is stagnating and a "fatally substantial emigration" has taken hold, Suntinger says, adding that national policymakers are doing nothing except producing "empty phrases of regionalization." "Down below in Spittal, in the district seat, a school bus makes its rounds once every 10 minutes," he says, "but up here, there is nothing. The development of the cities is taking place at the expense of rural areas."

Many of Suntinger's concerns seem quite justified. The mayor would love to turn the currently applicable logic driving funding on its head. Were it up to him, there wouldn't be a single cent available for home building subsidies in the valley and the money would instead be funneled to mountain villages and remote communities like Grosskirchheim -- the further away from population centers, the more the support available. "It is said," he says, "that it doesn't matter where you work these days. If that's true, then it wouldn't be such a bad idea to set up your computer in a beautiful landscape like ours rather than in a basement in Vienna."

If Peter Suntinger's political profile was limited to his fight for rural areas and to his last re-election with 79.5 percent of the votes, he would just be another small-town mayor in Austria. But he is also a notorious and self-absorbed provocateur who positively invites nasty invective. During a three-hour discussion in the Grosskirchheim community center, he reveals more sides than a disco ball. His ideas are all over the map, an odd amalgam of backwoods and freethought with a generous dose of folkloric irredentism. His focus is on preserving heimat.

Grosskirchheim lies at the foot of a massif not far from the Grossglockner, Austria's highest mountain at 3,798 meters (12,460 feet). Suntinger says he has climbed it more than 300 times and has stood on its peak on new year's day 32 times in the last 34 years, trudging up its slopes with skis strapped to his back.

Electrified by Haider

He also used to go on frequent mountaineering trips, some of them technical climbs, with his late friend Jörg Haider, the former right-wing populist icon who died in a car crash in 2008. Suntinger still has deep admiration for Haider and he looks back fondly on those days. In contrast to modern-day politicians who do nothing but emit hot air, he says, Haider was a man with a social conscience who everyone listened to, no matter if it was the grandmother in the mountain farmhouse or the bank director in the city. Haider was an athlete, Suntinger says, he was dynamic and close to the people, often spending weeks on the road in the country. "That's not easy to do."

Electrified by Haider, Suntinger went into politics for the FPÖ in the early 1990s. Just as Grosskirchheim is his heimat in real life, Haider's FPÖ was his political heimat. But that was long ago. Suntinger despises the party today, it's leaders and fat cats in Vienna who, he says, no longer have a social conscience and "only want to get to the feeding trough." In 2013, he suspended his party membership, as he puts it, and left the party in 2016 even though, as he says with no small degree of pathos: "In my breast, a freedom-loving heart is still beating."

The party, says Suntinger, is marching in the wrong direction, falling back to the right-wing fringe, which Haider tried to leave behind. With all the fraternity members in parliament, he says, the party is in the process of drifting to the right. "It's bad," Suntinger says. "That much you know if you know these people." His back ramrod straight, Suntinger is sitting in the community center in front of a gumweed plant. He is an enigmatic, mistrustful sort.

Until late in the fall of 2017, his village hosted seven refugees from Syria, Suntinger says, "and we of course helped them." He says he personally escorted one of the men from the group to the timber yard so he could make himself useful "but he didn't really want to work." The whole thing, he adds, was difficult. "These Syrians, they had mobile phones, great clothes, they didn't seem like it was about having a roof over their heads." The refugees after World War II, Suntinger says, had to beg for a lump of bread and their clothes were in rags.

In Suntinger's world, foreigners are not beneficial, rather they pose a threat to the status quo, especially if they aren't Christians. A couple of people from Holland recently moved to Grosskirchheim, but they are Protestants and thus not too repugnant. But Muslims? That's different, he says, adding that the townspeople elected him to make sure that no foreigners settle there.

If a Muslim tried to buy a house in the town, Suntinger says, he as mayor would speak to the seller and, if necessary, offer more money. "Soil politics," he calls it. It is, of course, unlikely that a Muslim would seek to move to Grosskirchheim given such circumstances, but if you accuse him of merely conducting xenophobic symbolism, he responds that he isn't xenophobic. And if you ask what he has against Muslims, Suntinger says he doesn't have anything against Muslims, he just doesn't want them living in Grosskirchheim. If you then tell him that such logic is that of right-wing extremists, Suntinger responds that he isn't a right-wing extremist. His own family, he says, was uprooted, having been forced to flee over the mountains from Sudetenland, a former region of Germany which is now part of the Czech Republic, following World War II. "With that kind of background, you don't become a right-wing nationalist."

