Why Austria's Far-Right Is So Successful

Throughout Europe, the far-right parties have been largely banished, consigned to the dustbin of history. In France, the National Front is at its lowest ebb in years. In Germany, extreme-right-wing parties are marginalized and irrelevant in national politics. But in Austria, the far right is resurgent again. Last week two far-right parties—both stridently anti-EU, anti-United States and anti-immigrant—became the strongest such force in Europe, after national elections there gave them arguably the biggest share of the vote ever won by rightists in modern Western Europe.

Together they tallied 29 percent, only 30,000 votes behind the leading party, the center-left Social Democrats. SIEG ... was the pointed headline on the Austrian newsmagazine Profil, over a picture of the two right-wing leaders, newcomer Heinz-Christian Strache and Jörg Haidar, the longtime rightist politician. "Internationally, Austria is 'Naziland' yet again," said Die Presse in Vienna. And perhaps domestically as well, with the very real possibility that Austria's mainstream parties will be unable to form a government without turning to parties that directly or indirectly descended from the Austrian Nazi Party.

Both men reject any link to Nazis. But it is clear from their rhetoric and their electoral success that Austria is still struggling to overcome a legacy that the rest of Europe left behind long ago. In comparison to the Germans, the Austrians were late and reluctant to accept any responsibility for their role in World War II, seeing themselves as victims of Anschluss rather than willing participants. So while Germany banned Nazi and neo-Nazi parties in its post-War Constitution, and other nations' parties vowed never to go into coalition with the far right, ostracizing them socially and politically, the mainstream parties in Austria "never had the courage to force the right wing outside respectability," says Anton Pelinka, an Austrian political scientist at the Central European University in Budapest. In Pelinka's view, part of the reason for this, and for Austria's tolerance of extremism, is that unlike in Germany, Austria's intelligentsia failed to return after the war.

In the years to come, Austria would elect former Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim as president in 1986 (indeed, international criticism spurred resentment in Austria and helped his campaign), and that same year Haidar took over leadership of the Freedom Party—a descendant of the old Austrian Nazi party—riding a wave of anti-Western feeling. He moderated his views, at least in public, and split with the Freedom Party when the more outspokenly extremist Strache took over in 2005, forming his own Alliance for Austria's Future. Strache called for a ban on building minarets and vowed to create a ministry in charge of deporting foreigners. He has reportedly been photographed at what opponents say were paramilitary training exercises, though he claimed they were youthful paintball games.

The far-right's strong showing in the polls was seen outside Austria as vindication of their anti-Muslim and anti-immigration policies. But Christoph Hofinger, of Vienna's Institute for Social Research and Analysis, says there is more to it. Both parties toned down their rhetoric during the campaign, and emphasized economic issues to appeal to centrist voters. Polls show young people and workers made up the majority of new voters for the far right—but they showed little ideological support for the party, Hofinger says. Instead, as the economy struggled, many viewed their vote as a protest against the squabbling of mainstream politicians.

A further reason for the parties' renewed success may be that they're no longer that far out of step with mainstream attitudes in much of Europe. "It's becoming politically acceptable to take extreme positions," says Simon Tilford of London's Centre for European Reform. So while the Austrian rhetoric is often ugly, the parties' positions are starting to sound kind of familiar. In Italy, parties as far right as those in Austria are now junior partners in Silvio Berlusconi's ruling coalition, and his center-right party is solidly behind one of the toughest anti-immigrant crackdowns in Europe, mobilizing troops to control crime attributed to foreigners. Mainstream parties in Denmark, France, Spain and Switzerland have also, to varying degrees, cracked down on immigrants. Indeed it may be that Austria is not so much behind the times, but out in front.