It’s not every day that Austrian and American politics intersect. Monday morning, April 30, 2019, reporting from Vice News revealed that the Kootenai County Republican Committee unanimously passed a resolution requesting that the US Government restore Martin Sellner’s travel privileges. The committee claimed to be acting in good faith for one of their constituents, Sellner’s fiancée, stating that Sellner’s travel privileges were removed “for political reasons” and “interfered with the wedding plans of these two young people.” However, it wasn’t any young couple. Martin Sellner is the leader of the extreme-right Identitäre Bewegung Österreich (Identitarian movement of Austria, IBÖ) and his fiancée, Brittany Pettibone, is an American alt-right YouTuber who regularly publishes ethno-nationalist content. They also both represent an ideology that is antithetical to democracy.
Sellner’s travel privileges were revoked after Austrian security services searched his Viennese home due to alleged ties between Sellner and the Christchurch mosque shooter. He and his group came under suspicion after Austrian Security Services discovered that an email account under the name of the alleged Christchurch killer made a donation of over 1,500 euro ($1,700) to the IBÖ. The size of this donation was highly unusual. Hansjörg Bacher, a spokesman for the Graz prosecutor’s office, said that “the 1,500 euro transfer stood out from other donations, most of which were two- or three-digit amounts.” Further coverage has discovered that Sellner exchanged several emails with the alleged terrorist; however, it remains unclear if the two ever met when the Australian visited Austria.
Sellner was already infamous in Austria before his alleged connections between the Christchurch mosque shooter were discovered. As the baby-faced leader of the Austrian Identitarians, he has been at the front of many protests across Austria. While Sellner and his group claim to be nonviolent, arguing that, “anyone who reads our texts and looks at our actions sees that we draw a line between ourselves and the extreme right in both content and attitude. We affirm our democracy,” many of their protests and demonstrations quite often devolve into violence.
In 2016, around 30 IBÖ members stormed the stage of Die Schutzbefohlenen. These “activists” threw fake blood and passed out leaflets that said, “multiculturalism kills.” Shortly after they stormed the stage, a brawl broke out and roughly 8 people were injured. The Identitarians targeted this play because many of the actors included asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. At a separate university event about refugees and integration in Carinthia, the Identitarians staged a “stoning.” Several members of the IBÖ dressed in a Burkas threw styrofoam rocks at another protester dressed in traditional Austrian clothing. When the vice-chancellor of the university attempted to identify one of the men, he was punched in the stomach. While these identitarians claim to be nonviolent, that is clearly not the case.
The targets of these protests also give a glimpse into the ideology of the extreme right in Austria. Identitarians do not believe in a pluralistic democracy, instead, they believe that “democracy […] requires a certain amount of homogeneity in the population, so that common desires can be established.” The retention of this supposed homogeneity is their central pillar. Patrick Lenart, the club chairperson, once stated that “the world is melting into one. People are being de-rooted. The task of the Identitarian movement is to create the possibility so that people can once again become conscious of their place in an ancient chain.” They plan to stop this so-called “Great Replacement” by preventing immigration into Austria and Europe and supporting so-called “re-migration” policies. While their rhetoric and violence may not threaten all Austrians equally, it is especially dangerous to Austria’s marginalized refugee and Muslim populations.
In Austria, we see convergences between these extreme right “activists” and their far-right political counterparts. This is by far the most dangerous aspect of the Austrian extreme right: their political influence. Recent work by the NGO SOS-Mitmensch revealed 48 connections between Identitarians and politicians and officials of the Freedom Party of Austria (die Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ). Some of these connections are astonishing and include functionaries of 4 FPÖ-controlled ministries, including the Ministry of Civil Service and Sport, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of the Exterior, and the Ministry of Social Affairs. While these connections were just discovered, there have always been signs that connections between the FPÖ and IBÖ existed. In 2016 alone, FPÖ politicians demonstrated and held speeches at 6 separate Identitarian events.
While it is clear that their ideology, acts of violence, and political influence make the Identitarians a threat to democracy in Austria, it is not clear how we stop them. One way to start may be to limit their influence on social media. This week, Facebook moved to remove alt-right ideologues Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones due to their status as “dangerous individuals” from their platform. Martin Sellner and Brittany Pettibone, however, are still active and have over 215,000 Youtube subscribers and around 180,000 Twitter followers between them. Platforms like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter need to move to remove them from their platforms. Additionally, further investigations are necessary to truly determine just how deep the connections between the FPÖ and the IBÖ run. The IBÖ is a threat to democracy and they need to be treated like one.
*Photo by anonymous user, “Demonstration against Morten Kjærum in Vienna” (Wikipedia), Creative Commons Zero license.