In Austria‘s recent general election, nearly 30 per cent of voters backed extremist right-wing parties. Live visits the birthplace of Hitler to investigate how Fascism is once again threatening to erupt across Europe.
Beneath a leaden sky the solemn, black-clad crowd moves slowly towards a modest grey headstone. At one end
of the grave, a flame casts light on the black lettering that is engraved on the marble. At the other end, an elderly soldier bends down to place flowers before standing to salute.
From all over Austria, people are here to pay their respects to their fallen hero. But the solemnity of the occasion is cut with tension. Beyond the crowd of about 300, armed police are in attendance. They keep a respectful distance but the rasping bark of Alsatians hidden in vans provides an eerie soundtrack as the crowd congregates in mist and light rain.
We’ve been warned that despite a heavy police presence journalists have often been attacked at these meetings. If trouble does come then the mob look ready to fight. There are bull-necked stewards and young men who swagger aggressively.
This is a neo-Nazi gathering and in the crowd are some of Austria’s most hard-faced fascists. Among them is Gottfried Kussel, a notorious thug who was the showman of Austria’s far-right movement in the Eighties and Nineties until he was imprisoned for eight years for promoting Nazi ideology.
Today he cuts a Don Corleone figure as he stands defiantly at the graveside. His neo-Nazi acolytes make sure no one comes near him and our photographer is unceremoniously barged out of his way.
Ominous-looking men with scars across their faces whisper to each other and shake hands. These are members of Austria’s Burschenschaften, an arcane, secretive organisation best known for its fascination with fencing, an initiation ceremony that includes a duel in which the opponents cut each other’s faces, and for its strong links to the far right.
Incredibly, standing shoulder to shoulder with these hard-line Nazi sympathisers are well known Austrian politicians. At the graveside, a speech is made by Lutz Weinzinger, a leading member of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPO), who pays tribute to the fallen.
This is a gathering in memory of an Austrian-born Nazi fighter pilot, who during WWII shot down 258 planes, 255 of them Russian. Such was Major Walter Nowotny’s standing at the time of his death in 1944 that the Nazi Party awarded him a grave of honour in Vienna’s largest cemetery, close to the musical legends Mozart, Brahms and Strauss.
But in 2005 that honour was revoked and his body moved to lie in an area of public graves. The decision infuriated the far right and made their annual pilgrimage an even greater event.
Today, the anniversary of Nowotny’s death, also coincides with Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’ in 1938 when 92 people were murdered and thousands attacked across Germany as stormtroopers set upon Jews in an outpouring of Nazi violence.
Some 70 years on from that infamous pogrom, the world faces a similar financial crisis to the one that precipitated the rise of Hitler and, in chilling echoes of Thirties Europe, support for far-right groups is exploding. Hitler’s birthplace has become the focus for neo-Nazis across the world.
And so I have come to Austria to investigate how Fascism and extremism are moving, unchecked, into the forefront of its society.
Last September, Austria’s far right gained massive political influence in an election that saw the FPO along with another far right party – Alliance For The Future (BZO) – gain 29 per cent of the vote, the same share as Austria’s main party, the Social Democrats. The election stirred up terrifying memories of the rise of the Nazi Party in the Thirties.
And just as the Nazis gained power on the back of extreme nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism, the recent unprecedented gains in Austria were made on a platform of fear about immigration and the perceived threat of Islam. FPO leader Heinz Christian Strache, for example, described women in Islamic dress as ‘female ninjas’.
Emboldened by the new power in parliament, neo-Nazi thugs have desecrated Muslim graves. Recently, in Hitler’s home town of Braunau, a swastika flag was publicly unveiled.
Austrian far right leader Heinz Christian Strache addresses a rally
The FPO wants to legalise Nazi symbols, while its firebrand leader has been accused of having links to far right extremists.
After the FPO’s election victory, Nick Griffin, leader of the British Nationalist Party (BNP), sent a personal message to Strache.
‘We in Britain are impressed to see that you have been able to combine principled nationalism with electoral success. We are sure that this gives you a good springboard for the European elections and we hope very much that we will be able to join you in a successful nationalist block in Brussels next year.’
The message followed on from a secret meeting last May in which a high-ranking FPO politician paid a visit to London for a meeting with Griffin.
The relationship between the FPO and the BNP becomes more worrying as I learn of the strong links between Austria’s political party and hard-line Nazis.
