If you enter Austria from the west, near Bregenz on Lake Constance, with a little luck and the right meteorological conditions, images of stunning beauty will unfold between the water and the mountains. The peaks divide the weather, with rain fronts and clear skies competing for space, or dense fog spreading across the ground like mystical, glowing steam. When night falls further back in the High Alps in this geological spectacle called Austria, the peaks and summits soon start resembling the heads of animals, like monstrous bodies whose flanks are dotted with villages resembling Christmas ornaments. The geographic drama mellows to the east, flowing into more friendly hills until, finally, behind Graz, behind Vienna, in Burgenland, the Pannonian Basin is reached, and you come to the end of today's Austria. It's a beautiful country. That much must be said ... before saying anything else.
Everything else concerns the strange paths along which the country, its society and its political classes have been traveling for quite some time -- perhaps for a hundred years, perhaps even longer, but at the very least since this winter, since a new government has moved into its offices in Vienna's magnificent palaces. The country is now governed by a coalition that likes to refer to itself "turquoise-blue," a reference to the two parties' political colors -- turquoise represents the party of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and blue the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). But going by what we've learned about political color affiliations from history, it would be more accurate to describe it as a "black-brown" coalition. The black, of course, is the traditional color associated with conservatives. And the brown is the color of right-wing extremists and the Nazis.
The doubts began on the very first day of the chancellorship of Kurz, a 31-year-old native son of Vienna who comes from an upper middle-class family and has the gentle face of an apostle. Kurz has a few semesters of law school under his belt to go with a successful career as a politician with the mainstream, Christian-conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). He had the option of forming a coalition government together with the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) after October's election. It still would have allowed him to become chancellor and would have produced the kind of coalition government that Austria has had for decades. But he ultimately decided against an alliance with moderate leftists and left-wing liberals and instead preferred to form a partnership with the hard right and right-wing extremists from the so-called Freedom Party, which is known throughout Europe for its penchant for radical right-wing populism. Since then, a hail of slurs and apersions has spread across Austria, a constant flirtation with the vulgar and primitive, a sketchy interplay of words, actions and symbols.
On the very first day, when the new government first presented itself to the public just one week before Christmas, a photo shoot of the new cabinet took place at the gates of Vienna, located on Kahlenberg hill. As every child in Austria is taught, it is here where the 1683 Siege of Vienna by the Turks was driven back. It is here, according to popular imagination, that the Christian West was saved.
To understand this political PR campaign as a German, you would have to imagine Angela Merkel calling the media to Leipzig to present her cabinet at the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, the site where Napoleon's retreat from Germany was sealed. And when asked the obvious question about the meaning of this particular choice of location, the chancellor would reply: Meaning? What do you mean? I have no idea what you're getting on about.
And that's precisely how her counterpart in Vienna replied when he was asked what the appearance at Kahlenberg meant. Kurz just made his apostle face and said: the place? It had no symbolic meaning -- no, his team chose the location, and he had nothing to do with it.
That's the way things work in Austria these days. No one has any idea what is actually meant by things. Whether anything is meant at all and, if so, how it is meant. Are, for example, the far-right fraternities in the country, those so-called Burschenschaften that form such an important wing of the FPÖ party, just too lazy to delete the Nazi songs still slumbering in their songbooks? Or do they still sing them here and there out of conviction? How does Austrian society live with the suspicion that there are young people in its ranks who study law or medicine during the day and celebrate the gassing of the Jews with beer in the evening, as these fraternities have been known to do? How can a country stand the thought that people like that might now even be sitting in parliament, where 20 out of 51 members of the FPÖ belong to one of the country's Burschenschaften, and often one that leans strongly to the right?
It may sound a little over the top to say that Austria is teetering on the edge, a little hysterical to claim that the country and its capital city of Vienna are politically on the brink. But it's not totally wrong to do so either. It is certainly wrong to keep conjuring up a relapse into the 1930s, as some opponents of the new government are wont to do. But questions about whether Austria remains and still wants to be an open-minded, modern democracy are justified. Or whether authoritarian thinking will continue to infiltrate society. And the extent to which everyday Austrian life, in freedom and prosperity, is being spoiled by a willful, reactionary spirit.
