VIENNA — No one does victimhood quite like Austria.
Over the past century, the Central European country has presented itself to the outside world as an innocent bystander on an island of gemütlichkeit, doing what it can to get by in a treacherous global environment.
“Austria was always apolitical,” insists Herr Karl, the archetypal Austrian opportunist, brought to life in 1961 by Helmut Qualtinger, the country’s greatest satirist. “We were never political people.”
Recalling Austria’s collaboration with the Nazis, Herr Karl, a portly stockist who speaks in a working-class Viennese dialect, was full of self pity: “We scraped a bit of cash together — we had to make a living…How we struggled to survive!”
Russia’s war on Ukraine offers a bitter reminder that Austria remains a country of Herr Karls, playing all sides, professing devotion to Western ideals, even as they quietly look for ways to continue to profit from the country’s friendly relations with Moscow.
The most glaring example of this hypocrisy is Austria’s continued reliance on Russian natural gas, which accounts for about 55 percent of the country’s overall consumption. Though that’s down from 80 percent at the beginning of 2022, Austria, in contrast to most other EU countries, remains dependent on Russia.
Confront an Austrian government official with this fact and you’ll be met with a lengthy whinge over how the country, one of the world’s richest, is struggling to cope with the economic crosswinds triggered by the war. That will be followed by a litany of examples of how a host of other EU countries is guilty of much more egregious behavior vis a vis Moscow.
The unspoken, if inevitable, conclusion: the real victim here is Austria.
The myth of Austrian victimhood has long been a leitmotif of the country’s bilious tabloids, which serve readers regular helpings of all the ways in which the outside world, especially Brussels and Washington, undermines them.
Earlier this month, the EU’s representative in Austria, Martin Selmayr, ended up in the sights of the tabloids — and the government — for uttering the inconvenient truth that the millions Vienna pays to Russia for gas every month amounted to “blood money.”
“He’s acting like a colonial army officer,” fumed Andreas Mölzer, a right-wing commentator for the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s best-selling tabloid, noting with delight that both of Selmayr’s grandfathers were German generals in the war.
“The Eurocrats have this attitude that they can just tell Austrians what to do,” Mölzer concluded.
Yet if Austria’s history since the collapse of the Habsburg empire in 1918 has shown anything, it’s that the country needs outside supervision. Left to their own devices, Austrians’ worst instincts take hold.
One needn’t look further than 1938 to understand the implications. But there’s no shortage of other examples: voters’ enthusiastic support for former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim as president in 1986, despite credible evidence that he had lied about his wartime service as an intelligence officer for the Nazis; the state’s foot-dragging on paying reparations to slave laborers used by Austrian companies during the war; the resistance to return valuable artworks looted from Jews by the Nazis to their rightful owners.
Not that Austrians learn from their mistakes. To this day, Austrians rarely heed the better angels of their nature unless the outside world forces them to, either by shaming them into submission or brute force.
That said, the West is almost as much to blame for Austria’s moral shortcomings as the Austrians themselves.
The Magna Carta for Austria’s cult of victimhood can be found in the so-called Moscow Declarations of 1943, in which the allied powers declared the country “the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression.” Though the text also stresses that Austria bears a responsibility — “which she cannot evade” — for collaborating with the Nazis, the Austrians latched onto the “victim” label after the war and didn’t look back.
In the decades that followed, the country relied on its stunning natural beauty and faded imperial charm to transform its international image into that of an alpine Shangri-La, a snow-globe filled with prancing Lipizzaners and jolly folk enjoying Wiener schnitzel and Sachertorte.
A key element of that gauzy fantasy was the country’s neutrality, imposed on it in 1955 by the Soviet Union as a condition for ending Austria’s postwar allied occupation. At the time, Austrians viewed neutrality as a necessary evil towards regaining full sovereignty.
During the course of the Cold War, however, neutrality took on an almost religious quality. In the popular imagination, it was neutrality, coupled with Austrians’ deft handling of Soviet leaders, that allowed the country to escape the fate of its Warsaw Pact neighbors (while also doing business with the Eastern Bloc).
Today, Austrian neutrality is little more than a convenient excuse to avoid responsibility.
Austria’s center-right-led government insists that on Ukraine it is only neutral in terms of military action, not on political principle. In other words, it won’t send weapons to Kyiv, but it does support the EU’s sanctions and allows arms shipments destined for Ukraine to pass through Austrian territory.
At the same time, many Austrian companies continue to conduct brisk business with Russia for which they face little criticism at home.
