VIENNA – For the German-speaking world’s far right, Covid-19 was like manna from heaven. It brought various strands – identitarians, neo-Nazis, football hooligans and Reichsbürger (who do not recognise the legitimacy of the modern German state) – together into a single movement. Their rhetoric often trivialised and minimised National Socialism and the Holocaust. The far right also found common cause with left-wing Esoteriker, whose scepticism towards Western medicine and modern farming practices drew them to the anti-vax movement.
In Austria, last year’s lockdown for the unvaccinated and plan to be the first nation in Europe to introduce a vaccine mandate were catalysts for the Covid-sceptic movement. On 20 November, the Saturday after the mandate was announced by the then-chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) rallied 40,000 people for a march through Vienna. Throughout the winter, tens of thousands of Covid-sceptic demonstrators would regularly shut down the capital’s Ringstrasse on Saturdays, turning parts of the city into no-go zones.
The Austrian parliament passed the vaccine mandate law with a two-thirds majority in January, but its implementation – initially planned for mid-March – has twice been postponed. The combination of the mandate being put on ice and the liberalisation of pandemic management measures – the nationwide mask mandate was lifted at the beginning of June – took the wind out of the Covid-sceptic movement’s sails. The Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW), which researches and monitors far-right extremism in Austria, has observed that, having lost momentum and looking to regain relevancy, far-right groups are currently groping for a new theme over which they can bond.
While some have latched on to the “Great Reset” – a conspiracy that claims a group of world leaders orchestrated the pandemic to take control of the global economy – the coming of Pride month has refocused the far-right’s attention on Austria’s LGBTQ+ community. Catholic fundamentalists in the country have long opposed Vienna’s annual Regenbogenparade (rainbow parade), holding a concurrent March for the Family that usually attracts a couple of hundred supporters. This year, however, the start of Vienna Pride animated a spectrum of far-right groups: Catholic fundamentalists, but also corona deniers, neo-Nazis and identitarians.
The latter – a far-right youth movement opposed to liberalism and multiculturalism – claimed responsibility for an attempt to disrupt a Drag Queen Story Hour, which the local drag queen Candy Licious was due to host at a public library in Vienna on 3 June. The night before, far-right activists had erected a concrete wall blocking the library’s entrance, painted red-white-red like the Austrian flag, and branded it with the slogan “#NoPrideMonth”. The event went ahead in the afternoon as planned, though only after the wall had been cleared away and police had been called in to guard the premises. Clashes between anti-fascist and far-right protesters near the library led to one person being taken into custody, police reported.
“We will never accept children in this country being indoctrinated with sexual propaganda,” read leaflets found around the wall by the journalist Markus Sulzbacher. That language was mirrored in a press release from the FPÖ city councillor Leo Kohlbauer, who argued that “this form of sexualisation propaganda for small children is to be clearly rejected”. It was unacceptable, he went on, that “children are being indoctrinated with this publicly financed ‘globohomo’ ideology”. The weird term “globohomo” – a portmanteau of “globalism” and “homosexuality” – is pilfered from international alt- and far-right discourse, as well as Putinism, and was also to be found in the aforementioned leaflet.
The pandemic has accelerated an internationalisation and homogenisation of far-right interests and ideas, tactics, memes and propaganda. In February, Austria’s Covid-sceptic movement organised an Ottawa-style parade of cars and trucks aimed at jamming Vienna’s road transport links. The horse deworming agent ivermectin, meanwhile, first promoted as an agent against Covid-19 by the American right, was later promulgated as a cure-all by the FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl. (Several Austrians died during the pandemic after prescribing themselves ivermectin.) Bill Gates and George Soros were enemies of the Covid-sceptic movement in the German-speaking world as they were internationally.
So too is Drag Queen Story Hours – events held in public libraries at which drag queens read age-appropriate books to pre-teen children – which enraged the illiberal and socially conservative wing of the American right years before they attracted the ire of the Austrian far right. And when the Texas state representative Bryan Slaton proposed to introduce a bill banning children from attending drag shows, he used the language that Austria’s far right had learned from conservatives in the US. “Perverted adults are obsessed with sexualising young children,” Slaton said, also evoking a rhetorical trend on the American far right of calling one’s enemies perverts, groomers and paedophiles.
The danger posed by the Western far right’s recent focus on the LGBTQ+ community – and specifically trans- and non-binary people – is not merely rhetorical, of course. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t say gay” bill prohibits public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, while last year, Viktor Orbán’s regime in Hungary introduced a ban on the “portrayal and the promotion” of sexual orientation for people under 18. In May, the US political pressure group Cpac held its conference in Budapest, bringing together American and European ultra-conservatives; its sessions included “Western civilisation under attack” and “The father is a man, the mother is a woman”.
Shorn of the Covid-sceptic, anti-vaxxer cause that forged new alliances, raised their profile, and extended their reach, the far right – not only in Austria but around the world – is casting around for a new adversary. In the LGBTQ+ community, it may have found one.
[See also: Why the alt-right is obsessed with sexuality]