We don't have the complete picture yet, but some remarkable puzzle pieces are already coming together. Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the FPÖ, is a man whose "youthful sins" include spending copious leisure-time hours with criminal neo-Nazis. A man who, despite having long since reached adulthood, sends out narrow-minded, malicious, xenophobic postings and fake news to millions of people via Facebook every day, complete with fake caricatures, unsubstantiated allegations, deliberate deceptions and broadsides against lawyers and journalists alike.
Another FPÖ member, Herbert Kickl, was handed the Interior Ministry portfolio, a man who served as secretary-general of the party from 2005 to 2018 and is responsible for election advertising that included slogans like "Keep the West in Christian hands" or, even less sophisticated, "Islamization must be stopped."
As a minister, this man is now ordering raids on government agencies, claiming that "a restrictive asylum policy is a legitimate concern of the population," and insisting that an "infrastructure" must be created in Austria, "where we can succeed in keeping those who enter an asylum process appropriately concentrated in one place." Concentration camps? Not in so many words, perhaps. But was that what he really meant? Was that the message he was trying to send to the electorate?
Europe's Latest Test Case
Like Hungary, Italy and Great Britain before it, Austria is now another test case for Europe. Sitting as it did between NATO and the Eastern Bloc, Austria always insisted on its neutrality during the Cold War, but there was never a doubt that it belonged to the West, both culturally and politically. But that certainty is now being cast into doubt. It seems that many Austrians have grown so tired of the arduous negotiation of compromises that they are instead turning to authoritarian models. That they no longer want to argue rationally, but emotionally. What we are talking about here is the question of whether Germany's neighbor is, bit by bit, bidding farewell to the democratic way of life. Whether its society still wants pluralism and if it is capable of enduring the thousand varieties of multiculturalism and the processes of migration despite all the difficulties they present.
The best way to approach answers to such questions is to visit this beautiful country, its mountains, its lakes and its rivers. On May 4, 1991, a young politician named Jörg Haider threw himself into the gorge beneath the Jauntal Bridge in Carinthia on a bungee cord to send the message that new times were dawning. On can visit Persmanhof in the Karawanks, a place where partisans once hid until SS men committed one of the last war crimes of World War II, and where it becomes apparent that no country can ever really escape its history.
More than 30 extensive interviews were conducted during the reporting of this story -- with fraternity members and book authors, with journalists and FPÖ politicians, with students, cabaret artists, diplomats, historians, engaged citizens and a village mayor at the foot of Grossglockner Mountain in the Alps.
The journey took the reporter through Innsbruck, Villach and Graz, up to Salzburg and, of course, over to Vienna, where a third of all Austrians live and where intellectuals still hold court in the city's famous coffee houses. It is a city where every alley has history to tell, where Heroes' Square alone could provide material for a thousand novels, where Empress Elisabeth "Sisi" of Austria lives on forever, where the Lipizzaner do their dance and where the colossal labyrinth of the imperial Hofburg palace all provide hints of how great the Habsburg Empire was until 1918.
Vienna's Café Engländer, with its red benches and black chairs, is where Robert Misik likes to take his lunch. He always orders "Menu 1" with dessert without so much as glancing at the menu. He's in a hurry on this day because he has promised his mother he would visit. Misik is the Viennese edition of the dedicated intellectual, a leftist, but casual at the same time, he wears a leather jacket and has a receding headline and a strongly honed sense of humor, which makes a lot of things easier. On the day of our meeting, "Menu 1" is wafer-thin beef schnitzel, breaded and fried -- and very Viennese.
Misik is the author of numerous books and he has also written or signed numerous political appeals. He's always there when the need arises to organize protests against the right. He's hard working and stands up for what he believes in, including on the internet. He fills his days doing video columns, writing editorials and conducting radio interviews. His latest book, a witty collection of short essays entitled "Love in the Times of Capitalism," has just been published.
To Misik, Kurz's new government is the product of what he describes as the "the end of a 30-year process of gradual deadening." It's a process that began back in the 1980s, he explains, when the FPÖ began shedding its many skins and began its rise under Jörg Haider. This path led to the first national coalition government between ÖVP and FPÖ in 2000. The chancellor at the time was Wolfgang Schüssel, a man who wore a bow tie and who, practically on his own, destroyed the last remnants of credibility that the country's politics still had.
