|Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the Freedom Party of Austria, ran a highly xenophobic campaign in 2008, describing women in Islamic dress as “female ninjas” [EPA]|
In the wake of the atrocities in Norway perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik, it is still unclear whether he was part of a wider conspiracy, but alarm bells are now ringing across Europe about the threat from far-right extremist groups. With no end in sight to the economic crisis afflicting many nations, the growing fear is that voters are increasingly attracted to far-right parties, many of whom have been building support by opposing immigration and stirring up hatred of Muslims.
In Norway, the right-wing Progress party garnered 23 per cent of the vote in the last election, making it the second-largest. And a recent poll found that half of all Norwegians favour restricting immigration. This did not go far enough for Breivik, who believed that the forced deportation of Muslims should be government policy, a radical political view he formed over time by participating in extreme online forums where he discussed his beliefs with like-minded individuals across the world.
The 32-year-old Norwegian made his thoughts clear in a 1,500 page document he wrote before embarking on his killing spree. Shortly before he detonated his bomb in Oslo and then killed 68 people on Utoeya, Breivik emailed his document to 1,003 of his far-right contacts, including extremists in England whom Breivik boasted to have forged links with in recent years in his opposition to Islam.
He particularly admired the English Defence League for its anti-Islam stance, and – according to the respected anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight – posted a message on its website in March this year. Using the pseudonym Sigurd Jorsalfare after a Norwegian king who led a Crusade in the 12th century, Breivik wrote: “Hello. To you all good English men and women, just wanted to say that you’re a blessing to all in Europe, in these dark times all of Europe are looking to you in such [sic] of inspiration, courage and even hope that we might turn this evil trend with islamisation all across our continent.”
Searchlight said that Breivik had been in contact with both the EDL and its Norwegian counterpart, the Norwegian Defence League (NDL), a claim denied by the EDL whose leadership condemned Breivik’s crimes.
The EDL has always insisted it is a peaceful protest group which opposes militant Islam, but since its inception in 2009, violence has erupted at many EDL demonstrations in Britain.
Stephen Lennon, who was convicted last week (Monday) of leading a street brawl involving 100 soccer fans in the English city of Luton in August 2010, is one of the founders of the EDL and during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2009, he explained why the group formed in Luton, the city where he lives: “For more than a decade now, there’s been tension in Luton between Muslim youths and whites. We all get on fine – black, white, Indian, Chinese – everyone does, in fact, apart from some Muslim youths who’ve become extremely radicalised since the first Gulf War. Preachers of hate such as Anjem Choudary have been recruiting for radical Islamist groups in Luton for years. Our government does nothing, so we decided we’d start protesting against radical Islam, and it grew from there,” he said.
While the EDL has been largely unsuccessful in gaining public support – mainly due to the fact that its core consists of football hooligans – there is concern that the group could be inspiring other unstable individuals who oppose Islam. The EDL has been pro-active in building links across the world and claims to have support from – aside from people in Norway – Holland, France, Sweden, USA and Israel, among others.
Indeed, the EDL embraced the Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, whom Breivik also cited in his writings. Wilders is virulently anti-Islam and leads the Party for Freedom, Holland’s third-largest party. He is a controversial figure who antagonised the Muslim world by calling for a ban on the Quran, which he likened to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Despite this, Wilders was voted politician of the year in 2007 by the Dutch press, and his Freedom Party went from winning nine seats in the 2006 election to 24 in 2010, taking a larger share of the vote than the Christian Democrats.
Austria has a Freedom Party (FPO) too, with a similar political outlook. The party is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, who has been successful in drumming up support by opposing Islam and immigration.
In 2008, the FPO and Alliance for the Future (BZO) jointly secured almost one-third of the electorate’s vote during the 2008 election. Campaigning against the “Islamisation” of Austria, the two parties secured 29 per cent in a result viewed as a horrifying development by many people across Europe. Both parties ran highly xenophobic campaigns, particularly the FPO, which pledged to set up a ministry to deport foreigners and whose leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, mocked homosexuals and described women in Islamic dress as “female ninjas”. The FPO also wishes to revoke the Verbotsgesetz, an Austrian law enacted in 1947 that bans the promotion of neo-Nazi ideology.
Strache has been at the centre of controversy, and pictures surfaced in 2008 showing the FPO leader wearing army fatigues and clutching what appeared to be a gun in a forest. The images were allegedly taken at a neo-Nazi training camp in his youth, but Strache denied this and said they were from a day out paint-balling. He was also photographed apparently giving a three-fingered neo-Nazi salute in a bar, though he said he was only ordering three beers.
The FPO has tried to distance itself from extremism, but the party was founded by two former SS officers, Anton Reinthaller and Herbert Schweiger. In 2008, I interviewed Schweiger – who died this past July – at his home in Austria a few weeks before he was due to appear in court on charges, for the fifth time, of promoting neo-Nazi ideology.
