Polls show that Norbert Hofer, a far-right Austrian politician who once declared that “Islam has no place in Austria,” is within a hair’s breadth of winning the country’s presidential election on Sunday. As fear rises among many Austrians, a video made by Hofer’s opponent, the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen, has gone viral — getting more than 3 million views on Facebook in under a week.
It’s a simple video. In it, an 89-year-old woman, identified only as Gertrude, talks in front of the camera about how Hofer’s rise reminds her of the rise of the Nazis in her youth.
“This is probably going to be my last election,” Gertrude says. “It’s not the first time something like this has happened ... I am afraid of that.”
The harsh rhetoric coming from Hofer and his Freedom Party (FPO), according to Gertrude, gins up the same kind of popular hatred that she saw directed against Jews in the Vienna of her youth.
“The people stood and watched while the Jews had to clean the streets. The Viennese people were standing, men and women, watching and laughing,” she says. “They [the FPO] try to bring that out of the people again.”
She singles out a statement from FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who warned that mass immigration to Austria makes civil war in that country “not unlikely.”
“I experienced a civil war when I was 7, and I’ve never forgotten it” Gertrude says, referencing the 1934 Austrian Civil War that ended with fascists coming to power. “I saw my first dead person then. Unfortunately it was not the last one.”
Gertrude concludes her statement by urging young Austrians to vote: “I don’t have much time left. But the young ones still have their whole life ahead of them.” And then, as camera fades to black, the gut punch hits.
“Gertrude was 16 years old when she, her parents, and her two younger brothers were deported to Auschwitz,” a caption explains. “Her whole family was killed.”
Why the FPO’s rise is so worrying
There is a reason Gertrude’s testimony has resonated with so many Austrians: The FPO is a legitimately frightening political movement.
Founded in 1956, in large part by former Nazis seeking a legitimate vehicle to participate in Austrian democracy, the party was irrelevant in mainstream Austrian politics for decades. But in 1986, the party was taken over by firebrand Jörg Haider.
Haider reoriented the party around one central element: fear of immigrants. He warned that mainstream politicians encouraged “foreign infiltration” of Austria and that Islam was “incompatible” with “human rights and democracy.” At the same time, he praised the Nazis, saying that Hitler had a "proper employment policy.”
Haider was remarkably successful. In 1999, the FPO won 26.9 percent of the national vote, securing the party a place in the Austrian government as a junior coalition partner. However, it was unable to end immigration to Austria: By 2003, 12.5 percent of Austrian residents were foreign-born.
Haider died in 2008, by which time the party’s popularity had fallen; it won just 11 percent of the vote that year. But under the leadership of Hofer and Strache, the Freedom Party has made a comeback in recent years.
"The [Freedom Party's] support is steadily growing: for more than a year it has topped every representative poll, being consistently backed by around 30 per cent of the respondents," political scientists Philip Rathgeb and Fabio Wolkenstein write at the London School of Economics' Europe blog.
According to Rathgeb and Wolkenstein, there are a number of reasons for this, including a slow economy and a political stalemate between the two dominant parties that has stymied policymaking. But immigration is by far the most important part of the story.
Austria's longstanding nativist streak came to the fore in the summer of 2015, when the European refugee crisis became the continent's dominant political issue. The FPO has cast Syrian and other Muslim refugees as a threat to Christian-European civilization. This message has clearly resonated with Austrian voters, a majority of whom think their country is on the wrong track.
Alarmed by FPO's surge in the polls on a wave of anti-refugee sentiment, the Austrian government reversed its pro-refugee policy, closing Austria's borders to refugees and asylum seekers. But that wasn't enough to stop the FPO’s rise: The party won a plurality in the first round of Austria's presidential election in April, forcing a runoff between Hofer and the Green Party’s Van der Bellen.
The runoff vote was supposed to have been done by now: It was first held in May, with Van der Bellen winning. But an Austrian court nullified the vote, citing irregularities with mail-in ballots. The court rescheduled a redo of the presidential runoff vote for December. With polls showing the two men neck and neck, nobody knows what the outcome will ultimately be.
The good news is that even if Hofer does win, Austria's presidency is a historically ceremonial position — the leader of the parliamentary majority, called the federal chancellor, generally wields power. That person is Christian Kern of the center-left Social Democratic Party.
And the FPO isn't openly fascist, nor are its leaders Nazis. But it's still a very hard-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim organization — to the point of being outright racist. And the fact that it’s this close to winning a national election illustrates that Brexit and Donald Trump are not accidents — they were the first wave of an anti-immigrant, racist tide poised to sweep the Western world.
There is a very good reason people like Gertrude are scared.