The European Union imposed sanctions against Austria for seven months at the time, a sign it was united against right-wing extremism. It is an act that would be inconceivable today. But it's also likely that the well-meaning move actually strengthened extremist and anti-EU tendencies in Austria. Many Austrians, after all, pride themselves on their stubbornness. They have always been easy to reach with "we've had enough"-type slogans -- of the kind the FPÖ has masterfully applied in all policy areas. Indeed, the party's opponents are not particularly surprised that the right-wing populists were once again able to ride such slogans to a spot in the government coalition. "We have progressed," says Robert Misik, "from the unthinkable to the unspeakable to the unbearable." That is very well stated, even if you have to read it twice.
"We're masters at looking the other away, of denial and suppression," says Anneliese Rohrer, sitting in the conservatory of the distinguished Café Landtmann on Vienna's famous Ringstrasse, where the colossal Burgtheater stands directly in front of the high windows. Rohrer, who will turn 74 this year, has a successful career behind her as a newspaper journalist, and the courageous woman continues writing today. Her opinion on the current state of politics in the country is expressed in the name of one of her books: "Character Flaw: The Austrians and Their Politicians." In light of the Kurz government, Rohrer describes her attitude toward life these days as "queasy and helpless." The fact that 70 years after World War II we have to worry about the state of democracy again, she says, "is incomprehensible."
On the day of our meeting, the new government has only been in office for 40 or 50 days, an ice-cold, dark day in February. The government has just announced that subsidies will be cut for the integration of refugees, for German-learning courses and other programs. Rohrer says the move is "pure malice" given how it will intentionally marginalize people.
Rohrer says everything is worse this time around than in 2000. First, because Haider couldn't stand the fraternities. And, second, because this time the FPÖ has been targeting government institutions. The Constitutional Court, university boards, police forces and institutions are to be "re-colored" -- a reorganization, she says, that should be concerning to everyone.
Of course, parties have always sought to stack government posts with their own people, but the Freedom Party of Austria is in a league of its own. The party has signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia and maintains cordial relations with many right-wing extremist parties across Europe, including Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Front National in France. The week before last, cheerful selfies of FPÖ Vice Chancellor Strache together with Italian racist Matteo Salvini went viral.
Hands on Many Levers
The FPÖ is a party which makes no secret of its admiration for Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. It is a party that has always been in tune with the white nationalist Identitarian Movement, which in Germany has attracted the scrutiny of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, which is responsible for monitoring all forms of extremism. It is this party has its hands on many levers in Austria today.
Members of the FPÖ are now responsible for the police and intelligence apparatuses, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), which monitors extremists in the country, the army, the diplomatic service and the social welfare authorities. Perhaps Chancellor Kurz wasn't paying very close attention when his "turquoise-blue" coalition took shape, but the FPÖ now not only holds the office of vice chancellor, but also the Interior, Foreign, Defense, Transport and Labor and Social Affairs ministries, all of them key government portfolios. This raises some extremely basic questions: How do government officials in Vienna see international cooperation in the future? Which foreign intelligence service, which police, which judicial authority, which military apparatus would exchange knowledge and data with a government that includes friends of Putin, Orbán admirers and Salvini fans?
One could attempt to employ charm to gloss over everything, as Austrian government spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal does. He is constantly firing off greetings in every direction in flowing, dance-like moves so that nobody can possibly feel ignored.
On one early spring morning, Launsky-Tieffenthal is strutting through the richly stuccoed halls of the Chancellery in Vienna. Chancellor Kurz has invited reporters to a background interview on the forthcoming Austrian Presidency of the European Council, the powerful EU body representing the member states. Kurz's chief of staff will be present, as will the foreign minister. In greeting, Launsky-Tieffenthal notes that we had never met before. "Glad to have you here," he says.
We stride up a massive staircase once used by legendary Austrian Empire diplomat Prince von Metternich in the 19th century. Located behind the Stone Hall is the Congress Hall, actually named after the Congress of Vienna, which once sealed the end of the Napoleonic era here. There are five heavy chandeliers in the hall, under which a TV-friendly podium has been set up for Kurz and his colleagues, all in white.
