Why Populism Took Hold In Austria Earlier Than Other European Countries
Austria confronted its Nazi past much later than Germany, and one scholar believes that’s why Austria was one of the first European countries to embrace right-wing and populist politics in 1980s and 90s.
Reinhard Heinisch is the head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Salzburg, and the author of Populism, Proporz, Pariah: Austria Turns Right: Austrian Political Change, Its Causes and Repercussions.
Heinisch told KGOU’s World Views the old Austro-Hungarian empire was multi-ethnic. Germans in Austria were insecure about how “German” that actually were.
“That idea was therefore very powerful in Austria. How German are we? Then after World War II, it was not cool to be German,” Heinrisch said.
After the war, Austrians had to prove they were non-German, and created a completely Austrian identity. Many Austrians successfully convinced themselves they had nothing to do with Germany.
“They were surprised when they found out that actually they were quite culpable. There were many Austrians who were culprits,” Heinrisch said, who noted Hitler was born in Austria.
The 1980s and 90s brought a period of soul searching for Austria, as the country came to grips with its connection to Nazism. That same time period brought the first wave of immigrants and refugees.
“I think that spawned a right wing populist party much sooner than in Germany because some Austrians really resented foreigners telling Austrians they're simply not as wonderful as they thought,” Heinrisch said. “And in some ways that was the beginning of this sort of right wing trend in Austria that we see now pretty much everywhere else in Europe.”
Heinisch makes a distinction between far-right and populist parties. Right-wing parties have far more limited appeal with voters, but populists are like chameleons because they change their positions to attract votes.
“I think that's the more dangerous part. The populists are inherently interested in voters, so they will shift their positions in order to maximize voters,” Heinisch said.
The Austrian Freedom Party, for example, started as a post-Nazi party, Heinisch says. By the 1980s, it had shifted into populism. In the 1980s, it was the first party that advocated for Austria to join the European Union. Over the years, its position on the EU has changed. Heinisch says it used to be an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel party. Today, party members have embraced Israel. Instead, it has turned anti-Islam.
“They know exactly where the voters are and they position themselves accordingly. And that makes them very successful politically,” Heinisch said.
“If you ask them, ‘What's your position on the European Union?’ they give you three different answers. That allows them to pivot in different directions and create a much broader voter coalitions,” Heinisch said.
Austria has seen an influx of immigrants, primarily from the Middle East, over the past two decades. Heinisch says many European countries, including Austria, are not traditionally immigrant societies and integration has been difficult. Refugees and immigrants often congregate in large cities, and that leads to troubles.
“Austria is a very rigid society in terms of upward social mobility,” Heinrisch said. “People sort of stay in the class structure.”
Heinrisch says the greatest predictor to determine if a young person will seek higher education is if their parents attended university.
“Even if it's difficult for Austrian workers, for German people of working class background to attend university, can you imagine how difficult it is for somebody from a different culture country to speak the language?” Heinrisch said. “So often these people then trapped in in low level jobs. And that leads to frustration then in the second generation they feel, of course, both native and foreign and that creates problems.”
Immigrants in Austria have become more conscious of their ethnic roots. Arabic-speaking students will say, “inshallah,” or “God willing” to one another. Young women will wear headscarves. These changes have fueled populist politicians.
“That is a debate that right wing political operators can use to mobilize populations that are afraid of losing their status, their privileges, losing their place in society and I think that's what we see going on,” Heinisch said.
European populist parties filled a void that was created in the 1980s. Mainstream parties, like the conservatives and social democrats, occupied a place in the political center. Green parties took the political left, but Heinreich says there were no parties to represent on the right.
“Who represents traditional values? Who represents the old guard, old values? And the populist sort of moved into that area and they occupy it,” Heinisch said.
But Heinisch cautions that Europe's populist parties cannot be thought of as purely right wing, because they can also support left wing ideas, such as state invention in the economy. And since they try to appeal to everyone, they can often be contradictory.
“They promise everything. That's why they sometimes have a hard time when they are governing because they have contradictions to deal with,” Heinisch said.
