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Historical Shadows: The Far-Right Surge in Germany and Austria

(Annegret Hilse/Reuters)

For far too long, their concerns were ignored by center and left-wing parties, and so they turned elsewhere.”

Much has been made of the rise of right-wing populism in Europe. The recent European Union (EU) elections have highlighted this trend once more. However, as an Austrian living in Germany, I feel that the overwhelming success of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) and Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) in these elections—the former securing first place and the latter the runner-up position in their respective countries—carries a different significance given the historical context. There is also the question of who is to blame for these far-right parties’ dramatic gain in votes. 

While the AfD is a relatively new party, founded in 2013, the FPÖ emerged from the Federation of Independents (VdU), a German-nationalist and national-liberal party aimed at former Nazis, in 1956. However, much like the nascent AfD, the FPÖ initially focused on economic liberalism, led by moderates. It was not until 1986, when Jörg Haider assumed the lead in a coup, that the nationalist wing of the party finally took over. It is important to stress that theirs was a nationalism rooted in German identity, viewing Austria as a German nation.

Haider, who died in a car crash in 2008, transformed the FPÖ into the populist anti-immigration party it is today. Like many other party officials, he consistently failed to distance himself from the Nazi period. For instance, speaking at a gathering of Waffen-SS veterans, he said, “It’s reassuring to know that there are still decent people in this world, with strong character, who stand by their convictions even in the face of strong opposition and have remained true to their beliefs to this day”; and during a television debate, he asserted that “they had effective employment policies in the Third Reich” (my translations). 

Problematic statements like these typically blended conviction with provocation. While they did not directly contravene the criteria for Wiederbetätigung (re-engagement in National Socialist activities), which would have been illegal, they elicited strong reactions and maintained plausible deniability. Such rhetoric resonated with many people disenchanted with mainstream politics and media, as it challenged taboos surrounding the Third Reich. This remains a tactic employed by far-right populists in Germany and Austria to this day. 

For example, the AfD’s Björn Höcke recently faced a fine for knowingly using the banned Nazi slogan “Alles für Deutschland!” (“Everything for Germany!”), while his colleague Maximiliam Krah had to step down as the party’s lead candidate for the EU elections for refusing to label all members of the SS as criminals. Krah’s statement led to the AfD’s expulsion from the far-right Identity and Democracy faction in the EU parliament. 

Similarly, the current leader of the FPÖ, Herbert Kickl, said in a 2010 debate with Ariel Muzicant, the then-president of the Jewish Community of Vienna (IKG), that the Waffen-SS, declared a criminal organization by the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1946, should not be collectively judged guilty. The FPÖ, however, remains a member of Identity and Democracy, despite a long list of right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi incidents that should be unsettling to any decent person. 

Yet, both the FPÖ and the AfD did extremely well in the recent EU elections. What explains their resounding success? 

Both parties succeeded in mobilizing their base as well as uncommitted voters and former non-voters through emotionally charged campaigns that exploited fears about war, crime, immigration, and societal decline, while blaming the EU and the current coalition governments in Austria (Conservatives, Greens) and Germany (Social Democrats, Greens, Liberals). Another factor was undoubtedly that so-called protest voters expressed their dissatisfaction with those in power by voting for the most prominent opposition parties. 

However, as I highlighted in my Merion West article on Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders’s landslide victory last fall, ordinary people are genuinely worried about mass immigration, demographic change, and creeping Islamization, and they do not appreciate being labeled racists or Nazis. For far too long, their concerns were ignored by center and left-wing parties, and so they turned elsewhere. With Islamists openly calling for a caliphate in the streets of major German cities and critics of Islam—among them an AfD politician—being attacked with knives in broad daylight, tragically claiming the life of a police officer, who can blame them? 

None of this is to suggest, of course, that these voters are right to ignore, downplay, or even support the far-right extremist elements within these scandal-ridden parties, especially given Germany’s and Austria’s fraught history. Furthermore, neither the FPÖ nor the AfD, with their parochial outlook, offer viable solutions to pressing global issues such as climate change. In short, they are unfit to govern. As it stands, the center still holds in the European parliament, but the question is: for how long?.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on X @g_ambrosch

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