It's a pattern that is repeating itself across Austria these days. People are borrowing from the extremist lexicon while wanting to appear moderate. Politicians flirt with far-right themes and then act surprised when they are labeled far right themselves. On the campaign trail, they speak of North Africans and other "riffraff" but then insist that it please not be misunderstood. Markus Abwerzger, regional head of the FPÖ in Tyrol, is one of them. He said North Africans and "riffraff," which doesn't really fit to him.

The young lawyer was born in 1975 in Dornbirn, a town in the Vorarlberg region of the Austrian Alps, and lives today in Innsbruck -- a healthy, laid back type with impressive sideburns. He has a lot on his plate when we meet. Tyrol has just elected a new regional government. But his main headache is that a young party official had sent around a WhatsApp message to party allies with a portrait of Hitler in full Führer uniform along with the message: "Missing since 1945." These kinds of things, Abwerzger says, "drive me crazy. It makes my blood boil."

'We Are Not a Nazi Party'

This "Nazi shit" is constantly setting the party back, he says, these stupid acts are "demoralizing." The focus needs to be on forging alliances between the center and the right, Abwerzger says. "We are not a Nazi party. The Nazi insults that we constantly get, in truth, they trivialize the Nazis."

Abwerzger's political career is typical for his generation of Austrians. When he was still in high school, where he was a gifted footballer, the entire postwar order was overturned and the person responsible for doing so was Jörg Haider. To understand his influence on Austrian society, it's necessary to understand how things were back then. A system designed to provide proportional representation had descended into absurdity. Social Democrats and Christian Democrats had carved up the entire country between themselves. Initially, it was doubtlessly done with the good-faith intention of ensuring stability. Ultimately, though, the priority became that of tightening their grip on power.

Everything in the country, from tennis courts to jobs, from automobile clubs to schools were either red or black, Social Democratic or Christian Democratic. And if you belonged to the black team, you didn't play on the same tennis courts as the Social Democrats, while if you were a red, you wouldn't be given an apprenticeship at a Christian Democratic enterprise. Some people joined both parties to keep all their options open. There was no real opposition in parliament, just a massive grand coalition between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Laws were enacted without any debate, simply being agreed upon by the two parties. Austrians had long forgotten what democracy even looked like. And then along came Haider.

He fought his way to the top of the FPÖ, a tiny party at the time largely made up of people caught in the past, not a few of whom still dreamed of a Greater Germany. But then Haider began crisscrossing the country, a mountaineer who drove fast cars, a clubgoer and cocktail drinker who nevertheless played the role of people's advocate. He made records with Alpine choirs and appeared on TV, where he used his sharp wit to destroy the gray men of the old system.

Outside of Austria, Haider is primarily remembered only for what he said about the Nazis, such as his claim that the "Third Reich" had "decent labor market policies." Yes, Haider did, in fact, say this and other terrible things. But in terms of his impact on Austrian society, it was of minimal importance. The writer Robert Menasse said way back in 1995 that Haider had triggered a necessary renewal. Menasse added that he took the unrepentant Nazis along with him "by occasionally winking in their direction."

Haider destroyed the old two-party system almost single-handedly, transforming the FPÖ into a third political force. The party's vote increased under Haider from between 5 and 10 percent to between 16 and 22 percent. And then, in 1999, it hit 26.9 percent and formed its first coalition with the conservatives, one that stunned Europe in 2000. Austria was suddenly a very different country, largely thanks to Haider.

Now, 18 years later, Tyrol FPÖ boss Markus Abwerzger was almost named justice minister in the new government in Vienna. But he says he wanted to wait. His children are still very young, he insists, and he wants to solidify his base first. By dog-whistling to the Nazis? By equating North Africans with riffraff?

These types of questions obviously cause the FPÖ politician some embarrassment. In an election campaign, he says, you have to push certain buttons. You have to? Well, yes, Abwerzger says. Then he switches back to attack mode. It's not just the FPÖ who are aggressive, he insists, others also resort to such tactics. You have to be able to react.

