Far-Right Aesthetics and WW2 Revisionism Making for Strange Bedfellows in Austrian Legacy Media, Politics, and the Judiciary

By Stephan Sander-Faes, 4 Feb. 2023

Leading voices of Europe’s political-media complex (PMC) are elated: for the first time since 1945, German main battle tanks are rolling east. Again. In a notorious statement, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, speaking in the Bundestag on 24 Jan. 2023, noted that ‘Germany will always be in the vanguard when it comes to supporting Ukraine’. Citing ‘Russia’s terrible, imperialist war of aggression against Ukraine’, the country’s left-of-centre PMC erupted with joy.

Katrin Göring-Eckardt, Vice-President of the German Bundestag and a Green, cheered: ‘The Leopard is liberated! Now hopefully it can quickly help Ukraine in its fight against the Russian attack and for the freedom of Ukraine and Europe.’

Ms. Göring-Eckard was seconded by her coalition partner and fellow representative Agnes Strack-Zimmermann (FDP), who burst out, ‘Slava Ukraini. The only heroines and heroes are the brave people of Ukraine. Together we are Team Freedom.’

The German government’s assent to the delivery of Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks to Ukraine was greeted with exuberance by Andrij Melnyk, Kyiv’s former ambassador to Germany and current deputy foreign secretary, in the following way:

Mr. Melnyk has since deleted his tweet.

In tune with Sigmund Freud’s aphorism — ‘The voice of the intellect is a soft one’(1) — there were but a few lone, warning voices. Most prominent among them is Sahra Wagenknecht, the German Left Party’s former parliamentary chairwoman, who, like Cassandra, warned:

The [governing] coalition now wants to supply German Leopards as part of a tank coalition for tank battles around the Donbas and Crimea. Against this madness, which could end in disaster, we need a grand coalition of all forces of reason! (2)

Gazing into the Abyss

As I write this essay on a grey Thursday afternoon in late January, I am reminded of a couple of seemingly disconnected puzzle pieces that appeared over the course of the past months in Austrian legacy media. Re-reading them in preparation for this piece, cold shivers run down my spine, and I ask myself: have we managed to learn nothing, at all, from the horrors of the 20th century?

Born in Vienna, Austria, in the waning years of the Cold War, I ended up becoming a professor of history, currently working at the University of Bergen, Norway. The distance from the country of my birth, which, let’s not forget, is also the literal birthplace of the most prominent Nazi ever, is a particularly strange topic to write about.

Yet, write about it I must, for these days, we stand on the precipice of disaster, brought about by an ever-widening conflict on the blood-soaked fields of eastern Europe. Again, for the third time in little over a century. How, I ask myself, did we end up celebrating sending main battle tanks to Ukraine, surely followed shortly by calls for other, perhaps even more lethal weaponry, such as fighter jets, submarines, and, inevitably, ground forces?

One way to understand this race to the precipice, I would submit, is the creeping normalisation of National Socialism across the West, the strong Neonazi presence among the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the wilful blindness of most journalists in legacy media. I have written about this interrelated nexus before in these pages, and this piece is as much a follow-up of that earlier investigation as well as a call to action.

In this article, I am looking at two pieces that appeared in the Austrian daily Der Standard in recent months that convey a good, if not very advantageous, impression of the creeping normalisation of Neonazism while, at the same time, displaying gross levels of hypocrisy and double-standards. Due to events moving swiftly since I wrote this piece, another, perhaps even more telling episode follows the detailed discussion of these two pieces.

What makes this such an exemplary, if harrowing, case study is the fact that the newspaper itself was founded in 1988 by Oscar Bronner, an editor of Jewish extraction. Its origins revolve around the formation of the Green party, i.e., Der Standard’s came into being as an alt-left paper with a strong emphasis on left-liberal positions, including environmentalist activism and a strong pacifist tradition.

The below consideration is a testament to the distance in time and space between my own World of Yesterday, to paraphrase Stefan Zweig’s memorable account of pre-WW2 Europe, and the fate that appears to await us in the not too-distant future.

‘On Tour with the Fighters of the Azov Regiment’, by Philip Malzahn

The first article to be discussed appeared last summer and would be a quite conventional piece of quasi-sensationalist war reporting by a young freelance journalist.[3] Reporting from Kharkiv and Pitomnik, Ukraine, Mr Malzahn set out to settle, once and for all, the burning questions of ‘who are these soldiers? And is there anything true about allegations that they are a gang of Nazis?’

Strangely enough, had Mr. Malzahn engaged with the available reporting from mainstream Western media outlets, such as the The Nation, The Times of Israel, or USA Today, as well as read information by the US Army’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, he might have saved himself the trouble.

Alas, Mr. Malzahn apparently did not prepare appropriately, I surmise, hence the following paragraphs. Note that all translations are mine, but I would encourage you, dear readers, to check out the photographs of the individuals who appeared in the piece; (even) if you do not read German, the images are quite telling in and of themselves. I do not reproduce the entire article below, but if you desire to do so, please venture over to my Substack where I provide a full translation.

