The massacre in a New Zealand mosque has detonated an explosive debate in Austria: The gunman had contributed to a Vienna-based nationalist group with multiple connections to the FPÖ, junior partner in the present coalition government.
“The first major crisis” headlined the centrist daily Die Presse April 6. Reference was to a very public rift between the two governing coalition parties, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative ÖVP and his further right partner H.C. Strache’s FPÖ. On Friday March 15th news broke of a horrific attack on two mosques in New Zealand that left 50 dead and another 50 injured.
Within days there were major political repercussions in far-away Austria. Research into the background of the Australian terrorist quickly revealed that Tarrant had travelled extensively through Europe in 2018. Not only had he visited Austria, but he had donated about €1500 to the Identitären Bewegung (Identitären Movement, IB), a small but ominous grouping with an ideology that looks suspiciously neo-Nazi. Identitäre is a compact word for a phenomenon of our time, briefly, cultural racists. White supremacists in the US, Hindu nationalists in India, some elements behind the Brexiteers in Britain – all of whom share a nationalistic nostalgia for a time when “we” were supposedly how we should be, unsullied, undiluted by people coming into our country from unfamiliar cultures.
The political crisis here in Austria was not in itself that the gunman had given money to the Identitären but that major figures in the FPÖ had close contacts to the movement – including party boss Strache himself. With its customary thoroughness, the daily Der Standard turned up a string of locations where the IB and FPÖ politicians shared a cosy intimacy of neighboring offices. They even found a screen shot of Strache clearly enjoying a meal with several leading IB members.
Although best estimates suggest that the Identitären only have about 45 members and 600 active supporters, their social media presence is considerable. The pressure on Kurz to take decisive action to distance himself and his government from the unmistakably racist tinted Movement grew intense.
After weeks of uncharacteristic silence in the face of mounting criticism of the FPÖ and their Interior Minister Kickl’s hard-core policies on asylum seekers and refugees, the Kanzler had had enough. In the first week of April, he deployed his full media machine to demand that the FPÖ distance itself from right wing extremists, “who are no better than Islamic extremists.”
Up to now the two coalition partners had been almost eerily united: This was the first significant public breach. It took FPÖ Vice-Chancellor Strache a couple of days to find his voice. Then, at a regional party conference in Linz April 6 he announced: “We have nothing to do with Herr Sellner and do not wish to have anything to do with him.” He emphasized that the FPÖ would not allow itself to be instrumentalized by an activist group. It may or may not be enough to control the damage. A new opinion poll published a few days earlier showed Strache’s FPÖ down two points, all other parties stable.
The debate now is whether or not to ban the Movement. There are two principal issues: Firstly, does removing the IB from the public forum eliminate their message? Or turn them into persecuted patriots? Secondly, is it legal, in a society that values freedom of expression?
It is not clear how dangerous the IB really is. A quick trawl of their website shows sunny pictures of clean cut young people manning info stands and chatting with local citizens under the banner “Wir müssen reden” (We have to talk.) Their approach: There is not enough public debate on the problems arising from immigration, and “patriots are being criminalized.” The packaging is deceptively positive. Key words like patriotism, alien culture and love of the homeland are historically part of the neo-Nazi songbook, but Herr Sellner has learnt from the recent past. He is careful to avoid wording that qualifies as criminal hate speech. And he has recognized that despite the immigration issue, mainstream opinion is shy of overtly racist sentiments.
Perhaps the tragedy in New Zealand will have positive fall-out here. Flood lights are now shining on dark places in the party of HC Strache and Herbert Kickl: The present government’s ominous drift to the right may be checked.