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Rebecca Cruise: Reinhard Heinisch, welcome to World Views.
Reinhard Heinisch: Well thank you for having me.
Cruise: Well we've spent the last well year or so really looking at populism in Europe around the world, but focusing primarily in Europe and have watched the Brexit and have been watching some other elections throughout the year perhaps starting at the end of last year in Austria and then some other elections, the French election, and we look forward to some elections as well. Mentioning the Austrian election that's where your expertise is. Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about what's going on in Austrian politics for the last couple of years.
Heinisch: Well first of all this is not a particularly important or significant country, but being close to Germany, Austria is sort of historically had a populist right wing party since the 1980s. And whenever you watch Austrian politics we tend to look at Germany as well. And there is a party up and coming and developing in Germany that's very close to the Austrian populist party and the Austrian populists are sort of the Big Brother, if you will. And ideologically they're very similar. The big issue in all these countries is the question of identity. For a long time we were wondering what is driving the surge of right wing populism. We thought maybe it's the modernization losers, people who are losing their jobs. But the problem with that argument is these are pretty wealthy countries, very prosperous countries, and if any country is well-prepared to deal with globalization, it should be these countries. They're also generally well-managed. These are not countries where you know the economy is in terrible state. Unemployment is virtually nonexistent in Austria, is very low. But the question of identity. These are countries that are overwhelmed by the changes that are going on in the world. There has been tremendous immigration in the city I live in, Salzburg. German is no longer the number one language in public schools.
Cruise: Yeah this was fascinating. You said 50 percent of those in public schools are speaking non-German languages.
Heinisch: Speaking non-German languages. And we go to an Austrian village or town many of the students, the last names have changed, and that happened practically overnight over the last 20 years.
Cruise: But 20 years, I think that's also important because we've been focusing so much on the last couple of years and the current surge in refugees and immigrants is certainly pushed this along. But this is a longer process.
Heinisch: Exactly. There's a long process and there are different layers of groups of immigrants. And it's now sort of a perfect storm. You know it's one thing to receive and try to deal with them when they come as refugees but to integrate them in society and we know the European countries have not been great at integration. They are not historically immigrant societies. They lack certain procedures. They often congregate in big cities. And that leads to problems. And if, for example, in even in Austria is a very rigid society in terms of upward social mobility. People sort of stay in the class structure. We know at the University that I work at it being the number one predictor for somebody to attend to universities that their parents have attended university. So it's even if it's difficult for Austrian workers, for German people of working class background to attend university, can you imagine how difficult it is for somebody from a different culture or country to speak the language? So often these people then trapped in in low level jobs. And that leads to frustration. And then in the second generation they feel, of course, both native and foreign and that creates problems. And this is something that's coming at a time when resources are being scaled back we will have to save. The economies have been tough recently and I think we're seeing some of those effects and effects is that's translating into a shift to the right, of some polarization both on the side of the natives or on the Austrians, but also on on the part of people with immigrant background who've become more conscious of their ethnic roots.
Heinisch: I have students that now say, inshallah, God willing, when they speak Arabic to each other which is something you see a lot more young women wearing veils and this is something that's causing a big debate in Austria and that is a debate that right wing political operators can use to mobilize populations that are afraid of losing their status, their privileges, losing their place in society and I think that's what we see going on.
Cruise: So you're suggesting that this really started to get under way in the 1980s the 1990s. You have mentioned in discussion before that there were Turkish workers that came forward or came to Austria and then of course the Balkan wars and neighboring to Austria that there was a large population movement there.
Heinisch: Right. Austria is right on the doorstep of the Balkans so the the war and the affected that Austria, Austria took in a lot of refugees and because this was a much closer war, the historical ties to the Balkans, it was easier for people to sympathize. The war in Syria has being had been going on for some time. But for Austrians it was something very far away. And when large waves of refugees, essentially moving through Austria, through Germany showed up, this is really a significant issue. And a very very large number stayed in Austria, proportionally to the population a number it was actually greater than the ones staying in Germany. And there was this tremendous welcome culture and Austrians felt very good at the beginning, but then later on the cost and poor planning on the part of the government, and how do you plan for something like that? I mean is this was really stretching the limits of what the government was able to do at all levels. And then of course that also translated into political mobilization against foreigners and refugees and that's been a touchy subject ever since.