Sledak sits among the remnants of his childhood. Next to him: his ten-year-old self. The boy in the photo is smiling and reading a book. But the adult is holding a gun. One autumn day, some twelve years ago, the pictured son is caressed by his mother. No one caresses the grown-up Sledak here in the summer of 2022 in Pitomnik, a village north of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border. The house where he grew up, where the Russians [die Russen, a common trope that, while seemingly o.k.-ish as a descriptor, is used throughout the piece; it also has quite negative connotations] stayed for a time, is now an outpost of his unit, Azov.

A long cut runs through the large-format picture, a snapshot of a happier past: with a knife, the Russians had cut through the bodies of mother and son. They left the framed picture in the living room, leaning against the sofa, and added, as a welcome: ‘We’ll get you’.

Now, I don’t know if this claim is actually true; it certainly could be, but then again, there’s no evidence. Mr. Malzahn just wrote it, perhaps because the Azov troops told him, hence take this claim with a spoon of salt. In addition, I do wonder, if the above is true, why isn’t it pictured?

The cats are dead — also cut up. One is dangling in a plastic bag, the other one Sledak covered with a jumper. She is lying on the carpet upstairs next to the computer.

Yes, Mr. Malzahn uses the female pronoun here as in die Katze, the cat, which, in German, is a female noun. Now, while I won’t claim that this cat’s sex plays any role (other than a cheap stunt), it’s worth pointing out that, as battle-hardened as these Azov troops are, note how much Sledak cares about the integrity and privacy of a deceased cat.

The contrast to what is reported on the atrocities committed against humans — among others, by the Azov troops — be advised these links, compiled by NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller, are extremely graphic; see also Cory Bernard’s more recent take-down, which ran on Sky Australia.

With the scene thus set, Mr. Malzahn moves to drive home the essential point of the piece (my emphases):

Sledak’s mother, who looked after him as a child, is now in Bulgaria. ‘Kill them!’, she is said to have told him. They — that’s the Russians. And killing them, that’s what Sledak does together with his closest friend Rijs. ‘Sledak’, the detective. ‘Rijs’, the lynx. Nicknames, call names, battle names, as real names don’t exist in war. You never know who is listening. Until February of this year, the 22-year-old Sledak was a cadet at the police academy, hence the nom de guerre detective.

This is emphasised by a sub-header, entitled, ‘Their own house targeted’.

Last February, when Putin ordered the attack and his tanks began rolling towards them, both Sledak and Rijs wanted to fight and ended up in the Ukrainian military intelligence service GUR. Then they were reassigned to the ‘Kraken’, a special unit of the Azov Regiment.

This rosy account of the ‘Kraken’ stands in contrast to mainstream media reporting by the Washington Post and Al-Jazeera, among others.

Moving on, Mr. Malzahn introduces additional characters to his period piece:

Sledak’s native village of Pitomnik is occupied by the enemy, as the Russians march towards the gates of Kharkiv, a city of millions. Bombs hail down, and the city is threatened to go down in terror.

Then, at the end of April, the Azov Regiment, in cooperation with the Ukrainian army, launches a spectacular counter-offensive. The detective and the lynx are in on it. They know no mercy, not even towards themselves. ‘I voluntarily gave our artillery the coordinates of my house. On my own volition’, Sledak emphasises. An acquaintance had told him that the Russians had taken up positions there.

It paid off: Sledak was able to liberate his hometown with the troops. The house is still standing, at least partially. He leaves the sofa, the moment of solicitude and sadness, and goes up stairs. Walking past family pictures and the dead cats, he enters his childhood bedroom, strolling past cartridges, clothes, weapons, and a small donation box his comrades have set up for fun.

The narrative then shifts to recount ‘Kraken’ members outfitting a small drone with explosives, flying it from Sledak’s childhood bedroom window, and attacking enemy positions in a nearby piece of wood.

This is how we fight in Azov, they explain [to Mr. Malzahl]. Fast, efficient, fearless. Even if one’s own house is destroyed, which is ‘a small price to pay for freedom’, says Sledak.

At this point, I would like to reiterate the importance of the pictures accompanying the article. For copyright reasons, I cannot reproduce them here, but the photograph following this account is telling: depicting two young, tattooed fighters of the ‘Kraken’ unit, its caption reads:

The penchant for far-right symbolism and aesthetics is there nonetheless, coupled with cohesion and determination in battle. ‘Exterminating another people — that’s what the others want, the Russians.’

Azov’s Politics, or: The Company One Keeps

Yet, Mr. Malzahn maintains that ‘there is little talk about politics, neither among themselves nor in the interview’, while noting, a few lines further down (emphases mine):

Thor’s Hammer is tattooed on their arms. ‘Thor with us’, the tattoo says in Runic script. A song of praise for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rages from the speakers: ‘You are the only one who could unite the people’, the voice says; and, ‘Fuck them, Vova!’ Sledak and Rijs sing along enthusiastically. This is Ukraine after almost 150 days of war. A Jewish president motivates young Azov fighters with a penchant for Germanic worship. ‘Life is short’, comments the lynx.