The background discussion, it turns out, is actually a press conference -- the room is full, Launsky-Tieffenthal greets the guests and they drink cappuccinos out of dainty cups served by waitresses. A few hours later, Launsky-Tieffenthal will reply by text message to a casual question that came up during our chat about the color of the broad, flesh-colored frieze that skirts the base of the ceiling around the entire hall. "Pompeii red," the text reads.
An Obsession with Migrants
The chancellor takes the stage right on time and he seems well rested standing between the Austrian and European flags flanking the podium. You don't get the slightest sense that he feels at all burdened by the high office he now occupies. He speaks about Europe, or, to be more specific, about "the fight against illegal migration." In Austria, after all, the two issues are currently one and the same.
Whenever Kurz raises his gentle voice, words begin tumbling out, the meaning of which could have been conveyed in a much more concise manner. And he never forgets to emphasize his own achievements. "You'll remember," he says, "that I was one of the first ..." Or: "Even as foreign minister, I noted to my European counterparts early on that ..."
Kurz never misses the opportunity to incorporate foreigners, and the problems he associates with them, into what he says. And he exploits any opportunity to share his own very streamlined version of history -- namely: "as you are certainly aware," he shut down the Balkan Route practically on his own.
Thanks in part to Kurz's performances, Austria's societal debate is also obsessed with migrants and all the trouble people have with them. And it's not just about refugees, but also foreigners of all stripes, including Germans, Slovenes and Hungarians. Somehow, there are always too many of them, allegedly taking up all the public housing, filling up the universities and snapping up all the tickets to the Vienna State Opera so that people born in the country can't get them. During the press conference, Chancellor Kurz says a "continuous consideration of the migration problem" is needed, and that this is largely Austria's contribution to Europe's future. Of course, much more will be heard from the country about that subject now that Austria has assumed the helm of the EU Council Presidency for the next six months.
"Kurz is a PR product," says Florian Klenk, sitting inside the city's Zum Schwarzen Kameel restaurant, where a charismatic head waiter named Maître Gensbichler keeps an eye on bourgeois society between generously filled sandwiches and delightful apricot pancakes. Klenk is editor-in-chief of the Viennese city magazine Falter, which has established itself as the central organ of civil resistance in the growing cacophony of Austrian politics. The magazine's circulation is increasing, not just in Vienna.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 27/2018 (June 30th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
Klenk, born in 1973, holds a doctorate in law and is famous in Austria as an investigative journalist. In the course of his reporting, he regularly uncovers dirt on the police, the judiciary and various other institutions. He recently brought to light a shocking scandal about Austrian peacekeeping troops. He's a man who knows his way around the country, even its less savory corners.
Klenk is, on the one hand, quite alarmed. Alarmed that the FPÖ is increasingly and brazenly encroaching on the democratic sphere and that things have become so debased that the interior minister can hire a writer from the extremist fake news platform Unzensuriert.at (uncensored.at) as his spokesman, without any consequences. He also believes that Kurz is the first Austrian chancellor to be a "right-wing populist with a friendly face," to emerge on the European political stage, one who could be in office for a long time to come.
But on the other hand, Klenk says, this government, or at least the coalition with the FPÖ, will fail because the ÖVP is putting pressure on its junior partner to enact policies that go against the interests of populists' own base. For example, legislation is being drafted that would go against the interests of the poor and vulnerable in society, against the sacrosanct social housing and workers' rights. "That will kill the FPÖ in the long term," Klenk says.
Later that evening, he starts to philosophize about his country. He's sitting in Zum Schwarzen Kameel, a large place, half cafe, half restaurant and in a pseudo art nouveau style with lots of paneled, mirrored niches. "It's difficult to make judgements about Austria," he says, "Because you never know where you are. It's like these niches, with the mirrors. When you go by, you see it ahead in the mirror, whereas in fact it's behind you. And if you come from the right, you see it first in the mirror from the left. It's like that here. That's how things work."
Learning How Austria Ticks
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."
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.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 27/2018 (June 30th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
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.