Cruise: And what does that mobilization look like? How are politicians using this to their advantage? I imagine it's somewhat consistent throughout Europe, perhaps also, one could argue, in the United States but is there something unique to the Austrian situation?
Heinisch: What is probably unique is Austria is a Catholic country. When I say Catholic it is not religiously Catholic but it's called Catholic in the cultural sense. And this may be more of this sort of religious tinge to it than say in Germany, for example respecting traditional Christian symbols and celebrations and festivals. Then Austrians are very proud of the food and their ethnic heritage sort of the idea, now, people that they should adjust to Austrian cultures or values. So these are the kinds of … it's more of a cultural religious debate. I would say in Germany it deals more with economy. It’s more of an economic issue. In Austria is also has a cultural dimension as well.
Cruise: So the messaging that's coming from these these parties is one of fear, one of challenging of culture?
Heinisch: Exactly. And what was the case in Austria that was one party that was sort of a right wing populist party but the when the other parties were pretty much mainstream and fairly liberal, fairly open. And now the mainstream parties are moving decisively into the more culturally restrictive sense. In other words, the far right has pushed the agenda, sets the agenda, and the mainstream parties feel they have to follow suit. They're competing with each other. Now we have a discussion on banning veiling in public in their discussion how much veiling would you tolerate for example? Now this was a debate that would have been unthinkable just three or four years ago. Now this is actually going to be law that you in certain public places you cannot wear a veil. That's also the case in France. And when one European country has one or the other thing, then I'll just follow suit. And Austria as it seems to come down on the conservative side of that debate. In Germany, because it's larger, it's more diverse, some of these issues are counterbalanced balance by more liberal parts in Germany. That's missing in Austria. Austria is very similar to neighboring Bavaria which is the southern part of Germany, also very Catholic. But there's this more Protestant Northern part; that's missing in Austria. So therefore you have a more a more intense debate, and may be a somewhat harsher opinions than you would have in Germany.
Cruise: Well I think we've also mentioned in some of your talks that Germany had this process of dealing with their history, their Nazi past, of right wing extremism that Austria didn't have. Why didn't that happen?
Heinisch: Right. Because Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, but many leading Nazis were Austrians; Hitler himself was born in Austria, and in many ways you can argue that Nazism, in part, is of an Austrian idea or goes back to the sort of insecurity of the German speakers in Austria living in a multi-ethnic empire and wondering well how German they are. If you lived in Germany you don't question your Germaness. But if you live in Austria and there are in many other nationalities in the old empire, the people are very insecure about their Germaness. That idea was therefore very powerful in Austria. How German are we? Then after World War II, it was not cool to be German. So Austria had to show that they are non-German and has sort of completely eliminated their German past and pretended to be completely Austrian, nothing to do with Germany, in order to have their country restored, to have independence restored, and get the allies to to move out of Austria once they occupied it. And of course there was a successful and convincing myself that had nothing to do with Germany, they were surprised when they found out that actually they were quite culpable. There were many Austrians who were culprits. And that happened in the 1980s, but much later. So Austria had a very painful soul soul searching period in the 1980s and 90s while Germany did this really 20 years earlier. But that sort of coincided with the first wave of the refugees, this whole question who we are. What is true Austrian identity? And I think that spawned a right wing populist party much sooner than in Germany because some Austrians really resented, you know, foreigners telling Austrians they're simply not as wonderful as they thought. And in some ways that was the beginning of this sort of right wing trend in Austria that we see now pretty much everywhere else in Europe.
