Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said of the raid: “Constant action against right-wing extremism is not only part of the historical responsibility, but also a clear defense of our democratic coexistence in Austria.”
It was not 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 motorcycle gang whose leader planned to establish a “respectable militia” that would “overthrow the system.”
Supporting Nazism is a crime in Austria. The most prominent neo-Nazi figure is Gottfried Kuessel, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2013 for spreading Nazism online. It was his second conviction.
Bernhard Weidinger, who studies the far right at the Austrian Resistance Documentation Archive in Vienna, says 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 weapon finds,” he told CNN.
Neo-Nazi activity in Europe is frequently associated with motorcycle gangs, organized crime, and soccer fans. In Austria, a group called Immortal follows the Rapid Vienna club, sometimes displaying the Reich War flag at matches. In Italy, fan groups known as Ultras adopt fascist slogans and nicknames.
In Austria, as in the rest of Europe, the neo-Nazi scene includes virulent strains of both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism.
In Austria, 12% of people between the ages of 18 and 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 “only a little” about the Holocaust. And a third of Austrians (32%) said that Jews have too much influence in business and finance around the world, echoing an old anti-Semitic trope.
Austria is dealing with the legacy of anti-Semitism in other ways. For almost a decade, a statue in Vienna has been at the center of that turbulent history. It is from Karl Lueger, mayor of the city at the beginning of the 20th century. Lueger exploited anti-Jewish sentiment in his candidacy for office, emphasizing Christian and Germanic supremacy, and Adolf Hitler greatly admired him.
The four-meter-high bronze statue has been defaced but still stands in a prominent position in a Vienna square. City officials decided this month that it would remain in place but in context.
Sellner has become a benchmark in the identity movement that opposes mass migration and wants Europe to have a homogeneous white and Christian identity. They see that this identity is being sold by political elites committed to multiculturalism.
Austrian authorities prosecuted him and 16 others using anti-mafia laws in 2018, charging them with 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 emerging identity groups, which are political. In addition to Sellner and the IBO in Austria, they include Génération Identitaire in France and Neue Rechte (New Right) in Germany.
In Vienna, Gottfried Kuessel, now out of prison, and others previously associated with neo-Nazism joined the marches against the lockdown.
Weidinger says it’s remarkable that they also seem to have drawn a younger generation, people in their twenties, to join them. They have also started organizing their own protest for the first time in many years, he told CNN.
In a video message, Sellner told protesters that they could mobilize a “broad patriotic mass” to fight the “grand strategy” of global elites. Members of the Reichsburger group tried to make their way into parliament, a symbolic act meant to remember the burning of the Reichstag by the Nazis.
In both Germany and Austria, the most extreme factions speak of “Day X”, an apocalyptic fantasy in which democratic institutions will collapse in a tide of violence and a neo-Nazi state will be born.
The ‘mainstream’ law
There is some ideological overlap between identity groups and established right-wing parties in Europe, such as the Freedom Party in Austria, the National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France, and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy.
“At a time when Europe is facing a severe demographic crisis with low birth rates and an aging population, pro-family policymaking should be an answer rather than mass immigration,” they said.
Bernhard Weidinger says that identitarians offer what he describes as “critical solidarity” to the Freedom Party (FPO), which dominates the right in Austria. He says the Freedom Party is now in opposition in Austria after a stint in a governing coalition that has leaned more to the right, depriving the IBO of its own territory.
The European far right is a fractured environment, where political activism and calls for violence overlap, and groups grow and transform rapidly. Much of it is online or clandestinely, but has been given a new boost, both in Europe and the United States, by closures, vaccination mandates and an epidemic of conspiracy theories.
Where it coalesces, at least in spirit, is on issues of cultural identity and migration, which groups like the Austrian IBO see 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 combining them with terrorist groups.