VIENNA—After a scandal-ridden three-way race in which immigration was presented as the core of almost every problem in the country, exit polls today have the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) vying for second place behind the conservative People’s Party. The Conservatives had picked up on many of the FPÖ’s themes, but put a prettier face on it all under the leadership of 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz. He will be Austria’s next chancellor.
And the Green Party, which beat the FPÖ to the country’s less powerful position of president last year? It got hit with its lowest result since 1987.
What a comeback for the far right, which was defeated and seething less than a year ago.
To be sure, there was a dirty battle between the two centrist parties, who accused each other, among other things, of espionage. And the FPÖ’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was praised for what some called a “statesmanlike” performance, even if others had a rather more radical view. (Outside a Vienna polling station Sunday one confused looking man called out “Heil Hitler, Heinz Strache,” and raised his arm in a salute.)
But one should keep one’s eye on a group of young people who have neat haircuts and university degrees, but thinly disguised xenophobic views, and played a small but important part in Sunday’s elections. They call themselves “identitarians.” To their chagrin, a domestic intelligence report from 2014 calls them right-wing extremists.
Frequently described as the European equivalent of the alt-right, they have a keen sense of publicity and know how to push people’s buttons, yet all the while they are careful to present themselves as upstanding young citizens.
The group’s leader, Martin Sellner, whose father is a doctor, always takes care to say “please” and “thank you.”
But even Sellner has a sinister side: The person he claims to fear most in the world is his ex-mentor, a middle aged neo-Nazi currently sitting in jail for running a hate site. And Sellner is also not allowed to own or use firearms since he shot up the subway with a pepper defense spray (intended for fighting off wild animals) after the annual “Academic Ball” in Vienna earlier this year.
Normally, the identitarians’ idea of daring is exemplified by the T-shirts they wore last year in the campaign against Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen: FCK VDB, they said. They also handed out fliers that said “not my president.”
These are the kind of camera-ready actions that draw praise from the German-speaking neo-Nazi scene. But the identitarians are desperate to distance themselves publicly from explicit violence and racism, even as they preach that migration is a threat to European “identity.”
Typically, they will “occupy” deserted border stations for the sake of publicity. But when one of their number threw an ashtray at counter-protesters at a demonstration two years ago, the others tried to hold him back. They also see themselves as part of a broader movement, having copied much of their style and some of their tactics from the Bloc Identitaire that was founded in France in 2003.
Now that some of their beloved FPÖ positions can be found replicated in the manifesto of Sebastian Kurz, there is an irony: “At this point, they know they will do more harm than good for the FPÖ,” according to Kathrin Glösel, who wrote a book, Die Identitären, about the group. “All they can hope for now is a second- or third-rank job in the Freedom Party.”
Perhaps, but the group has proved imaginative, even when it fails.
After being booed down repeatedly by counter-protesters in Vienna, they took their show to the Mediterranean last summer with the highly publicized intention of stopping rescue boats that were bringing immigrants to Europe. In the event, these nautical amateurs ended up stranded in Barcelona without money (or snacks). They were accused of smuggling. Even for the far right, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
It’s in the nature of fringe-right provocateurs that when they succeed, and their demands actually go mainstream, they may lose face. Or as Sellner broke it to his online fan base last week, “we will lose the wind in our sails.”
But for a wannabe intellectual like Sellner, pending domestic irrelevance isn’t a tragedy.
Before this summer, the 28-year-old had never been abroad for more than three weeks. But when Sellner returned home from Barcelona to national scorn, he didn’t wait long before booking a flight to America. He wanted to visit Brittany Pettibone, the “Pizzagate expert,” and one of the American YouTube C-listers who flew to Catalonia to film herself standing around on Sellner’s boat last summer. He tells The Daily Beast the two are dating now.
It wasn’t all romance, though.
