Exposing the far-right in Austria’s Freedom Party

Austria prepares for elections on 15 October which are likely to result in the far-right Freedom Party helping to form the next government. Nick Evans reviews a new book documenting the extremist groups that now dominate the party.

Review of: Hans-Henning Scharsach (with Christa Eveline Spitzbart), Stille Machtergreifung: Hofer, Strache und die Burschenschaften [Silent Coup: Hofer, Strache and the Fraternities] (Kremayr & Scheriau: Vienna, 2007). 240 pp. €22.

Norbert Hofer (left) was the FPÖ candidate in the 2016 presidential election; Heinz-Christian Strache (right) is the party leader. Both are members of right-wing German nationalist fraternities.

The far-right are preparing to join the government in Austria. Last December, the far-right Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) candidate, Norbert Hofer, was defeated in a re-run of the presidential election by the independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. However, the FPÖ now looks set to make significant gains at the legislative elections on 15 October.

A deadlock between the two governing parties – the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) – brought about the early legislative election. The ÖVP have a young new leader, Sebastian Kurz (currently the Foreign Minister), who is running on a hardline anti-migrant ticket, and are leading the polls. The most likely outcome now appears to be an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, although the SPÖ have also indicated they would consider a coalition with the FPÖ. Neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP have been above using antisemitic and anti-migrant tropes in their own campaigning.

Meanwhile, a new book by the Austrian investigative journalist Hans-Henning Scharsach argues that the Freedom Party, especially in its current form, represents a particular threat to Austrian democracy. The book addresses itself to the ‘civil society resistance’ (p. 10), and is accompanied by a useful website [in German].

Scharsach’s focus is on the relationship between the current leadership of the Freedom Party and the Burschenschaften: extreme right-wing German nationalist fraternities, which favour unification of Austria and Germany in a single ethnic state.1 Both Norbert Hofer and the party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, belong to Burschenschaften. The fraternities dominate the party to a much greater extent than they did under Jörg Haider, who was the leader until a split in 2005. Women have been excluded altogether from the upper leadership of the party (pp. 14–15, 93).

The Burschenschaften go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Scharsach traces antisemitic traditions among the Burschenschaften from the beginning: the burning of books by Jewish and ‘non-German’ authors by the Burschenschaften in Wartberg in 1817 provided a model for the 1933 Nazi book-burnings (p. 30). In the 1960s, the Innsbruck fraternity Suevia still specified that no ‘non-German’ could be allowed to join, and ‘that the Jew therefore has no place in the fraternity’. In 1987, the Burschenschaften nominated Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize (p. 32).

Islamophobic rather than antisemitic tropes predominate in the Freedom Party’s outward-facing propaganda. In 2010, Strache made a visit to Israel, which he described as ‘Europe’s bulwark against Islam’. At the same time, he kept fellow members of the ‘Jewish-free’ Burschenschaften happy by wearing their cap to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem (p. 40).

The Burscheschaften have never made any attempt to break with the history of the Nazi regime. They continue to ‘respectfully commemorate’ Nazi war criminals on their membership lists. Scharsach reveals that such lists include Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the director of the Third Reich’s central security office, a commandant from Treblinka, the concentration camp doctor Hermann Richter, and Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg, the SS-chief in charge of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, personally responsible for the murder of at least 1,000 and the deportation of 55,000 Jewish women and men (pp. 50–1).

On 7 September 2017, a member of a Burschenschaft and of the FPÖ turned up to heckle at a book-launch for Stille Machtergreifung. He was confronted by Rudi Gelbard (above), a survivor of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, who read out Scharsach’s list of Nazi war criminals still on the Burschenschaft membership lists.

Under Strache’s leadership, the Freedom Party has styled itself as the ‘social homeland party’ (‘sozialen Heimatpartei’), but Scharsach demonstrates that their record has been consistently to support attacks on workers’ rights and any forms of social protection (pp. 87–90). Scharsach links this with their concept of the indivisible Volksgemeinschaft (‘national community’), a term that Jörg Haider had removed from the party programme in 1997, but that the current leadership reintroduced in 2011 (pp. 66–7). In Nazi terminology, the Volksgemeinschaft excluded non-Germans, but also allowed no place for workers’ organisations such as trade unions, which divided the imagined unity of the national community. In 2015, the Freedom Party joined the small neoliberal party, the (aptly named) Neos, in campaigning for new anti-trade union laws (p. 91).