Former Waffen SS officer and unrepentant Nazi Herbert Schweiger
Herbert Schweiger makes no attempt to hide his Nazi views. At his home in the Austrian mountains, the former SS officer gazes out of a window to a view of a misty alpine valley. Described to me as the ‘Puppet Master’ of the far right, Schweiger, 85, is a legendary figure for neo-Nazis across the world.
‘Our time is coming again and soon we will have another leader like Hitler,’ he says.
Still remarkably sharp-minded, Schweiger was a lieutenant in the infamous Waffen SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, an elite unit originally formed before WWII to act as the Führer’s personal bodyguards.
This is his first interview for four years and the first he has ever given to a journalist from outside Austria. It happens a few weeks before he is due to appear in court charged with promoting neo-Nazi ideology.
It will be the fifth time he has stood trial for breaking a law, the Verbotsgesetz, enacted in 1947 to halt the spread of fascist ideology. He has been found guilty twice and acquitted twice. It quickly becomes apparent that little has changed in Schweiger’s mindset since his Third Reich days.
‘The Jew on Wall Street is responsible for the world’s current economic crisis. It is the same now as in 1929 when 90 per cent of money was in the hands of the Jew. Hitler had the right solutions then,’ he says, invoking the language of Goebbels.
The room is filled with mementos from his past and indicators of his sickening beliefs. His bookshelf is a library of loathing. I spot a book by controversial British Holocaust denier David Irving and one on the ‘myth of Auschwitz’. On a shelf hangs a pennant from the SS Death’s Head unit that ran Hitler’s concentration camps. Such memorabilia is banned in Austria but Schweiger defiantly displays his Nazi possessions.
If Schweiger was an old Nazi living out his final days in this remote spot, it might be possible to shrug him off as a now harmless man living in his past. But Schweiger has no intention of keeping quiet.
‘My job is to educate the fundamentals of Nazism. I travel regularly in Austria and Germany speaking to young members of our different groups,’ he says.
Schweiger’s lectures are full of hate and prejudice. He refers to Jews as ‘intellectual nomads’ and says poor Africans should be allowed to starve.
‘The black man only thinks in the present and when his belly is full he does not think of the future,’ he says. ‘They reproduce en masse even when they have no food, so supporting Africans is suicide for the white race.
‘It is not nation against nation now but race against race. It is a question of survival that Europe unites against the rise of Asia. There is an unstoppable war between the white and yellow races. In England and Scotland there is very strong racial potential.
Our time is coming again and soon we will have another leader like Hitler
‘Of course I am a racist, but I am a scientific racist,’ he adds, as if this is a justification.
Schweiger’s raison d’être is politics. He was a founding member of three political parties in Austria – the VDU, the banned NDP and the FPO. He has given his support to the current leader of the FPO.
‘Strache is doing the right thing by fighting the foreigner,’ says Schweiger.
He is now in close contact with the Kameradschaften, underground cells of hardcore neo-Nazis across Austria and Germany who, over the past three years, have started to infiltrate political parties such as the FPO.
His belief that the bullet and the ballot box go hand in hand goes back to 1961, when he helped to train a terrorist movement fighting for the reunification of Austria and South Tyrol.
‘I was an explosives expert in the SS so I trained Burschenschaften how to make bombs. We used the hotel my wife and I owned as a training camp,’ he says. The hotel he refers to is 50 yards from his home.
Thirty people in Italy were murdered during the campaign. One of the men convicted for the atrocities, Norbert Burger, later formed the now-banned neo-Nazi NDP party with Schweiger.
Schweiger’s involvement earned him his first spell in custody in 1962 but he was acquitted.
A gathering of the Burschenschaften, a secretive nationalist group with far-right tendencies
At Vienna’s Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DOW), I speak to Heribert Schiedel, who monitors neo-Nazi activity. He tells me that the glue between people like Schweiger and the politicians are the Burschenschaften fraternities. Schiedel draws two circles and explains.
‘In the circle on the left you have legal parties such as the FPO. In the circle on the right you have illegal groups. Two distinct groupings who pretend they are separate.’
He draws another circle linking the two together. ‘This circle links the legal and illegal. This signifies the Burschenschaften. They have long been associated with Fascism and have a history of terrorism. Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Hess and Heinrich Himmler were Burschenschaften – as are prominent members of the FPO in parliament.’
There are Burschenschaften groups all over Austria and 18 in the capital alone. Their activities range from quaint to disturbing.
At the University of Vienna, members of the Burschenschaften come to pay homage to a statue called the Siegfriedskopf (the Head of Siegfried, a warrior from German mythology). Their ritual takes place every Wednesday.