“America has alternative news networks that we in Europe can only dream of,” Sellner told The Daily Beast, describing his trip as a “study tour.” And Sellner, who wrote on his blog that he learned “how important infowar is” and how much Europe “has to catch up,” wasn’t the only one who kept a diary. A video shot somewhere outside a ranch in the States shows him with Brittany Pettibone and Canadian Donald Trump supporter Lauren Southern, as they talk about how Europe’s identitarians are better than North Americans at “real life activism.”
“If we unite, then we will become invincible,” Sellner jokes in the video.
For Julia Ebner, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London and author of The Rage: The Vicious Circle of Islamist and Far-Right Extremism, this is not just cringe-worthy, it is also alarming.
“We are now seeing far right groups crossing ideologies and borders for the sake of having a bigger impact,” she tells The Daily Beast. “This means that the groups will become more similar to each other—and more dangerous.”
Just ask the notorious right-wing troll Charles Johnson. Sellner’s “Defend Europe” mission would have failed even more badly if it hadn’t been for him: At first it looked like the identitarians, supported as they were by the likes of David Duke and the Daily Stormer, were not going to be able to collect money for their mission. Eights banks shut down their accounts. Paypal and Patreon both said no. But then Sellner’s group ended up on Johnson’s crowdfunding app, Wesearchr, and suddenly Sellner and his friends were up to $234,456.
Another example cited in ISD’s upcoming report, “Frinsurgency: The Impact of the Fringe,” to be released Monday, was how German-speaking right-wing extremists tried to boost the far right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) in German elections. To develop Reconquista Germania—a right-wing extremist forum that preaches “Blitzkrieg against the old parties!”—they teamed up with meme makers who fought for Trump’s election.
Austria’s identitarians began abandoning Infokrieg, their own online community for information warfare, in favor of Reconquista Germania just one day after the AfD took 13 percent of the German vote and became the third strongest party in the Bundestag.
Over the past week, RG has been busy creating FPÖ memes (they have, innovatively, reinvented Pepe the Frog in blue and black) and memes that make fun of Christian Democrat candidate Sebastian Kurz (whom they call a “Heuchler,” or hypocrite).
Sellner advertised the RG forum on his YouTube channel in July. He told us he even invited Nikolai Alexander to record an interview with him, but Alexander declined.
Yuri Kofner, an old contact of Sellner’s, who runs a think tank in Munich which pushes the Eurasianist ideology of the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, is also a fan of Reconquista and says he has been messaging with “Alexander” as well.
“We disagree on whether the Germans should be grateful to the Soviet Union for freeing them from Fascism,” Kofner told The Daily Beast. “But these are smaller differences.”
There was a time when America’s extreme right didn’t want anything to do with German nationalists, because of, you know, World War II. But according to Sellner, all these conflicts are no longer an issue. “When patriots network,” he says, they “network without giving up their national identities.”
To give an example, Sellner cites his romantic entanglement with the 25-year-old Pettibone, who, he says, visited him in Vienna last week. He showed her “cafés and museums.” But when they were in the U.S. together, Sellner says Pettibone took him to visit Taco Bell and a shooting range, activities that he describes as “typical Midwest conservative.”
“We want to keep the best of both continents,” Sellner says.
In America, Sellner adds, sounding like a typical ever-so-slightly intimidated German-speaking exchange student, things are more “commercialist” and “high pressure” than in Europe, but basically, “I liked it a lot.”
Before they got into action stunts and fancy propaganda videos, the identitarians in Austria were represented by a man called Alexander Markovics, who is a big fan of Alexander Dugin and stars as an expert for Russia Today when the TV station covers news in Austria.
Some researchers believe that Markovics was replaced by Sellner in 2016 so he could work on contacts to the east away from the spotlight. Glösel, the author of Die Identitären, thinks Markovics was kicked out for being too long-winded, uncharismatic and camera shy.
In Austria, now as never before, the faces of the right wing and the far right are media-wise, on-message, and know all too well that cameras love them.