Politics is taken care of by their commander. His name is Konstantin Nemichev. With his characteristic face line and brawny, he’s born and bred in Kharkiv. He’s a former football hooligan of the Metallist club and, since 2014, an Azov fighter from the very beginning. He was also a politician in the years following [the Maidan putsch], and stood as a mayoral candidate in the October elections for the National Corps Party, the political arm of Azov. The regimental party, so to speak. He failed to make the five percent threshold, though.

Here, we note that the Anti-Defamation League included Thor’s Hammer under the rubric of ‘General Hate Symbols’. As to the ‘regimental party’, even Wikipedia admits that this is ‘a far-right political party … led by Andriy Biletsky’, whose Wikipedia entry calls him the ‘co-founder of the nationalist movement Social-National Assembly’. None of this information is mentioned by Mr. Malzahn, as if it were not pertinent.

Then comes Putin’s invasion, Nemichev swaps his suit for uniforms again. Azov’s yellow logo — which looks like the Waffen SS Wolfsangel, which they claim are merely the initial letters of the ‘National Idea’ — is emblazoned on his shoulder patch. ‘This is a Russian narrative, an invention to defame us’, he says of the Nazi accusations. ‘All ethnicities and religions are welcome in Azov. All who fight for Ukraine.’ And the Russian-speaking population? ‘It is a lie that we are oppressing these people. I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. The Russians thought they would be welcomed with flowers. But there are only guns here’ …

All the media hype around Azov has ensured that the number of its fighters is increasing rapidly. Before February [2022], they numbered perhaps some 2,500. Nemichev does not want to say how many there are today. The ‘Kraken’ in the Kharkiv area alone is over 1,800 strong. In addition, there are special forces, infantry, artillery, their own intelligence units, and volunteer battalions on several fronts throughout the country.

Meanwhile, they even have their own tanks: not from Europe or the US, but from their enemy. Many like Sledak and Rijs, who previously had no interest in politics or war, prefer to join Azov rather than the regular army. They come because they can fight in their hometown and with their friends. Many know each other from before, especially from the hooligan environment. They come for the morale, the fighting spirit, maybe also for the fame. But when you look into the faces of these young men in their early 20s, faces that have learned what it means to take a life, you know that there is nothing praiseworthy about war. Rijs and Sledak complain of sleep problems, of traumata, but they carry on. ‘Until death.’ [emphases mine]

Still, the most troubling parts of Mr. Malzahn’s account is ‘Kraken’s’ vision of the future:

Nemichev speaks in the ruins of the bombed-out governor’s palace, but he has a vision for the future. ‘When people’s homes were hit by missiles, the country woke up’, he says. He doesn’t want Ukraine to be part of the EU or NATO. He sees a union with Poland, Estonia, Lithuania. Countries that are resolutely united in the fight against Russia. The war and the question of what comes afterwards dominates everything in Ukraine. Politics, media, society.

If, at this point, you are wondering where you may have heard these ideas before, the answer is: in authoritarian Interwar Poland, this idea bore the name Intermarium. This notion has been picked up after the Maidan Colour Revolution by current Polish president Andrzej Duda, but its echoes may also be found in former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 book The Grand Chessboard.

Speaking of the past, however, these aspects are left out by Mr. Malzahn:

Azov’s clouded past does not seem to play a role. Yet, it does exist: accusations of human rights violations, mistreatment of prisoners of war, attacks on Sinti and Roma. The US once wanted to put the group on the terror list.

Today, Azov presents itself more carefully, more cautiously. The presentation, the presence in the social media is highly professional. The high number of new members, who have nothing to do with the political cadre, and the many heroic stories have led to Azov’s arrival in the middle of society.

Even if the Regiment is formally subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, even if Kyiv pays the salaries: Azov by no means drives along government lines, often acts from an autonomous position of power.

And herein lies the explanation why Russia considers the Azov Regiment ‘irregulars’ under domestic and international law. Azov is a classical ‘non-official’ unit, i.e., something that used to be known as francs-tireurs, i.e., ‘guerrilla fighters who operate outside the laws of war’, according to Wikipedia, hence there is no obligation on part of Russia to treat them as ‘regular’ POWs. Incidentally, but also omitted from Mr. Malzahn’s piece, this legal ‘nicety’ was also behind the Nazi-German extermination campaigns against Soviet soldiers in the 1940s: because, Berlin said, Moscow was not a party to the various Hague and Geneva Conventions, Soviet soldiers were not ‘protected’ by their impositions. Talk about history repeating itself.

The account then reverts to the fighting (emphases mine):

The artillery troop that targeted Sledak’s house at his request includes Kusja and Punf. They stole their howitzer from Russia. Now the gun is firing at those soldiers who brought it.