For the FPÖ, that often means journalists. The Austrian state broadcaster ORF, for example, had to apologize to Abwerzger because it edited a TV report about the Tyrol election such that it looked like he was nodding his head in agreement when an old man said that these days you can't even say "stinking Jew" without being called a Nazi. It would almost be funny if it weren't so tragic. But Abwergzer, not surprisingly, doesn't see it as a laughing matter. "I was shocked," he says. "If that had been allowed to stand, my career would have been over, and my 3-year-old daughter would be taunted in her kindergarten about having a Nazi papa."

In southern Austria, those driving on the A2 highway in the direction of Vienna will see a lot of signs for Italy and Slovenia. It's only one and a half hours from Klagenfurt to Ljubljana, and it takes just three hours to drive from Villach to Venice. Yet Austrians live in their own separate world, in which they develop their own inner life, their own internal map of the country. The train from Vienna to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava takes just 59 minutes. Innsbruck lies halfway between Germany and Italy in a part of Austria that is only 50 kilometers (31 miles) wide. Back in the Habsburg era, the empire may have felt vast and endless, but these days, you're never very far from a border.

It is a situation that seems to cause a certain amount of stress in the Alpine country, which isn't particularly spacious, objectively speaking. There's only limited room in the valleys and the development of the cities is hampered in many instances. Although the country was an economic beneficiary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, psychologically it sees itself as a loser. The Iron Curtain not only divided, it also protected. And by 2015, as the Balkan route became filled with refugees, there was a return to the vague primal fear of being overrun by foreign hoards from the east or being culturally diluted.

It's like being on an emotional rollercoaster. Today, the nation is revered, celebrated at every folk festival, but that is something of a new development. For a long time, the nation of Austria was not something people cared much about, much less felt passionately about. It was perhaps only in 1978, when Austria defeated Germany by a score of 3:2 in the World Cup in the Argentinian city of Cordoba, that the country developed something approaching an identity. For Austria, it was a feeling similar to the one Germany had after winning the World Cup in 1954 -- that feeling that the country had something to be proud of.

Traveling through Austria, one is confronted by both delusions of grandeur and feelings of inferiority, often at the same time. When Chancellor Kurz embarks on tours of Europe, meeting Merkel, appearing in Brussels or Berlin, hosting CSU leaders in Linz, the press coverage at home makes it seem as though a giant is striding across the world stage, writing history as he goes. And when Kurz is invited to appear on German TV news or talk shows, the Austrian press makes it seem as though it's the greatest honor ever bestowed upon a foreign guest in Germany.

War Against Press Freedom

If this were all just a novel, one of the crucial scenes would undoubtedly be set at the Küniglberg in the west of Vienna, where the headquarters of broadcaster ORF are located. Everyone passes through its doors sooner or later and no politician of standing has managed to avoid Armin Wolf, the host of the station's most important news show.

Wolf is not just a star in Austria. He's also been honored for his journalism in Germany, deservedly receiving the prestigious Hans Joachim Friedrich and Grimm prizes. His shows are well moderated and every interview he conducts is exciting. There's always a moment when he strikes, surprising his guest with some obscure fact, contradiction, or false statement from the past. He very often manages to so rattle his interviewee that they say things they hadn't intended to -- and the way he does it makes it not just a craft but an art form.

In person, Wolf is a friendly, modest presence, with more than 30 years under his belt at ORF. He doesn't make a big deal about having 400,000 followers on Twitter and 300,000 on Facebook. And in the end, it may not help much. There is a debate raging in Austria about the entire ORF brand, including talk of getting rid of it altogether. There has been an increase in attacks since the new government took over, with accusations that the state broadcaster has been "infiltrated by the left" and the populist spotlight being shone on the fees Austrians must pay to fund the station. A referendum on its future has even been proposed, and the FPÖ never misses an opportunity to raise doubts about the quality of ORF.

The problem, says Wolf, is that the FPÖ's demand that the ORF fee be abolished was the only issue on which the party could score points. We are sitting together over coffee in the ORF cafeteria, which has all the charm of a rundown highway rest-stop café. A plate with a sample of the daily special stands at the entrance and at the next table, a couple of technicians are speaking so loudly it sounds as if they are trying to talk over a jackhammer. Wolf suggests moving to a quieter corner. At times, he seems exhausted.

