Vienna. Austria. What happened on January 16 2021 afternoon in Vienna was a disgrace. It has taken me some time to process this, but there is no way that this can be allowed to remain unchallenged, or even just uncommented. Just to be perfectly clear, I entirely agree that there are more than enough reasons to criticise the neo-liberal response to this pandemic. The fact that public life has been shut down almost entirely for so long and all the insecurity that comes with that, is incredibly potent fuel for anger. Of course it is. I am angry too. I am sad too. I have no idea what will happen next, and that is an absolutely terrible situation to be in. But the reaction we saw in Vienna was sickening.
Submitted to Enough 14.
On January 16 2021, thousands upon thousands of Covid-19 deniers gathered on the Heldenplatz in Vienna and set off to march around the city. This in itself is reason enough to worry, considering their unfathomable egoism and wilful ignorance in the face of anything that does not fit their narrative. The estimates range between 10 000 and 15 000 attendees, and of all those people hardly anyone wore a face mask and nobody made sure to keep their distance to each other. These people came from all over the country to vent their anger at the governmental regulations concerning this ongoing pandemic. Considering the rising numbers of suspected cases of new mutations of the virus, and the low number of people who have been able to get their hands on a vaccine this is even more troubling. This was a veritable super-spreader event, and those same people will go back to wherever they came from to spread the virus further.
As unreasonable, dangerous, and potentially murderous as this event was, what we saw was by far more insidious. The far-right is more than happy to see this sort of wide spread civil discontent, because that is exactly when they can rise to prominence. And that is precisely what happened. Not only did numerous far-right wing groups mobilise for the march, many were there themselves proudly waving banners such as “Heimatschutz statt Mundschutz” [Protection of the nation instead of facemasks], or multiple banners and signs promoting the anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy. Among the demonstrators, were such people as the convicted neo-Nazi Gottfried Küssel, the former head of the populist right-wing party H.C. Strache, the head of the far right-ring group “Identitären”, Martin Sellner, among others, and all accompanied by hardened supporters. In summer, during one of the first rallies of the self-proclaimed “Corona Sceptics”, one of the speakers tore apart a rainbow flag on stage shouting “You have no place in our society!” and equated the entire LGBTQ+ scene with paedophilia. This woman – Jennifer Klauninger – is still one of the leading figures of them movement and was seen exchanging information the head of the police accompanying the march.
This leads directly to the next serious problem. In light of the obvious far-right wing connections this march had, there was a much smaller, but dedicated counter-protest. Chanting anti-fascist and anti-capitalist slogans, the counter demonstration was accompanied by massive police presence. After speeches by various activists concerning the failure of this government to act in a humane way to this situation, and calling for a response to the pandemic that values human lives over profits – all while being continuously heckled by Covid deniers – a plan formed to blockade the Ringstraße in Vienna, along which the “sceptic march” intended to parade. What happened then was that within minutes there were hundreds of riot police with dogs at the meeting point who then chased the activists through a snowy park and eventually kettled a group of activists for multiple hours. The fact that this mean that it was made impossible to maintain a safe distance to each other during a pandemic, or that the temperature was below zero degrees seemed to be irrelevant to the officers that formed a tight circle around the activists. Every now and again you could see officers forcefully drag protesters from the kettle towards the vans. According to a statement issued by the police directory Vienna, everyone within the kettle was charged. All this happened in order to ensure the safe passage of a group of 10 000 people, who were actively breaking the law by not wearing facemasks to a demonstration. This very clearly goes to show that the state was more concerned with cracking down on any form of left-wing resistance than they were about a rise in prominence of fascism. On the Sunday following the protests, the government held a press conference to announce the next extension of a complete lockdown of the country. The minister for the interior did not attend.
As much as it is portrayed as such, nobody is claiming that what we saw was a march of 10 000 right-wing activists on Saturday. What we saw was a mass event of thousands of people during a pandemic that had been co-opted by the fascist right. And that in itself is almost more worrying. Because it is important to remember that history has shown us that no matter where you look, the fascists were never the majority, but they do understand very well how to use anger. Fascists do not want to hold governmental power so much as they want to be able to wield governmental power to break down any resistance against them. So while the police may claim to have tried to “keep the peace” by making sure active fighting did not break out between anti-fascists and corona sceptics, the overwhelming disparity of numbers and force between the two demonstrations clearly showed that left-wing positions are not welcome in a neo-liberal state. Hardened fascists will never outnumber their resistance, but the events on January 16 have shown that there is a vast amount of people who do not mind backing fascists if they agree on a topic they are angry about, and those people in turn are happily backed by the executive arm of the law. Make no mistake, what we saw was not a demonstration of middle-class anger, what we saw was the largest fascist march in Austria in a long time, not because all of them were fascist, but because enough people don’t mind marching with fascists.