Described to me as the “Puppet Master” of Austria and Germany’s far right, Schweiger, 85, was remarkably sharp-minded and remained proud of his Nazi views. He was a lieutenant in the Waffen SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, an elite unit formed in the 1930s to act as the Führer’s personal bodyguards. After escaping a POW camp during WWII, Schweiger returned to his homeland, Austria, where he lived openly from 1947 and became heavily involved in politics.
He was a founding member of three political parties in Austria – the VDU, the FPO, and the banned NDP. During our interview he also admitted to involvement in terrorism and training a far-right cell comprising of Burschenschaften (right-wing brotherhoods founded in universities) who were fighting for the reunification of Austria and South Tyrol, now part of Italy, in 1961.
“I was an explosives expert in the SS so I trained the Burschenschaften how to make bombs. We used the hotel my wife and I owned as a training camp,” he said. Thirty people in Italy were murdered during a bombing campaign. One man 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.
Schweiger gave support to the FPO, saying that Strache was correct with his strategy in opposing Islam and immigration. Schweiger said that despite his age, he still travelled widely both in Austria and Germany to teach “the fundamentals of Nazism” to underground cells of neo-Nazis whom, he claimed, had infiltrated mainstream political parties such as the FPO.
The FPO disputed this, but according to Vienna’s Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DOW) – which monitors neo-Nazi activity – the party has strong links to neo-Nazis through the Burschenschaften, many of whom are members of Strache’s party.
The Burschenschaften were banned by the Allies after WWII, but reformed in the 1950s. In 1987, Olympia, one of the most extreme fraternities, nominated Rudolf Hess for the Nobel Peace Prize. Senior members of the FPO are Burschenschaften, including Strache and Martin Graf, who was elected deputy president of the Austrian Parliament after the election, despite vociferous opposition from concentration camp survivors. The FPO’s Andreas Molzer is also Burschenschaften and has met with the British National Party in London. Graf, Strache and Molzer all strongly denied having links to extremists and the FPO said that it only wishes to revoke the Verbotsgesetz because it believes in upholding freedom of expression.
Wolfgang Purtscheller, a revered author and journalist who has spent his career exposing Austria’s far right at great risk to his life, said that neo-Nazis have learned by the mistakes of their past, and are now working to build public support within the mainstream parties:
“You had people like Schweiger – the puppet master in the mountains for half a century – able to form political parties while teaching people to make bombs, and the Burschenshaften with its history of terrorism and links to the mainstream parties. These are the intellectuals who hold the positions of power in Austrian society, in the police, the judiciary and in parliament. The neo-Nazis have learned by the mistakes of their past and are now working to build public support within the mainstream parties. Imagine what could happen if the FPO gets rid of the Verbotsgesetz.”
The FPO continues to do well, and last October the party’s vote surged when it took 27 per cent of the vote in Vienna’s provincial election. Later that month, the FPO hosted a two-day conference attended by far-right factions from across Europe, including representatives of the Sweden Democrats, Italy’s Lega Nord and the Danish People’s Party. Strache has succeeded in making the FPO “respectable”, and last week he sacked a party official who responded to the Norwegian murders by declaring that the real danger was Islam, not Breivik.
Russia is another nation experiencing an upsurge in racism and anti-Islamic sentiments. A number of neo-Nazi groups have sprung up in recent years, the most extreme of which have attacked and killed foreigners and immigrants from Chechnya, Tajikstan, and Caucasian nations that were once part of the USSR.
This past July, Amnesty International reported that racially-motivated violence remained a serious problem in Russia. The AI report said that, according to data from the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, 37 people died as a result of hate crimes during 2010. The authors wrote:
“In April, Moscow judge Eduard Chuvashov was killed, reportedly by members of a far-right group, after he had sentenced several perpetrators of hate crimes to long-term imprisonment. In October, 22-year-old Vasilii Krivets was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 15 people of non-Slavic appearance. The extent of the problem was brought into sharp focus shortly before the AI report was published when five members of one of Russia’s most vicious neo-Nazi gangs were jailed for committing 27 murders. They belonged to the Nationalist Socialist Society North and were handed life sentences at Moscow City Court. The string of killings included the videotaped decapitation of one of their own gang members.”
During the trial, the court heard how the gang targeted dark-skinned victims. They were also convicted of decapitating one of their own whom they suspected of being a police informant and stealing money from the gang’s funds. The decapitation, during which they donned clown masks and sang a patriotic song, was videotaped and posted online. Following the case, a group of nationalists announced a coalition with Russia’s third-largest political party, the Liberal Democrat Party, which is committed to protecting Russian people and their interests.
Breivik, who murdered 76 people, said he was committed to protecting Europe from Islam. He claimed that two cells from a network he was involved with were still active. It remains to be seen if the 32-year-old was a lone wolf, but it would appear that the far right is on the march.
Billy Briggs is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in the New Statesman, The Guardian, the Sunday Times and other publications around the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.