Cruise: And so there is a party, at least one party, the Austrian Freedom Party that has been quite quite to the right, seemed to be getting some political movement. And then in December they didn't fare quite as well as they had hoped and perhaps some have argued that we're seeing a reverse domino effect that Belgium then didn't go quite as far to the right. France. You know we'll see what happens in the rest of Europe. But are things shifting?
Heinisch: I can say, Brexit and Donald Trump did wonders for those who wanted to prevent the the right from from from gaining political power. We have a reverse Brexit or Trump effect that's actually noticeable in the polls. But I do need to say that I think many of these parties are populist parties rather than far right wing parties. And I think that's the more dangerous part. What I mean by populist is they are inherently interested in voters so they will shift their or their positions in order to maximize voters.
Cruise: In fact the Austrian party recently came out and said that they are now in favor of staying in the European Union and the currency even though they were opposed to those things a year ago.
Heinisch: Exactly. If they were right wing, far right wing parties, they would have a much that would have much more limited appeal but because they can shift on a dime. You know if you ask them What's your position on the European Union they give you three different answers. That allows them to pivot in different directions and create a much broader voter coalitions. And and what made this, you mentioned the Austrian Freedom Party. It started out as an old post-Nazi Party, but in the 80s they morphed into this very first modern populist party that can tell you ... it was the first party that wanted Austria to be in the European Union. Now is the party that's most adamantly opposed to the European Union. So it really sort of changes wherever it sees fit. Now of course it's anti-Islam and that used to be anti-Semitic and it used to be anti-Israel. Now they travel to Israel and and try to make friends and be real nice. So it's they know exactly where the voters are and they position themselves accordingly. And that makes them very successful politically.
Cruise: Is this more effective, I'm curious, in a parliamentary system?
Heinisch: Well, I think that, exactly. The point is you have to imagine in virtually West European countries the main parties are long left right axis and the issue was always the economy - more or less state control. In the 1980s sort of you can imagine another axis perpendicular to that where the issue was how much personal freedom should you have and the green parties emerged. But there was no counterpart. There was no post non-materialist axis on the on on the right. There was nobody who represented traditional values, Catholicism, those kind of, authoritarian ideas. And there was a vacuum and new parties emerged into that. To the extent the conservatives and the social democrats ,the mainstream parties, were in the center. It left this whole part of the political parties to a void. Who represents traditional values? Who represents the old guard, old values? And the populist sort of moved into that area and they occupy it and they can they're really neither left nor right wing because on many economic issues they are very left wing. They are for state intervention. But at the same time, they are for free enterprise. So they're kind of like to do everything and they promise everything. That's why they sometimes have a hard time when they were already governing because they have contradictions to deal with.
Cruise: Of course. Well I hate to put you out on a ledge but you know this is going to be a very interesting year. Are you willing to make any predictions for where you think things are going?
Heinisch: It was certainly everything depends on France. We can see that last year. Many of the parties were very happy to see Brexit. And they defended Brexit. When this didn't turn out so well, they distanced themselves. Also Donald Trump isn't super popular. Many European countries they welcomed him. Now many of these parties are more skeptical and more more reserved and don't talk much about him. And now we have to see how France goes. If if if the National Front in France loses the second round election, the other parties would retool and probably moderate the message. If there will be a rousing victory they'll probably be more anti-European and will probably focus on similar themes. Germany is the next big elections. I'm I'm I'm sure that the German populist party Alternative For Germany will do very well. It will probably enter the German parliament. The Karli have a row. They have an internal issues. But we know internal issues and fights actually strengthens these parties because it gets well, they become more focused more coherent. They are a hodgepodge of different ideas and every time they split then they become more and more consistent with the message. But I'm sure they'll do well. But the French election is the key one because in Germany is going to be a coalition and they may be properly in opposition. And we also see whether the German election will vindicate Merkel, the German chancellor. And that will be an endorsement of her policy and what she stands for. If not, it will be moving Germany, most important country in Europe, in a different direction.
Cruise: And I've got Austrian elections in a couple of years as well so we'll definitely keep watching that. Well thank you so much. We'll see how your predictions hold.
Heinisch: Thank you.
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