Kusja leads the small unit, Punf fires the projectiles. Their appearance is unusual for war: like hipsters. In big western cities, no one would turn their heads. Kusja wears a well-groomed moustache and always takes his metal-framed analogue camera with him. He captures the war there, 35 mm film, black and white. Uncensored impressions of an Azov fighter, 22 years old. The Russians know about him: like Commander Nemichev, his name has also appeared on a wanted list.

Kusja shrugs. He and his buddy are regular dudes. Kusja plays rugby, Punf loves archery. Punf’s mother is a nurse, now also in the army. His father? ‘An asshole’, he says. Just normal problems.

As an aside, I almost stumbled when reading the last of these three paragraphs. What about these described parental notions is ‘normal’ if the father is described as such? I mean, I do feel sorry for the shitty childhood experiences, or lack thereof, the portrayed fighter, Punf, must have had, but the lack of taste on part of Mr. Malzahn is staggering.

Little Desire to Die in the Bombas [a wordplay on Donbas].

While their comrades Sledak and Rijs are being transferred to the Donbas — the Azov effect is supposed to turn things around there as well — the two have stayed in Kharkiv, for now. Punf has little desire for ‘Bombas’, though. ‘That’s why I didn’t become a soldier in 2014’, he says. At the time, the conflict was focused on the east of the country; Russia was only a marginal issue. ‘I don’t want to die for these people who twiddle their thumbs and wait for Putin.’

If one required further evidence of what passes for (sloppy) ‘journalism’ these days, this short section reveals that the conflict began in 2014, as opposed to legacy media claiming that the ‘unprovoked Russian war of aggression’ commenced on 24 Feb. 2022.

Finally, Mr. Malzahn is getting closer to his question: are there, in fact, Neonazis in Ukraine?

Kusja and Punf openly describe themselves as right-wing. After all, they say, Ukraine’s interests are also those of the people. Tens of thousands have already died. But they refuse to be called ‘Nazis’: the Russians are the ideological Nazis, disguised with Soviet aesthetics.

The war has not made them more extreme or radical in their right-wing attitudes. Rather the opposite. For example, quite the typical hipster, Kusja produces T-shirts with his own logo: a framed skull. Although it is reminiscent of an SS division, it is supposedly just a pirate logo. Last week he sold one to an Arsenal Kiev hooligan. Arsenal’s HoodsHoodsKlan is the only left-wing hooligan group in Ukraine. The Klan [sic] has its own unit, which also fights. ‘The war creates unusual and uncommon friendships’, says Kusja. In Kharkiv, now they would occasionally have a beer with anti-fascists. ‘Before the war, that was impossible.’

The penchant for far-right symbolism and aesthetics is there nonetheless, the skull and crossbones being not the only example. Punf’s arms are decorated with tattoos. Amid the colourful images, squiggles and US cartoon characters of Adventure Time floats a red logo: a swastika. Emblazoned on his finger is an ‘S’. The same style as that of the Waffen SS. Punf can only laugh at this. ‘The swastika is an old symbol, much older than the Nazis, and the “S” is a sun rune. We’re into the old stuff. On Germanic, Slavic tradition. Those are our ancestors.’

The above paragraphs, telling as they may be, are followed by this statement by Mr. Malzahn:

What really lies behind all of this is something only the fighters themselves know. One thing is certain: if the Russians caught them, they would photograph the tattoos and publish them—just as they did with his comrades. They would feel confirmed in their idea of ‘denazifying’ Ukraine. For Punf, an acceptable prospect.

In closing, we are offered the following nuggets of wisdom:

All the young Azov fighters have doubts that they will live very long. Yet, it is worth it to them. The following episode shows how much so: after their transfer to the Donbass, contact with Sledak and Rijs breaks off. After a few weeks, they upload a new video. Brutal fighting in the Donbass, close combat. In the end, they captured two Russian soldiers. Sledak posted a video, writing: ‘That’s why we couldn’t be reached for a while. This is our work. Think about that when you are sitting in a foreign country drinking beer.’

A clear message to his fellow countrymen who have fled. Sledak and his comrades will never flee. They are part of a new generation—they grew up between war and death, between techno and Thor, between youthful dreams and analogue photos. It is the Azov generation.

Interlude: Springtime for Neonazis

As sickening as this fawning piece of agit-prop for the Neonazis of the Azov Regiment may be, it is important to note two things: first, pieces like the one above are indicative of the creeping normalisation of right-wing extremism. In fact, it is suggesting that it is somehow ‘cool’, or ‘hip’, to have a soft spot for ‘far-right aesthetics’.

As a historian, I consider the level of ignorance and naiveté on part of Mr. Malzahn is deplorable, yet one cannot help but wonder about the editorial meetings that must have (hopefully) preceded the decision to public this article. This indicates, second, that Mr. Malzahn, who presumably went through the German education system with its strong emphasis on Vergangenheitsbewältigung (reckoning with the past); yet, he apparently has no problems writing fawning agit-prop for Neonazi formations whose members rejoice at the killing and maiming of ‘the Russians’.