During this year's Carnival season, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ, posted a fake ad for ORF on his Facebook page as a "joke." It showed an image of Armin Wolf in a TV studio overlaid with the text: "There's a place where lies are turned into news. That place is ORF." Wolf sued Strache and the case was settled out of court. The FPÖ politician had to issue a public apology in the form of an ad taken out in the Kronen Zeitung. The episode has its humorous aspects, but the aftertaste is bitter.

The FPÖ and its supporters are engaged in a veritable war against press freedom and against any opinions that do not suit their own, reminiscent of Trump's Twitter tirades. The right has contrived an argument that tough criticism of their government is an impermissible abuse of press freedoms -- a rather outrageous stance to take. Reacting to the suggestion that ORF is not neutral, Wolf says: "I think there's a natural tension between serious journalism, which is all about differentiating, and populist politics, which is all about emotions." His facial expression is blank when he says it -- just like when he goes on the attack during a televised interview.

'On the Fault Line of Our Times'

Populists are in power in Austria but it's sometimes difficult to define exactly what that means. The tone has become coarser, and not only in parliament. People who never previously felt the need to get involved in politics now want to take a stand. There's a new club for "Grannies against the far right," for example, and other groups for the young, for the middle-aged, for waiters, athletes, construction workers and artists, all of whom feel compelled to voice their opinions and fight for their own worldviews. It's not exactly the worst situation for a society that for decades was ruled by a self-satisfied political elite.

"Austria lies on the fault line of our times," says Stefan Apfl, a serious young man who is editor-in-chief of the small monthly magazine Datum. In his own way, Apfl too belongs to the Haider generation. He was still a schoolboy when the legendary FPÖ leader first stirred up the old political scene. Since then, it's not just politics but the entire postwar deal in Austria that has been destroyed, one that saw the state supply everyone with a job, home and leisure time. "This entire supply chain that once worked has been severed," says Apfl. "And it can't be fixed. Now the gaps have to be filled -- with xenophobia, for example."

And with a lot of heimat. Across the country, no matter where you tune in on any weekday morning, you will find the program "Guten Morgen Österreich," or "Good Morning Austria," on ORF.

The show is broadcast from a mobile studio that travels around the country and stops in a different village each day. Bands play in in village squares, people talk about herbs and recipes, there are gardening tips and magic tricks -- and ORF makes sure that no one has a bad word to say about anything.

There's pop music, webcams on the top of mountains, panoramas from the Alpine peaks of Gamskogel and Kitzsteinhorn, from Kasberg, Arlberg and Wildkogel. It's almost like Austrians feel like tourists in their own country.

Or like an audience watching itself, such as in the Raimund Theater in Vienna, which is staging the patriotic musical comedy, "I Am from Austria." Busloads of Austrians arrive day after day to take in the story of an Austrian actress who has become famous in Hollywood and returned home for a visit. Between the Grand Hotel, opera balls and the Alpenglow, she not only finds the man of her dreams, but also a newfound love for her homeland. The emotional climax is when the beautiful heroine, after some tender yodeling, sings the title song: "I Am from Austria."

It's not easy to quote from the text, as it's mostly performed in dialect. The basic premise is that the homeland melts the ice in her soul, things like that, and that she is envious of the storks with whom it would be so nice to fly, as an Austrian over Austria. It may sound like kitsch, but the song -- written in 1989 by Reinhard Fendrich who is world famous if you come from the Alps -- has become the country's unofficial anthem.

In the original video, Fendrich is shown leaning against the cross at the summit of the Grossglockner mountain with his guitar and the modern folk song quickly became a hit across the country. Today, it is sung when Austrians win at any sports event, during football matches or even when bowling buddies get together for a few beers.

The current president, Alexander Van der Bellen, used the song in his final, perhaps decisive campaign ad. He only just barely managed to beat out his FPÖ opponent. The song, in other words, says a lot about the country -- particularly when you know how it came about.

It was written in the 1980s as the country was rocked by the scandal surrounding Kurt Waldheim. The former UN secretary-general had hopes of being elected Austrian president until the true extent of his wartime and Nazi past was revealed.

Reinhard Fendrich was unhappy about the resulting image of his country in the world. And he wanted to combat the impression that all Austrians were in actuality unrepentant Nazis. He wanted to show that there were still lots of good reasons to love this beautiful country.

The nerve that he struck back then still throbs today. And these days, it is once again exposed. And it hurts more than ever.

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