In the Austrian population as a whole, decades of fetishizing neutrality has left many convinced that it’s their birthright not to take sides. Most are blissfully unaware of the EU’s mutual defense clause, under which member states agree to come to one another’s aid in the event of “armed aggression.”
That mentality explains why Austria’s political parties — with the notable exception of the liberal Neos — refuse to touch, or even debate, the country’s neutrality and its security implications.
In March, just as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy began an address via video to Austria’s parliament, Freedom Party MPs placed signs stamped with “Neutrality” and “Peace” on their desks before standing up in unison and leaving the chamber.
The far right wasn’t alone in its disapproval of Zelenskyy. More than half of the Social Democratic MPs also boycotted the event to avoid upsetting Russia.
Geographic good fortune
Andreas Babler, who took over as leader of the Social Democrats in June, has a long history of opposing not just NATO, but Austrian participation in any EU defense initiatives.
In 2020, he characterized the EU as “the most aggressive military alliance that has ever existed,” adding that it “was worse than NATO.”
It’s an extraordinary assertion given that NATO is the only thing that kept the Soviet Union from swallowing Austria during the Cold War. The defense alliance, which Austrian leaders briefly entertained joining in the 1990s, remains the linchpin of the country’s security for a simple reason: Austria’s only non-NATO neighbor is Switzerland.
Austria’s neutrality and geographic good fortune have led it to spend next to nothing on defense. Last year, for example, spending fell to just 0.8 percent of GDP from 0.9 percent, putting it near the bottom of the EU league table with the likes of Luxembourg, Ireland and Malta.
A few years ago, the country’s defense minister even proposed doing away with “national defense” altogether so that the army could concentrate on challenges such as natural disaster relief and combatting cyber threats. The idea was ultimately rejected, but that it was proposed at all — by the person who oversees the military no less — illustrates how seriously Austria takes its security needs.
Over the past year, the government has pledged to increase defense spending, yet those plans are still well below what the country would be obligated to pay were it in NATO.
Put simply, Austria is freeloading on its neighbors and the United States and will continue to do so until it’s pressured to change course.
That’s why it needs more straight talk from people like Selmayr, not less.
A few weeks before his “blood money” remarks, the diplomat told a Vienna newspaper that “the European army is NATO,” noting that the accession of Sweden and Finland to the alliance would leave only Austria and a few small island states outside the tent.
The reality check dashed Austria’s hope that it could avoid paying its share for EU defense by waiting for Brussels to create its own force.
Even so, rhetoric alone is not going to convince Austria to shift course. Nearly 80 percent of Austrians support neutrality because it’s so comfortable. The EU and the U.S. need to make it uncomfortable.
At the moment, most Austrians only see the upsides to neutrality; yet that’s only because the West has refused to impose any costs on the country for freeriding. That needs to change.
Critics of a more aggressive approach towards Vienna argue that it will only harden the population’s resolve to sustain neutrality and bolster the far right. That may be true in the short term, but the history of foreign pressure on Austria, especially from Washington — be it the isolation it faced during the Waldheim affair or the push to compensate slave laborers from the war — shows that the interventions ultimately work.
If forced to choose between remaining in the Western fold or facing isolation, Austrians will always chose the former.
Though almost no Austrian security officials will say so publicly, few have any illusions about the necessity of a sea change. More than one-third acknowledge that the country’s neutrality is no longer credible, according to a study published this month by the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. A further third say the country’s participation in the EU’s common foreign and security policy has a “strong influence” on the credibility of its neutrality claim (presumably not in a good way).
And nearly 60 percent say the country needs to improve its interoperability with NATO in order to fight alongside its EU allies in the event of an armed conflict.
The problem is that no one is forcing them.
If Austria’s partners continue to avoid a confrontation, the country is likely to continue its slide towards Orbánism.
The Freedom Party, which wants to suspend EU aid for Ukraine and lift sanctions against Russia, leads the polls by a widening margin with just a year until the next national election. With neighboring Slovakia on a similar trajectory, Russian President Vladimir Putin may soon have a major foothold in the heart of the EU.
So far, the EU and Washington have been silent on the Freedom Party’s worrying rise, counting on Austrians to snap out of it.
Barring foreign pressure, they won’t. Why would they? With its populist prescriptions and beer hall rhetoric, the Freedom Party encourages Austrians to see themselves as what they most want to be: victims.
Or as Herr Karl famously put it: “Nothing that they accused us of was true.”