Sebastian Kurz and the Rise of the European Millennial

Head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz (L) and head of the Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache address the media after their first round of coalition talks in Vienna, Austria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger​

The 31-year-old likely Austrian prime minister will soon be the world’s youngest head of government.

“Given the dual shocks of the terrorism and the sheer numbers of the 2015 influx [of North African and Middle Eastern migrants], it’s almost surprising these wins for the right didn’t come sooner,” Scott McConnell, founding editor of The American Conservative, tells me. He argues: “It’s a good thing if the center-right parties are pushed to take Gaullist positions,” in the style of the late giant of French politics, “even it takes the far-right to push them there. . . . It, at least, means actual election results are beginning to align with voter sentiment on immigration, which is pretty decisively in favor of restriction.” Even Macron, ostensibly a centrist, has struck a sterner note on immigration than expected, and he’s stood by controversial comments that sub-Saharan Africa’s problems partially emanate from impoverished women recklessly having too many children.

Like Trump, Kurz is ironically from his country’s most prominent city, but it didn’t matter, as both took up the mantle of traitors to their class. “Vienna is to Austria what not only DC, but New York, Chicago and Hollywood are to the U.S.,” says Clemans. “Suburban, small town and rural folk resent it,” and Kurz was deftly able to exploit “latent anti-Vienna sentiment.” Clemens adds: “Beyond Vienna, it is a pretty cozy, insular country, so as elsewhere, lots of people reacted against the image of uncontrolled borders and people who seem very alien.” The turn rightward seems, at current, almost unstoppable. Merkel lost seats last month in her re-election bid with an electoral strategy, of in part, appealing to the center-left. Kurz did the opposite: “he went the other way and gained.”

For some, the murderous history of the hard right in the German world is not far from any conversations concerning the rise of Kurz, the Freedom Party and Merkel’s rivals, the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD). But Kurz—and possibly the Freedom Party—are in charge in Vienna; the AfD is still in opposition. An advisor to the Pentagon who has worked in the region (where the United States has had significant military assets since the World War II) tells me the Denazification regime in Austria, though the birthplace of the Hitler, was much less stringent than it was in Germany. “Austria never did what the Germans did after the war,” Austrian specialist Oliver Rathkolb told the New York Times in 1986. “They never accepted historical and moral responsibility for what happened here. Everything was the fault of the Germans, plus a few horrid Austrian Nazis.”

Indeed, economic success and the stigma of the past, until now, have made Germany under Merkel some of the least fertile ground in Europe for populism. It’s rife elsewhere. A friend who travels in right-wing circles tells me: “I don’t have a single European millennial friend who isn’t a supporter of a party considered ‘radical’ by U.S. media standards. . . . In Austria’s case, they’re mad as hell about refugees.”

What remains to be seen, as in the United States, is whether this nationalist fervor can be translated into actual policy. President Trump has seen his domestic agenda stalled in his first year: no real border wall in sight, though illegal border crossings are sharply down. In Austria, McConnell notes reform is “complicated because the European states have ceded a good deal of their power to Brussels.” Time to see what Kurz has got up his sleeve.

Curt Mills is foreign-affairs reporter at the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtMills.

Image: Head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz (L) and head of the Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache address the media after their first round of coalition talks in Vienna, Austria, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger​

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