“In Austria today, the real anti-Semitic threat is from Muslims, not Nazis,” argues Martin Engelberg, one of Austria’s first Jewish post-war members of parliament, who ran for the Liste Sebastian Kurz, the new name for the former Christian Democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). In reply, Benjamin Guttmann, from the Austrian Union of Jewish Students argued, why the FPÖ is still anti-Semitic to its core.
Let me go a step further and discuss the structural problem of racism we currently have to face in Austria.
The world knows that it took Austria an especially long time to acknowledge its crimes during World War II and to relinquish its self-declared status as Hitler’s ‘first victim’.
But the structural challenge of racism even goes beyond the Nazi regime. And it is far from confined to the right-wing political camp or, in other words today’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), as Austrians would like to believe.
Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are both part and parcel of Austria’s long history of nationalism and racism. When, in 2005, the Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ declared during a blatantly anti-Muslim election campaign, that “Vienna shall not become Istanbul”, many commentators caught a reference to a similar slogan from the 1990s.
Then, the same FPÖ – then under the leadership of Jörg Haider – campaigned under the slogan, “Vienna shall not become Chicago”, a snide reference to the assumed image of a multicultural American metropolis characterized by drug-dealing African-Americans.
But going back further in history offers another highly relevant reference. The most (in)famous fin-de-siecle mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, declared that “Vienna shall not become Jerusalem”. Lueger, an inspiration to Adolf Hitler, was one of the most populist anti-Semites. Neither was he a Völkisch nationalist, nor a Nazi, but a representative of the Christian Social Party, which is in ideological terms the forerunner of today’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).
Anti-Semites warned of the Jews forming a “state within a state”, warned of the dangers of kosher food, and argued that Jews should speak German in their sermons, since they were suspicious about what they were speaking about “amongst themselves.”
Similarly today, the FPÖ and the ÖVP coalition government’s program argues that they will launch a surveillance campaign over the “parallel society” of Muslims. Islamophobic populism against halal food and to force German-language sermons in mosques is commonplace in Austria’s political discourse today.
Today, more than ever, Austrian Jews should see the danger of this reincarnated racist discourse that construes national identity no more along the lines of racial identity, but along an ‘enlightened’ Judeo-Christian identity vs. the religious Muslim ‘other’. While this essentially racist discourse has been located on the far right for quite some time, today it has become mainstream to such an extent that even nominally centrist political parties are using it against the invented Muslim scapegoat.
Engelberg is right in one aspect. We should not fixate on the Holocaust period alone. Yes, we should even go beyond the Holocaust and see what enabled the Holocaust. We should identify the structural dimension of racism and its reoccurrence in our days with a different language, but similar structures. Perhaps the FPÖ is currently not openly endorsing anti-Semitism, but it’s never going to be far from its strategic aims.
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