Life after scandal for Austria’s Freedom Party

Time and time again during my first month as an ICWA fellow, focusing on the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), books I read or people I spoke with mentioned the ways in which Germany’s populist party had learned from its counterpart in Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ). So after my trip to Cottbus to talk to AfD voters, I booked myself a ticket to Vienna to explore these connections.

What I didn’t count on at the time, however, was a massive scandal a few days later that brought down FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and, shortly thereafter, the entire Austrian government (more on that here).

It turns out dealing with the fallout of a major scandal is a great way to observe a party’s communication strategies and rhetorical tactics in action, so I was still able to explore my original topic. My reporting took me to a demonstration-turned-concert for the late 90s/early 2000s Dutch dance pop sensation the Vengaboys, to party and campaign offices, to a full sampling of Vienna’s world-renowned coffeehouses.

Ultimately, it seemed like the FPÖ’s strategies, often emulated by the AfD, were a big part of why many of the FPÖ’s voters were sticking by it — and why there’s a decent chance they could end up back in government in some way after September’s snap elections.

You can read my dispatch for ICWA here.

Campaign posters for the FPÖ, featuring ex-leader Heinz-Christian Strache, in Vienna
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The AfD’s appeal in East Germany, and a government crisis in Austria

As I’ve posted about here, in April I started a new reporting fellowship with the DC-based Institute of Current World Affairs. Over the next two years, I’ll continue my focus on the rise of right-wing populism in Germany as well as nearby in Austria, Hungary and Poland. My goal is both to better understand the appeal of such parties, as well as the historical context behind their rise.

For the first of my monthly ICWA newsletters, I traveled to the eastern German city of Cottbus, which is emblematic of the far-right Alternative for Germany’s particular strength in eastern Germany. There, I spoke with AfD politicians and supporters about their reasons for choosing the party, and in the process discovered the extent to which that support is tied to their identity and history as East Germans.

Last weekend’s European elections also showed the extent to which the AfD dominates in eastern Germany: it came in first in both Brandenburg, where Cottbus is located, and in Saxony. With elections in three eastern German states coming up this fall—including in both Brandenburg and Saxony, on Sept. 1—spending time in this part of the country is essential to understanding the AfD’s appeal.

For more on my experiences in Cottbus and an explanation of my research plans for my ICWA fellowship, you can read my newsletter here.

I’ll spend my next month focusing on Austria, where political chaos is unfolding after a leaked video scandal involving the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). I wrote about the scandal for ICWA’s blog here — stay tuned for more from Vienna!

A view of the Altmarkt in Cottbus

The changing role of Holocaust memorial sites

My latest story is one that’s been on my mind for a long time: it’s about how institutions of memory, particularly the sites of former Nazi concentration camps, are adjusting to new political and cultural realities.

Such institutions face a handful real and urgent challenges. For one, there’s the rise of right-wing populist parties—which in addition to ushering in more xenophobic rhetoric, take on questions of history and historical revisionism directly. There’s rising anti-Semitism, which has seen a resurgence in recent years. And all of this is taking place as the last of the Holocaust survivors, who played a pivotal role in education about the era, are dying out.

The idea for this story first came to mind last October, when I traveled to Auschwitz for a three-day seminar with a group of other journalists. For the piece, I was also able to spend time at Sachsenhausen Memorial, the site of a former Nazi concentration camp just outside Berlin.

These questions of history and the rise of the far right will be at the center of my ICWA fellowship over the next two years, so I’m excited to finish my time as a full-time freelancer by jumping into the issues.

You can read the piece here, in The Atlantic. More updates soon as I launch into my ICWA fellowship next week!

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen memorial in Oranienburg, Germany

My next steps

It’s been almost two years since I left DC and moved to this side of the Atlantic to write about the rise of the populist far right. More than a dozen elections later, I’ve learned a ton — and, luckily, get to stick around a while longer.

I’m thrilled to have received a two-year fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs, which will help me continue my reporting and research on the far right in Europe. While I’ll still be based in Berlin and will focus primarily on Germany, I expect to be on the road quite a bit: my project also looks at far-right movements in Austria, Hungary and Poland.