As mentioned earlier, the above article appeared in Der Standard, Austria’s premier socially liberal (progressive) paper, founded as an alternative, muck-raking outlet in the mould of the New York Times (yes, that is not ironic, as the German Wikipedia entry describes it as such).

Its founder, Oscar Bronner, still holds some 12.55% of the shares, with the majority of shares (85.64%) held by his private family foundation. Bronner was born in Haifa in 1943 and was (is) the son of a comedian who had to flee Austria after the Nazis annexed it in March 1938.

Oh, the irony, if that would be possible.

What’s Good for Azov Isn’t O.K. at Home (Yet)

Half a year later, Michael Möseneder, also writing for Der Standard, looked at the same issues as they occurred on the homefront, so to speak. Entitled, ‘Prohibition Infractions: Those “aesthetic” Nazi tattoos’, a very telling piece appeared a few days before Christmas.(4)

For those not familiar with this particular legislation, Austria banned everything related to National Socialism in the wake of WW2, most notably affecting the Nazi Party, its insignia, subsidiaries, and certain items associated with National Socialism. More recently, the provisions of the law are used to prosecute Neonazis and Holocaust Denial.(5)

What caught my eye was the mentioning of ‘aesthetic’ Nazi tattoos, which brought back memories of the above-cited piece by Mr. Malzahn. In the domestic case, though, the issue was ‘a 37-year-old man [who] is alleged to have sent messages and files that violate the Prohibition Act’, including, ‘among other things, pictures of his relevant tattoos’.

Daniel C. presents himself before the jury presided over by Judge Stefan Apostol as a beau spirit with somewhat uneasy impulse control. According to his account, he only posted the CD cover of the extremist right-wing rock band ‘Landser’ on Facebook because he liked it. No prior convictions, yet the 37-year-old has also posted pictures of his tattoos, which he got ‘for aesthetic reasons’, according to the indictment: on both shoulders, the symbol of the SS skull and crossbones, as well as the word ‘Ostfront’ [Eastern Front] is tattooed across his chest.

From 2016 to 2020, the unemployed Viennese man is alleged to have violated the Nazi Prohibition Act with these actions, the prosecution accuses him. The father of four, defended by attorney Florian Horak, pleaded guilty, but then tried to defend himself pleading historical ignorance.

Now, it is obvious that the claim the defendant stood accused posting content—which he deemed ‘aesthetic’ — on social media is treated in a very different way from, say, Mr. Malzahn’s piece (again, please click on the link and check out the photographs in his piece).

Like in the above-related article, first-person statements are related:

Regarding the skull and bones tattoos, [the defendant] says, for example, that he had seen the ‘skull’ shoulder mark used by the guards in German concentration and extermination camps and later by the 3rd Waffen SS Panzer Division on a friend’s T-shirt. ‘I liked it’, the defendant states, so he had it tattooed by a friend.

Regarding the ‘Eastern Front’ tattoo, a short dialogue develops between [the defendant] C. and the judge. ‘You know what the Eastern Front was?’, opens judge Apostol. ‘Not really.’ — ‘Where was the Eastern Front?’, probes Apostol. To his own good fortune, [defendant] C. does not ask the counter-question, ‘In the East?’ but remains silent. — ‘You have a word tattooed on your chest that you don’t know what it means?’ — ‘Yes, out of stupidity.’

By way of an ‘apology’, the defendant states that, back in the day, he ‘drank a lot’ and ‘used to hang out with false friends’. This proved interesting to the court, and the judge wanted to learn more. Pressed, the defendant mentions two men whom he befriended via his sister, including one Peter S.

‘Was this a Nazi?’, Judge Apostol asks. C. cringes, answering, ‘well, not an outgoing one.’ — ‘Being a Nazi is typically an inner conviction’, the judge holds. The 37 year-old defendant confesses that Peter S. tendentially held such views. Which is why [the defendant] sent him and another person text messages in which the letter ‘S’ was replaced by the Sigrune [used by the Waffen SS] ‘to be part of the gang’; this resulted in the valedictory formula ‘Gruß’ [wishes] being spelled ‘Gru’ followed by the SS symbol.

Other incriminating pictures and short clips were found on C.’s phone by Constitutional Protection Officials [Verfassungsschutz, the federal domestic intelligence agency]. The defendant claimed to have received them only, but he did not send them. Judge Apostol: ‘I never receive such content. Why do you always receive Nazi pictures?’ C. did not answer.

The most telling passages, however, are from the judge’s inquest into the defendant’s knowledge about WW2 and the Nazi regime. ‘I know it was a bad war and that there were many who died’, the defendant explains. ‘You were born in 1984, and you never learned anything about the Holocaust? All you recall is “it was a bad war”?’, Judge Apostol asks in disbelief. ‘We never learned about that in school’, the defendant excuses himself. — ‘Good school’, Apostol retorts sarcastically.

