We don’t hear much about Austrian politics in Britain, which is not perhaps surprising since the landlocked Central European republic of some nine million souls, is scarcely a major player on Europe’s chessboard. Nonetheless Austria, like Britain, will hold elections this year, and a populist party with Nazi roots looks certain to emerge with the most votes.
On Friday, thousands of young Austrians took to the streets of Vienna and Salzburg in demonstrations spilling over from neighbouring Germany against the rise of right-wing anti immigration parties in both countries. They were specifically protesting about a recent meeting of far-right activists near Berlin that discussed a plan to deport migrants to their countries of origin.
On the streets of Vienna, it’s not hard to discern the issue that has propelled the Freedom Party (FPÖ) to outstrip it’s traditional socialist and conservative rivals to win a standing of 30 percentage points, according to current polls.That issue – as elsewhere in Europe, where populist parties are riding high – is immigration.
Like Austria’s mighty German neighbour, where another right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is also rising, the ascent of the FPÖ sends shivers down the spines of some onlookers because of the country’s 20th century history. For the FPÖ began life back in the 1950s as a home for former Nazis who didn’t support either the Socialist ‘Reds’ in the capital Vienna, or the conservative Catholic ‘Blacks’ in the countryside.
At first, the FPÖ affected to be a ‘Liberal’ third force, but in the late 1980s a charismatic and controversial young politician called Jorg Haider took over the party and pulled it sharply to the right. Haider’s parents had both been Nazi party members, and he made little secret that his own sympathies tended in a similar direction, attending reunions where former SS men were present, and praising Hitler for getting rid of unemployment.
When I worked in Vienna as a journalist in the 1990s, Haider was the enfant terrible, constantly disrupting the cosy consensus that had divvied up Austrian politics since 1945.