Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said of the raid: “The consistent action against right-wing extremism is not only part of the historical responsibility, but also a clear advocacy of our democratic coexistence in Austria.”
It wasn’t the first action against alleged neo-Nazis in Austria this year. In July, police seized automatic weapons and hand grenades in coordinated raids against a biker gang whose leader planned to establish a “militia of the respectable” that would “overturn the system.”
Support for Nazism is a criminal offense in Austria. The most prominent neo-Nazi figure is Gottfried Kuessel, who was sentenced to a nine-year jail term in 2013 for propagating Nazism online. It was his second conviction.
Bernhard Weidinger, who studies the far right at the Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance in Vienna, says that the criminalization of Nazi ideology has ensured that it is neither particularly strong nor organized.
“But what we do have is a very high frequency of weapons finds,” he told CNN.
Neo-Nazi activity in Europe is frequently associated with biker gangs, organized crime and football fans. In Austria, a group called the Immortal follow the club Rapid Vienna, sometimes displaying the Reich War flag at matches. In Italy, fan groups known as Ultras adopt fascist slogans and monikers.
In Austria, as elsewhere in Europe, the neo-Nazi scene includes virulent strains of both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism.
In Austria, 12% of people aged 18 to 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust. Austria also had the highest number of people in the survey — four out of 10 adults — who said they knew “just a little” about the Holocaust. And a third of Austrians (32%) said Jewish people have too much influence on business and finance around the world, echoing a long-standing anti-Semitic trope.
Austria is grappling with the legacy of anti-Semitism in other ways. For almost a decade, a statue in Vienna has been at the center of that troubled history. It is of Karl Lueger, the city’s mayor at the beginning of the 20th century. Lueger exploited anti-Jewish feeling in his bid for office, emphasizing Christian and Germanic supremacy, and was much admired by Adolf Hitler.
The bronze statue, four meters high, has been defaced but still stands in a prominent position in a Vienna square. City authorities decided this month that it would remain in place but be set in context.
Sellner has become a leading light in the Identitarian movement which opposes mass migration and wants Europe to have a homogenic white and Christian identity. They see this identity being sold out by political elites committed to multiculturalism.
Austrian authorities prosecuted him and 16 others using anti-Mafia laws in 2018, accusing them of hate speech and criminal association. After a high-profile trial they were acquitted.
Analysts make a distinction between traditional neo-Nazis — whose activities are based on violence and crime — and the emerging Identitarian groups, which are political. Besides Sellner and the IBO in Austria, they include Génération Identitaire in France and the Neue Rechte (New Right) in Germany.
In Vienna, Gottfried Kuessel — now out of jail — and others previously associated with neo-Nazism joined marches against lockdown.
Weidinger says it’s notable that they also appear to have attracted a younger generation — people in their twenties — to join them. They have also begun to organize their own protest for the first time in many years, he told CNN.
In a video message, Sellner told the protesters they could mobilize a “broad, patriotic mass” to fight the “grand strategy” of global elites. Members of the Reichsburger group tried to force their way into the parliament, a symbolic act meant to recall the Nazis’ burning of the Reichstag.
In both Germany and Austria, the more extreme factions speak of “Day X” — an apocalyptic fantasy when democratic institutions will collapse in a tide of violence and a neo-Nazi state will be born.
The ‘mainstream’ right
There is some ideological overlap between Identitarian groups and Europe’s established right-wing parties, such as the Freedom Party in Austria, the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France, and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy.
“In a time when Europe is facing a serious demographic crisis with low birth rates and ageing population, pro-family policy making should be an answer instead of mass immigration,” they said.
Bernhard Weidinger says that the Identitarians offer what he describes as “critical solidarity” to the Freedom Party (FPO), which dominates the right in Austria. He says that now the Freedom Party is in opposition in Austria after a spell in a government coalition it has tilted further right, depriving the IBO of territory of its own.
The European far-right is a fractured environment, where political activism and calls to violence overlap, and groups grow and morph quickly. Much of it is online or underground, but it has been given new impetus — in both Europe and America — by lockdowns, vaccination mandates and an epidemic of conspiracy theories.
Where it coalesces — at least in spirit — is on the issues of cultural identity and migration, which groups such as the Austrian IBO regard as an imminent existential threat.
In June this year, the Austrian parliament passed a law banning the symbols of the IBO and another group, “The Austrians,” essentially conflating them with terror groups.