The judge continues asking if C. knows what the SS and its Totenkopf units did during the Nazi dictatorship? The defendant denies any knowledge. ‘They ran the concentration camps, for example, exploited and killed the inmates. Auschwitz, ever heard of that?’ — ‘I heard about it.’ — And you did not know that it was run by the SS?’ — ‘Not in school.’

Judge Apostol then confronts the defendant with other text messages, exchanged with one of the latter’s acquaintances: ‘I had a fight with my girlfriend who said that I should be a little less of a Nazi.’ When asked about the fall-out by his acquaintance, the defendant replied: ‘You should be glad I’m not wearing a uniform right now, for if I did, you’d be in on the heated grill.’ Pressed about his girlfriend’s dislike of the tattoos, defendant C. becomes evasive. Judge Apostol: ‘Did she also complain about your postings?’ — ‘No.’, the defendant replies.

After police visited him, the defendant withdrew from these associates. This, his lawyer added, would be substantiated by changes made to the incriminating tattoos: ‘I have gotten rid of all these shitty things’, the defendant pleads.

In the end, the jury agrees to seven out of a total of eleven counts of violation of the Prohibition Act. Judge Apostol sentences C. to 18 months in prison, one of which he must serve. ‘The tattoos are indicative of a higher quality of commitment’, the judge declared in the sentence. ‘If one decides to deform one’s body like that, one is steeped in ideology’, thus Apostol denied the defendant’s confession.

It is ‘no small thing to carry such an ideology for everyone to see’, the judge says, adding that, for the sentence to have its intended preventative effect, the defendant must serve at least one month in prison.

The Lessons of History, Unlearned

While these two seemingly unrelated pieces may be dismissed as random accounts of incredible double-standards, they are also indicative of the creeping normalisation in the West of Neonazism in the wake of the onset of Russian military operations on 24 February 2022.

It is apparently o.k. to push ‘far-right aesthetics’ and receive fawning legacy media attention if one fights against ‘the Russians’. No politician, mainstream journalist, or state attorney will call you out, let alone initiate an investigation on grounds of violation of the Prohibition Act.

Conversely, if one is a small fish who may have associated with ‘false friends’ years ago, this somehow is newsworthy nonetheless.

Now, I do not mean to imply that we should do away with the Prohibition Act or stop confronting Nazism. What I am saying is that these two pieces, which appeared in a notionally left-liberal outlet, are indicative of the well-established double-standards in dealing with Neonazism.

Strange Bedfellows: Judge, Jury, and Defendant

As a child of the early 1980s myself, I would add, by way of a personal afterthought, that the defendant’s claim he did not learn about this in school is a very problematic one. If anything, Hitler’s rise to power, WW2, and the Holocaust are mandatory themes in high school-level education, including a field trip to the largest concentration camp in Austria. I very well remember the one-day trip to Mauthausen, Upper Austria, which, in my case, occurred in the late 1990s. For a dramatisation, do check out ‘The Photographer of Mauthausen’, currently available on Netflix.

Austrian high school-level history curricula envisioned this field trip, including guided tours to the gas chambers and crematoria — for all students between grades 9-12. This means that the defendant would, in all likelihood, have gone on just one of these trips.

Now, I would be inclined to understand the claim to ignorance — which does not preclude being sentenced for breaking the law — as a valid, if ethically problematic, defence strategy by the defendant or his lawyer.

Yet, there is another despicable angle here: why would Judge Apostol merely quip, somewhat sarcastically, that the level of education would be pathetically bad? After all, members of the judiciary are members of the same state system: Austrian schools being overwhelmingly run by the state, as is the justice system.

If anything, Judge Apostol rendered a verdict on his own employer, the Austrian state, by not pointing out the above.

Since I composed the above a week ago, another significant turning point had occurred, which warrants inclusion in this piece.

Mr. Van der Bellen Goes to Kyiv and Rewrites WW2 History

On 1 February 2023, Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen (Greens) went to Kyiv on a ‘solidarity visit’ to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The trip was not advertised in advance ‘for security reasons’, but once Mr. Van der Bellen had arrived in Kyiv, state broadcaster ORF reported as follows (emphases mine):

With his trip to Ukraine, which is under attack by Russia, Van der Bellen wants above all to signal support: ‘We stand by Ukraine, we won’t abandon it.’ The Federal President justified the joint trip with the minister shortly after Van der Bellen’s second inauguration by saying that Austria was ‘militarily neutral’, ‘but not politically’.

‘Following a long humanitarian tradition, Austria supports the country under attack on several levels.’

In addition to the meeting with Zelenskyy, Van der Bellen will visit aid projects with Austrian participation. For example, a visit to a school in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and a maternity clinic in the capital are planned. The delegation with Van der Bellen flew from Vienna to Rzeszow in Poland and travelled from there by overnight train to Kyiv. For security reasons, the trip was not announced in advance.

