Austria’s new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, is a charismatic, 31-year-old center-right politician, who most recently served as his country’s foreign minister. He is pro-Europe and pledges zero tolerance for manifestations of anti-Semitism. Yet the scene outside the president’s office in Vienna when Kurz and his cabinet were sworn in reflects the political deal the new chancellor made to install his government: About 6,000 protesters gathered with signs bearing slogans like “We don’t want any Nazi pigs” and “Nazis out.”
To our concern, and that of many others, Kurz welcomed as his coalition partner the far-right Freedom Party led by Heinz Christian Strache, who is now Austria’s vice chancellor. Austria’s Freedom Party was formed in 1955 by ex-Nazis, and when it last joined a coalition government in 2000, the European Union slapped sanctions on Vienna. That isn’t likely to happen now, given the rise of anti-establishment parties across Europe. But Israel has announced that it will not deal directly with Freedom Party ministers, who head the country’s foreign, defense and interior ministries.
Austria is a deeply conservative country, even though it has sought to strengthen its relations with the Jewish community. There have been setbacks, such as the 1986 election as president of Kurt Waldheim, who hid his role as a Wehrmacht intelligence officer during World War II. Poverty and economic chaos are generally blamed for the rise of the far right in Europe and the United States. But Austria ranks above average in jobs and wages across the continent, and the Freedom Party still won 26 percent of the vote.
In addition to political expediency, it appears that Europe’s increasing Muslim immigration has caused Kurz to partner with Strache. And Strache’s view is clear, with reports that he “rails against the ‘Islamization’ of Austria and calls for a de facto end to Muslim life in Austria.”
“Not every Freedom Party politician is a neo-Nazi,” Oskar Deutsch, president of the Jewish Communities of Austria, acknowledges in Haaretz. “But the fact that 20 out of the 54 [Freedom Party] members of the Austrian parliament are members of right-wing fraternities speaks for itself. While we celebrate the capitulation of Nazi Germany as the liberation of Europe, the German-nationalist fraternity members mourn the end of the Third Reich. These fraternity members are the ideological core of the [Freedom Party].”
We may be in for a less-than-warm relationship with Austria. And perhaps those tensions will be cause for some degree of introspection among those of our leaders who pander to a U.S.-made version of Freedom Party xenophobia and for whom “America First” increasingly means anyone who isn’t white or Protestant.
In order for America to truly be great, we need to lead by example, and make clear that for ourselves and for the world we reject any form of government supported by racial and ethnic intimidation.