The Burschenschaften and Freedom Party present themselves as victims of misrepresentation by the ‘mainstream media’, which they habitually refer to by the Nazi term Lügenpresse (pp. 141–4). In fact, they are constantly given a platform by Austria’s largest newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, which is read by almost a quarter of the Austrian population (no British newspaper has anything like that reach). Scharsach documents the feedback loop between the social media accounts of the Freedom Party leadership, the fraternities and the Kronen Zeitung. ‘Fake news’ that appears on fraternity social media accounts is reproduced verbatim by the Kronen, and then reposted from the Kronen by the Freedom Party leadership (pp. 130–3).

The post-war history of the Burschenschaften has also been one of physical violence. In the 1970s, Norbert Burger, who belonged to the Olympia Wien fraternity, joined up with German nationalist terrorists from South Tyrol (Alto Adige) in northern Italy and members of various Burschenschaften to form the violent National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP’s activities included bombing a cinema on Hitler’s birthday, and attacking left-wing youth centres. Martin Graf, a fellow member of Olympia, and the Freedom Party’s chief representative in the parliament before Norbert Hofer, spoke of how he had ‘always treasured Norbert Burger’ (p. 156).

Scharsach’s book is written for an Austrian audience, and its aim is straightforward: to provide an overwhelming body of evidence to demonstrate the threat that the Freedom Party poses to Austrian democracy. He has tried to prove that the Freedom Party has moved to the right under the current leadership, and that alongside its public-facing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric, it harbours extreme misogynist, antisemitic, profoundly anti-democratic politics directly rooted in the tradition of National Socialism.

What the book does not attempt to do is to place the developments within Austria in the context of wider developments in Europe and beyond. Nor does it analyse the social base for the Freedom Party’s support, which goes far beyond the very small numbers of male students and ex-students in the Burschenschaften. It rightly criticises a widespread complacency about the Freedom Party, and provides a very valuable service in gathering together evidence to puncture that complacency. But there are also urgent questions to be asked about a political culture that has allowed such groups to flourish, and about the conditions that could bring what do still remain very marginal views into the mainstream of Austrian politics once again.

1 Not to be confused with Austria’s Catholic fraternities.

There are 3 comments

  1. Critic Gap

    I’d like to know your thoughts on a sadistic scheme going on in Austria. I don’t know if you’ve heard that some people claim that they’ve become targeted people and so they are branded as crazy and neurotic while what I could attest is much more real than it would be likely to believe. An global organised criminal organisation is methodologically torturing people, in a subtle way if you could say that, as they are downsizing people that have been chosen to be stalked. It’s a scheme that happens in a very secretive way 24/7 on the streets, their homes, work place using informants that are ranging from work partners, bosses in a very organised web crimes that are supposed to destroy others life with pre-fabricated lies manipulating targeted people’s reaction either with direct bullying or with people speaking next to the person about private things from the targeted person as random people are chosen be to ambush and discredited as neurotic, or with psychological disturbs that can become severe depression, personality disorder etc. The people that are targeted very hardly can identify what goes on around them and it becomes very difficult to prove even to themselves that they are not paranoid over what’S happening to them. The worst that I could understand is that is very difficult to fight such scheme since they are connected in the whole society structure from state departments to police. As the police in Austria do not accept the complains over stalking and harassment as a crime, as I’ve been informed by one officer when I first went to register an occurrence and the only thing he asked me is if I was using the GPS of my phone while I was at his police department. Most people imprisioned in such can easily accept that they are paranoid because since you become helpless as any authority accept your statements and evidences as you present them. it’s really difficult to figure out what’s going on around you or what have brought to you such thing since so many people have information over your private live and most end up committing suicide, becoming homeless, or committing violent crimes against the perpetrators that purposefully have pushed them into become violent by bullying them until they can not hold their aggression. As most people involved in such crime get inside it either by their family who has brought them into it or by an invitation of a friend the crime becomes very difficult to be exposed by insiders because if they expose it they put themselves into the black list in which they will be black-mailed or if not they become the target of the criminal organisation themselves or they are openly raped, tortured or/and murdered once they go against such criminal scheme. The thing is, someone is making good money out of others misery and are building a society full of sociopaths/ psychopaths while the many people that are targeted by them or that become part of the scheme, either by naiveness to their lies or by promises of joining to a special élite group become, doomed or murdered. Such thing is going on all around the world and I believe that it relates itself to protect the interests of a greed élite and to advance a global agenda to create a fearful and hateful dystopian society in which the crystallisation of the exploitation should endure at any costs to the advantage of few hideous criminal people. This scheme will go on taking use of the top technology been used against the people with the use of apps to communicate between the criminal members and the hacking of the victims the computer and smart phone’s they target and stalk these people and encouraging people.There’s also a torture show in which they gather to comment over their victims while and they are streaming their judgements over others life like if the tortures would be owners of any moral or virtue themselves they go on until nothing is done to stop such pratices. Would you by any chance be aware of such thing? Thanks in advance!

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