The university authorities wanted to remove the statue, but the government insisted it should stay as it is a protected monument. Instead, the piece was relocated to the courtyard.
Today, the Burschenschaften have been prevented from entering the courtyard and at the main entrance police stand guard as they hand out leaflets. Dressed in traditional uniforms, the Burschenschaften resemble colourful bandsmen and are a far cry from the shaven-headed thugs normally associated with Fascism.
But the groups have a 200-year-old history steeped in patriotism and loyalty to a German state. In 2005, Olympia, one of the most extreme Burschenschaften fraternities, invited David Irving to Austria.
As other students gather, there is tension in the air. One girl whispers that this group recently attacked students protesting outside the Austrian Parliament against the FPO.
A young student with round glasses and a scar on his left cheek, wearing the purple colours of Olympia, is handing out leaflets. Roland denies being a neo-Nazi but he quickly starts relaying his fiercely nationalist views.
Gottfried Kussel (second from right) among the gathering at the grave of WWII Nazi pilot Walter Nowotny
‘The anti-fascists are the new fascists,’ he says. ‘We are not allowed to tell the truth about how foreigners are a threat.’
The truth, according to Roland, is that Muslims, immigrants and America are destroying his way of life.
‘We are German-Austrians. We want a community here based on German nationalism,’ he adds. ‘We must fight to save our heritage and culture.’
The Burschenschaften hold regular, secretive meetings in cellar bars around Vienna. Journalists are not usually admitted, but I manage to persuade a group of Burschenschaften students to let me see their traditions. Once inside, I find myself in a bar filled with 200 men sitting at long tables drinking steins of Austrian beer.
The Burschenschaften are resplendent in the colours of their fraternities. Old and young, they sport sashes in the black, red and gold of the German flag, and as the beer flows in this neo-Gothic building, chatter fills the room and cigarette smoke rises in plumes up to chandeliers hung from a vaulted ceiling.
‘Prost!’ the man sitting to my right toasts loudly. His name is Christian. He is no neo-Nazi thug, but instead a psychology student. His white peaked cap signifies that he is a member of a Burschenschaften group called Gothia.
Most of the men at this table are Gothia, including the man sitting opposite who ordered the beer. He glares at me again. He has long scars on both sides of his face that run from his cheekbones down to the edges of his mouth, and when he sucks on his cigarette he reminds me of the Joker from Batman. Christian has a dozen wounds from fencing, including five on his left cheek.
‘It is a badge of honour to duel,’ he says proudly, before explaining that this is an annual event and that one of tonight’s speeches will be on the ‘threat of Islam to Europe’.
Suddenly, everyone at our table stands amazed as FPO leader Heinz Christian Strache enters.
He is wearing a royal blue hat – signifying his membership of the Vandalia Burschenschaften – and after shaking hands with each of us he sits at the far end of the table. Shortly afterwards I’m asked to leave.
Although the Burschenschaften claims to be politically neutral, FPO flyers had been placed in front of each guest and it was clear this event was a political rally in support of the FPO – an event that would culminate with these Austrians, including a leading politician, singing the German national anthem.
After my encounter with the leader of the FPO among the Burschenschaften, I contact Strache’s press office to question his membership of an organisation linked to far right extremism, and ask why the FPO wishes to revoke the Verbotsgesetz (the law banning Nazi ideology).
In a response by email, Mr Strache replied that the FPO wants to revoke the Verbotsgesetz because it believes in freedom of speech. He denied having any links to neo-Nazi groups and says he is proud to be a member of the Burschenschaften.
‘The Burschenschaften was founded during the wars against Napoleon Bonaparte in the beginning of the 19th century. These are the historical origins I am proud of,’ he wrote.
Back at Nowotny’s graveside I think of the Puppet Master in his mountain home. How can a former Nazi still hold so much political sway? The Burschenschaften are here, too.
There are no ‘sieg heils’ and no swastikas for the cameras, but it’s clear that Fascism is back. These are not thugs merely intent on racial violence, who are easily locked up. These are intellectuals and politicians whose move to the forefront of society is far more insidious.
Through the political influence of the FPO it is entirely possible that the Verbotsgesetz could be revoked – and if that happens swastikas could once again be seen on Austria’s streets.
The ideas and racial hatred that I have heard over my two weeks in Austria are just as threatening and just as sickening as any I have ever heard. And they are a lot more sinister because they are spoken with the veneer of respectability.
The open defiance of these men honouring their Nazi ‘war hero’, and the support they are gaining in these troubled economic times, should be setting off alarm bells in Europe and the rest of the world.