After this introduction, Mr. Van der Bellen went on to reiterate what he posited a day earlier on the occasion of a state visit to his Slovakian counterpart, Zuzana Caputova (my emphases):

Ukraine is facing a war of aggression that is unparalleled, said the Federal President on his arrival. This war is comparable to colonial wars from the 19th century. The population has been given a choice:

Either you accept to be a province of Russia, ruled from Moscow, or everything is ruined.

Since there is resistance, the port city of Odessa, for example, now looks like a German city at the end of the Second World War. However, the resistance will only continue as long as the West provides help, said the Federal President. Since Austria could not supply war equipment due to its military neutrality, it is providing humanitarian and medical aid.

I shall omit the remainder of this piece as it does not directly relate to the hypothesis mentioned above. If you would like to read the remainder, please venture over to my Substack.

WW2 Revisionism, Proudly on Display

It is an old saying that those who fail to learn the lessons of the past, are doomed to repeat history. Re-reading the above lines, I would point to the fact that this does not appear to be accidental. It is a feature of the creeping normalisation of Neonazism in the West, fuelled by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Western Civilisation, such as it still exists, has apparently taken leave of its senses. It is no wonder that doing so leads to ever-more egregious lies, built upon fabrications, and cheap agit-prop. At some point, the entire house of falsehoods will come tumbling down, but, alas, we are not quite ‘there’ (yet).

Professionally, I find WW2 Revisionism at least an interesting subject to investigate; but I am a professor of history, and I may claim at least some work-relatedness therein. Personally, I find this profoundly troubling, ethically problematic, and can only object to this utterly absurd revisionism espoused by the Austrian president.

If you would like to believe Mr. Van der Bellen’s twisted version of history, we may entertain the following very weird and contradictory notions for a moment:

Leaving aside the complicated and complex road that led to Germany invading Poland in 1939, we are told repeatedly that Putin is a new Hitler, or ‘Putler’, if you like.

Mr. Van der Bellen’s invocation of the utter devastation of Germany at the hands of its enemies — which occurred, among other things, as a consequence of the invasion of Poland — to score cheap political points is both historically inaccurate and disingenuous in the extreme.

We shall also set aside that, in wartime, there are rules of engagement and laws of war, but it was almost exclusively US and British ‘strategic bombing’ that rendered most Germany desolate (and let us not forget the utter destruction of Japanese cities here).

Yet, somehow, we’re supposed to accept these contradictory statements as ‘true’? I’m not easily offended, but this is an insult to everyone’s intelligence, not least to Mr. Van der Bellen’s, to say nothing about personal integrity of the moral norms while serving in an official capacity.

By Mr. Van der Bellen’s ‘logic’, the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict would be like this:

Russia started the war by invading Ukraine. The ensuing destruction occurs mainly on the Ukrainian side of the frontlines. We are further supposed to unquestionably #standwithukraine, whose most celebrated fighters are Neonazis like the ‘Kraken’ formation of the Azov troops discussed above.

Russian claims to having attacked its neighbour in part to get rid of the Neonazis (‘de-nazify’, in Mr. Putin’s words) are dismissed as propaganda. At the same time, the Kremlin, stands accused of conducting ‘strategic bombing’ campaigns like those carried out by the USSR’s American and British allies in WW2.

Finally, Western peoples are told to #standwithukraine because of the destruction visited upon Germany (and Japan) by its enemies, which occurred seemingly co-incidentally.

In summary: Russia is Nazi Germany while Ukraine is part of the Allies. At the same time, Russia is said to conduct its operations akin to US and British ‘strategic bombing’ campaigns, which are … war crimes, if not genocide?

If you fail to see the merits or logic of these utterances, welcome to the club.

These illogical notions were not lost on the Russian Ambassador to Vienna, one Mr. Dmitrij Ljubinskij, who posted the following on the embassy’s official Telegram account in response (handle @rusbotwien_de):

I take the liberty of drawing attention to another example of the radical reversal of concepts and cause-and-effect relationships:

As is well known, it was precisely the supporters of the inhuman ideology of the Kiev regime who openly declared all Russian-speaking inhabitants of the Donbass to be ‘brutes’, who no longer had any right to their mother tongue or to their own prehistoric territories. ‘Subhumans’ who, in the best colonial manner, well known to the former colonial powers, were not only exploited for years, but also expelled and simply exterminated. With the quiet hypocritical ignorance of Western pseudo-liberal democracies.

The heroic deployment of Russian forces, on the other hand, bears a liberating and, to use the same vocabulary, a decolonising character.

Leaving aside the obvious ‘liberties’ — undertaken, presumably, for the very same reasons Western governments engage in propaganda — I do not consider Amb. Lubinskij’s statement to be devoid of inaccuracies and questionable statements.

Yet, with respect to the current conflict in Ukraine, the Russian version appears to be closer to objective reality than much of what one reads and hears from Western governments and legacy media.

In addition, and contrary to the creeping normalisation of Neonazims in the West, in particular the egregious revisionism entertained by Mr. Malzahn and Austrian Federal President Van der Bellen, one can be reasonably assured that Moscow will not fall prey to that particular brand of far-right extremism.

