Rise of Austrian Right Lengthens Shadow of Nazi Era

Alison Smale, New York Times, September 29, 2015

As befits the city of Sigmund Freud, Vienna has two faces–one sweet, one sinister.

Behind the schnitzel and strudel, Mozart and the opera, lurks the legacy of the Nazis who forced Jews to clean sidewalks with toothbrushes. In 1988, to much controversy, Vienna placed Alfred Hrdlicka’s “Memorial Against War and Fascism,” featuring a sculpture of a Jewish man cleaning the street, right behind the State Opera, lest Austria again forget.

Now, to the astonishment of many and the alarm of some, the burning question in Vienna’s elegant cafes is, Which face will prevail in the city’s bellwether elections on Oct. 11?

Roughly one in four of Austria’s 8.7 million residents lives in Vienna. For almost the last century–aside from the Nazi years, 1938-45–the left has ruled “Red Vienna,” long prized for its pioneering public housing and welfare, and its cultural ferment.

But against the backdrop of Europe’s refugee drama, the far-right Freedom Party is threatening the Social Democrats’ hold in what may portend a more general rise in populist, anti-immigrant sentiment across the Continent.

Riding a wave of anxiety over the tens of thousands of migrants entering Austria this month, the Freedom Party finished second, with just over 30 percent of the vote, in regional elections in northern Austria on Sunday.

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“We don’t want an Islamization of Europe,” the party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, told Austria’s public broadcaster as he began his campaign to be Vienna’s mayor. “We don’t want our Christian-Western culture to perish.”

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In the last Vienna elections, in 2010, the Freedom Party vaulted to more than 25 percent of the vote, a gain of over 10 percentage points. By this summer, opinion polls suggested, the far-right party had pulled almost level with the Social Democrats, who got 44 percent in 2010. Both now hover just above 30 percent.

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What everyone is wondering now is what effect the migrants will have.

Thousands of Viennese have greeted tens of thousands of refugees arriving from Hungary this month. The national government, which had long flailed on the issue, found a firm voice and strongly criticized Budapest for putting refugees on trains that led them not west to Austria, but to a camp in Hungary. This, said Chancellor Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, “brings up memories of our Continent’s darkest period.”

Like Germany, Austria loudly advocates asylum for refugees. Its projected total of applicants, many from the Middle East, is 80,000 this year, meaning that, like Germany’s, its population may grow by 1 percent.

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