Torches on the Hill – Ultra-Conservatives March on the Kahlenberg

The Kahlenberg Church stands where an allied army gathered at dawn September 12, 1683 before sweeping down from the hills to break the Turkish siege of Vienna. Today it is both a cause for celebration and a rallying point for dubious arch-conservative fringe groups.

It began like a small-town social club’s weekend outing.  A warm late summer afternoon and a loose collection of people were gathering in front of the Polish Church on the Kahlenberg, one of the highest hills looking down on the city from the North. There was a cluster of young men who seemed to know each other, a few couples, some fathers with children and a good many older men and women, mainly on their own. Visitors who had come up to visit the café and enjoy the view threaded their way through the two hundred or so who had answered the call to celebrate this 12thday of Sept. 1683, when the Turkish army besieging Vienna was routed by Polish King Jan Sobietsky and driven back to Hungary. 

But this was not a casual social outing. It was something eerily different. The first give away was the enormous police presence, 15-20 police minivans neatly lined up on the parking lot, the officers chatting easily with each other, but clearly positioned for rapid deployment. In front of a temporary stage, young men were unloading bundles of flags from a modest station wagon. Beside the stage was another police vehicle, a multi lens surveillance camera on its roof scanning the crowd. On a high stone wall behind the stage, half a dozen police officers were watching closely, one with a long lens camera. 

T-shirts proclaimed their wearers’ identity, and at a closer look, a picture started to emerge.  “Europa Nostra” seemed harmless enough, “Lepanto” and a late medieval warship with prominent crosses on its sails made a more pointed statement (Lepanto was the great sea battle in 1571 when an alliance of Christian Mediterranean powers commanded by Don Juan of Austria destroyed the Ottoman fleet.) Other T-shirts filled out a diverse accumulation of sentiments, from conservative Christian anti-abortion motifs to the hard-right Teutonic “Odin is my god.” Discreet buttons with the inverted V of the Identitären were sprinkled among the younger men (Identitären: officially recognized as a potentially dangerous right wing extremist organization that sees its mission to protect traditional European values against cultural dilution from immigration.)

(C) Simon Ballam

Most, even the diffident older loners, were eager to talk about why they were there, and the reasons were as varied as the T-shirts. 

“Contraception is the problem,” a quiet spoken right-to-lifer told me. “Without that we wouldn’t need immigration.”  

“The Balkans were Christian,” another said authoritatively. “Mesopotamia and Egypt too. In two to three generations it will be Islamic again, all the way to Sevilla.” 

“Since 1918, everything has been going downhill,” a professorial type declaimed – “architecture, clothes, music – that’s just what our enemies want.” 

“And we idiots are helping them,” another chimed in; “our government is suffering from the Stockholm syndrome.” 

“The old aristocracy defended us,” said a surprisingly young man, “but today’s elite are in league with the besiegers.” 

And so on, a patchwork of flawed logic laced with conspiracy theories, disturbingly reminiscent of the Trumpistas, or the Polish Law and Justice crowd.  A beefy German in a black T-shirt sounded almost liberal: “This is not a Volkssturm, that’s a Hitler term; I reject that.”

Suddenly, it got really spooky.  “Achtung, Achtung!” boomed a police bullhorn, fragments came through clearly enough, “… paragraph 54 … danger of bodily harm … life and property…” It turns out to be a privacy of information legal requirement when video surveillance equipment is turned on – and it is, whenever the police have reason to believe that violence is possible.  The “potential danger” came from a counter demonstration by Antifa or other left wing activists, who had mounted strong protests the previous year.  (As it turned out there was not a single “boo”; the lefties were busy down in the city protesting anti-Corona measures.)

The event now began with the Kaiserjäger, a charming marching brand in operetta uniforms recalling an elite imperial regiment. Key organizer Christian Zeitz bounded onto the stage to introduce the first speakers, a Czech historian, a Slovakian ex-minister and a Syrian Orthodox bishop among others.  The theme that united all these disparate notions was “Der Befreiungsschlag of 1683,” the liberating stroke that stopped the advance of Islam and saved Christian Europe.  But the victory on September 12 was only a respite, and now we are under siege again. This time it is values under attack, not the city walls. The ideological climate of the evening was becoming ominously clear.

The event had been announced as a torchlight procession, and now it was time. Long wax torches were passed out and lit, and the group formed in a loose column, flanked by the young men carrying flags (most were the red and white shield of the City of Vienna, some proclaimed the victory of 1683, a few imperial eagles added splashes of color.)  

Night fell on the way down the hill and forty minutes later the speechmaking continued in front of the smaller Leopoldsberg Church.  The tone from the stage then took on a harder, unmistakably xenophobic edge – phrases like “submission to Islam”, “massacre, Janissaries…”, “Christian daughters enslaved … ” earned energetic applause in the torchlit darkness.  The young men were no longer quite the well-mannered offspring of good families they had seemed by daylight.

Media coverage of the event was thin.  Whether this was because it was hardly newsworthy, a routine annual affair without any photogenic conflict – or because most editors declined to give theextremists the publicity they crave, we don’t know.  Only the Kurier, an everyman centrist daily, carried a longer report and Konstantin Auer did not bother with sugar-coating: “Ultra-conservative Christians, monarchists … and extreme right wing Identitären on the march, he wrote. So not your average small-town social outing.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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