Lest you ask: there are plenty of far-right groups in Russia, no doubt about that, but it is quite obvious that, for reasons related to Hitler’s brutal campaign against the Soviet Union, at least the increasingly open support for Neonazism that appear more frequently in the West since 24 Feb. 2023 seems quite improbable.

A consolation prize, at best, but at least a somewhat less troublesome distinction.

Gazing into the Abyss, 2023 Style

What, then, shall we make of these episodes? I posit that they are indicative of the continued, creeping normalisation of an ideology that, in the aftermath of WW2, had been condemned. As such, it is high time that more people speak up against this, for otherwise, our societies will continue to unlearn ‘the lessons of history’.

Remember, Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007)? He was a former UN Secretary General (serving from 1972-81) and Austrian president (in office 1986-1992), who actually served in the Wehrmacht in WW2. When ‘news’ of this broke internationally—it apparently did not matter before the 1980s—the so-called Waldheim Affair ensued: he was placed on the Watchlist and prevented from travelling back to the United States. (This is no place to itemise, but the relevant English and German-language Wikipedia entries list a sizeable and wide-ranging cross-section of the available literature; for a recent introduction to post-WW2 reckoning of Austrian Nazi past, see the essays in From World War to Waldheim, eds. David F. Good and Ruth Wodak [New York, N.Y.: Berghahn, 2015].)

I do not intend this to be misconstrued as something like ‘let us place Mr. Van der Bellen on the Watchlist’ (for comparably disingenuous reasons). The above is intended to draw into the open these ideas and individuals who espouse them. Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant.

All other things being equal, the above-detailed developments are both a major disappointment and a drastic step backwards. Personally, as an Austrian citizen, I am very much embarrassed. This entire creeping normalisation needs to be addressed openly and confronted. Not doing so would be tantamount to reverting to a darker past. For me, one thing is as clear as can be: never again.

The consequences of not doing anything about this are equally clear, as Friedrich Nietzsche famously put it:

Anyone who fights with monsters should make sure that he does not

in the process become a monster himself. And when you look for a

long time into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. (6)

  1. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey (New York, N.Y.: Norton & Norton, 1961), 53.
  2. For these quotes, see Thomas Oysmüller, ‘Panzer rollen: Völlig entfesselte deutsche Kriegsrhetorik‘, tkp.at: Der Blog für Science & Politik, 25 Jan. 2023, https://tkp.at/2023/01/25/panzer-rollen-voellig-entfesselte-deutsche-kriegseuphorie/ (26 Jan. 2023); for a translation, see my Substack posting, ‘German Tanks Rolling East. Again’, 25 Jan. 2023, https://fackel.substack.com/p/german-tanks-to-fight-on-the-eastern (26 Jan. 2023).
  3. Philip Malzahn, ‘Unterwegs mit den Kämpfern des Asow-Regiments in der Ukraine‘, Der Standard, 23 July 2022, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000137691405/unterwegs-mit-den-kaempfern-des-asow-regiments-in-der-ukraine (26 Jan. 2023).
  4. Michael Möseneder, ‚Wiederbetätigungsprozess: Die “ästhetischen” Nazi-Tätowierungen‘, Der Standard, 12 Dec. 2022, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000141713314/wiederbetaetigungsprozess-die-aesthetischen-nazi-taetowierungen (26 Jan. 2023).
  5. The Wikipedia entry is actually quite accurate and useful; it also includes links to the currently valid version of the law: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbotsgesetz_1947 (26 Jan. 2023).
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Aphorisms and Interludes’, in Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Ian Johnston (Arlington, Va.: Richer, 2009), 70-86, at 81.

    (Featured Image: “File:SS visor cap, skull emblem (Totenkopf), Hitler-Jugend drum. Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum (WW2 memorial Museum) Svolvær, Norway 2019-05-08 DSC00285.jpg” by Wolfmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.)


  • Stephan Sander-Faes

    Stephan Sander-Faes is Associate Professor in Early Modern History at the University of Bergen, Norway. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Graz, Austria, in 2011 and obtained the Habilitation in Early Modern and Modern History from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in 2018. Before moving to Scandinavia in 2020, he taught for ten years at the history departments at the Universities of Zurich and Fribourg, as well as held the István Deák Visiting Professorship in East Central European Studies at Columbia University in 2018. His research focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, in particular on how state and non-state actors shaped shaped the transformation of states and (vs.) societies.

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  • Stephan Sander-Faes

    Stephan Sander-Faes is Associate Professor in Early Modern History at the University of Bergen, Norway. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Graz, Austria, in 2011 and obtained the Habilitation in Early Modern and Modern History from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in 2018. Before moving to Scandinavia in 2020, he taught for ten years at the history departments at the Universities of Zurich and Fribourg, as well as held the István Deák Visiting Professorship in East Central European Studies at Columbia University in 2018. His research focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, in particular on how state and non-state actors shaped shaped the transformation of states and (vs.) societies.

    View all posts