The dalliance of the German AfD with neo-Nazis is echoed by the brazenness of the far right in Austria.
The German investigative media outlet Correctiv last week revealed that a secret meeting, involving high-ranking members of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland and neo-Nazis, took place last November. Among those participating were lawyers and doctors—even two members of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union. They discussed plans to expel millions of people from Germany—regardless of their citizenship and migration background—if they were found not to have assimilated to the ‘majority society’.
The event was labelled the ‘Lehnitzsee conference’ in the German-speaking media. The symbolism of the meeting-place cannot be overstated: a hotel by the Lehnitzsee near Berlin, it was close to where, over eight decades ago, senior officials of the Nazi regime discussed the ‘final solution’ at the Wannsee conference.
Also present was Martin Sellner, a notorious extremist who is associated with the Austrian identarian movement and has ties to the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ). The day the news about the meeting broke, the FPÖ leader, Herbert Kickl, was interviewed by the Austrian public broadcaster, ORF. In light of the coming parliamentary election in Austria—which the FPÖ is expected to win—ORF has been conducting a series of interviews with party leaders on its late-night news show, ZIB2.
Pressed about his stance on ‘remigration’—a topic central to the FPÖ’s politics—as discussed during the event in Germany, Kickl employed, as he so often does, diversionary rhetorical tricks. Since neither he nor anybody else from the FPÖ had been there, he suggested, not only was the party completely unconnected to the meeting but the moderator would have to have ulterior motives in, pointlessly and inappropriately, asking his opinion of it.
While reminding viewers of the FPÖ’s ownership of the migration issue, he simultaneously however alleged that the party had been pilloried for its stance and ‘framed’ by left-wing forces ever since the days of its late leader Jörg Haider—and if people had listened to, instead of demonising, the FPÖ, the ‘problems’ of today would not be the talking point. Reversing roles, Kickl invited the interviewer to agree with him.
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The journalist however continued to press him on his interpretation of ‘remigration’ and the answers he ultimately gave were telling. First, Kickl reiterated his party’s support for a stop to asylum—impossible without Austria abandoning the 1951 refugee convention—without explaining how this could be achieved.
Then Kickl insinuated that citizenship came with more strings attached than ‘staying in this country and receiving social benefits’, reiterating the FPÖ’s oft-rehearsed trope that immigrants exploit Austria’s welfare state. If someone who might be thus disposed thought he could ‘despise this society’ and ‘attack our values’, he suggested, ‘then we can create a legal situation, I am sure this is possible and perhaps we even find other countries in Europe … this is democracy … so we can revoke citizenship from these people.’ Informed by his interviewer that this was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, Kickl implied it would somehow be possible to protect ‘the right of domicile of Austrians’.
Kickl’s plan to ‘create a legal situation’ is not the first evidence he would undermine the rule of law when it comes to asylum and migration. In 2019, when he was interior minister in a coalition with the conservative Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP), he openly stated that ‘the law has to follow the politics, not the politics the law’—a clear warning of the threat he and his party pose to liberal democracy.
The day after the interview, next in the ORF series came Karl Nehammer. The current ÖVP chancellor pledged that there would be no further coalition involving Kickl. Repeating his remark ‘You can’t make a state with Kickl’, Nehammer’s aversion to the FPÖ leader has long been known.
This probably originates from Nehammer’s assumption of the interior ministry, following snap elections after the turbulent breakup of the 2017-19 ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in the face of the ‘Ibizagate’ scandal. The ministry was allegedly in bad shape after Kickl’s tenure—so much so that many allied intelligence services did not trust Austria any more.
Yet Nehammer’s words are of little meaning, given the ÖVP helped elevate Kickl to power and agreed to give him one of the most important ministries. Moreover, simply excluding him from another rightist coalition—which he might not accept anyway—would not address the fact the FPÖ is undemocratic to its core. It is a party which time and again seeks to undermine minority rights, lashes out against refugees and migrants and openly demands a fortress Austria, emulating Viktor Orbán’s xenophobic Hungary.
The FPÖ’s enthusiasm for Orbán and what he has done to undermine Hungarian democracy is no secret. It should be a forewarning of what is to come should it lead a right-wing coalition after this year’s election.
It is not only Kickl who needs to be prevented from entering government again but the whole FPÖ. And that promise Nehammer is unwilling, or unable, to give.
Gabriela Greilinger is an Austrian-Hungarian political scientist and co-founder of the youth platform Quo Vademus. She regularly writes about EU politics, international affairs, democracy and populism, with a regional focus on Europe and in particular central and eastern Europe.