Read more here about ICWA, what I’ll be up to, and the other newly appointed ICWA fellows: https://www.icwa.org/meet-the-2019-2021-icwa-fellows/

Is Angela Merkel finally a feminist?

After more than 13 years as Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel is easily the most visible and powerful woman in the world — but she’s never been one to make her gender a part of her political identity, nor a vocal advocate for women’s issues.

That’s why I found a recent interview she did with Die Zeit, in which she discussed her views on feminism, gender and the challenges female politicians face, so interesting. Though Merkel’s comments are still surely disappointing to anyone hoping for a full-throated embrace of feminism, they are the latest proof that Merkel’s reticence to discuss such issues is changing. And it shows the unique position Merkel has been in since handing off leadership of the Christian Democrats: she retains the bully pulpit of the chancellery without the responsibility for the day-to-day of party politics.

More than just an interesting topic that’s been on my mind for a while, it was also my first chance to write for The New York Times Opinion section (!). Read the piece here:

The end of the Merkel era

Last Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced something that was both earth-shattering and also not really a surprise: that she will not seek another term as leader of her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) in December and that this is her last term as chancellor.

It’s almost hard to remember a time before Merkel was a dominant figure on the national stage: she’s led the CDU for 18 years and Germany for 13. But her announcement last week set in motion a process that has the potential to reshape Germany: what happens when Merkel isn’t around?

First, for The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan and I looked at how we got here: though Merkel may have survived an extremely politically challenging year in German politics, her downfall truly began last September with her party’s less-than-stellar performance in Germany’s federal elections. Each successive crisis weakened her already waning control over members of her own party, and a state election in Hesse was apparently the final straw. Her departure also sets up what’s sure to be a fierce competition to replace her, one which has already started to take shape; we looked at Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Friedrich Merz and Jens Spahn, the top three contenders for the job.

And second, a few days later, I had a chance to think about what legacy Merkel will leave behind in a piece for NBC News. She’s a paradoxical leader in so many ways, and despite working to cultivate a non-ideological political persona she has become a deeply polarizing figure. Will history remember Merkel for her efforts to combat political chaos and the rise of right-wing populism, or as the leader whose actions helped bring about their success?

I’ll surely be writing on this more on this in the coming weeks and months—stay tuned!

The Warsaw mayoral race as a metaphor for Polish polarization

Poland has made headlines for the illiberal reforms of its ruling political party, the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS). Just last week, the European Court of Justice pushed back on PiS’s reforms to the Polish judiciary system, which would have allowed the government to force independent (i.e., not specifically government-friendly) judges into early retirement.

Sunday’s local elections across the country were the first electoral test for PiS since they took office in 2015 — and one race in particular, the campaign for Warsaw’s mayor, felt very much like a metaphor for the two competing visions of Poland’s political future. The race pitted Rafal Trzaskowski, of the center-right Civic Platform, against PiS candidate Patryk Jaki. Trzaskowski is a former secretary of state for European affairs who speaks six languages and talks about defending liberal democracy; Jaki is a firebrand who speaks in blunt terms about challenging the elites.

Ultimately, exit polls showed Trzaskowski winning the race outright with 54 percent, meaning he was able to avoid continuing to a runoff election against Jaki. Elsewhere in Poland, PiS increased its vote share over the 2014 local elections but hardly made the kind of electoral gains that would have signaled broad support for the government.

With three other major elections coming up here — European elections next May, parliamentary elections next fall and a presidential election in 2020 — many observers had looked to Sunday’s elections as a signal of what’s to come. Ultimately, even if it gave hope to the opposition, they further underscored the deep divisions within the Polish electorate.

Our piece, for The Atlanticwas published yesterday. (Thanks to the International Alumni Center / the Bosch Alumni Network for the “learning exchange grant” that made this possible!)

Warsaw mayoral candidate Rafal Trzaskowski’s campaign bus on his final 24-hour campaign sprint