A reportage by TERESA SUÁREZ
They are around 70 years old. They are characterized by their handmade wool hats and by their cries in favor of tolerance and against racism. In just five months they have become a symbol of the anti-xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies of the Austrian Government, led by the young conservative Sebastian Kurz and the far-right leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. They are the Omas Gegen Rechts: the grandmothers who fight against the rebirth of the right in the heart of Europe.
Last October, the retired Protestant pastor Monica Salzer watched the Austrian news on television with astonishment, following the results of the elections for the new Chancellor, the future head of government. The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) won with 31.5% of the votes, ahead of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Only 0.6% of votes separated the SPÖ Socialists from the extreme right represented by the FPÖ.
The victory of the ÖVP, the conservative party led by the young Sebastian Kurz, was not enough to form a new government, so an agreement was reached with the extreme right in order to take hold of the chancellery of the country. This is how, since December, the Austrian parliament has been led by a coalition formed by these two parties, making Austria the only country in Europe with a far-right party in power. And it is not the first time that this party has decided to join forces with the far right to achieve a position of power.
Already in the year 2000, both parties decided to join forces to obtain the Presidency of the Central European country. When this happened, Europe complained and condemned the country with hard diplomatic sanctions. The current context is very different, and the rise of far-right parties throughout the continent is accepted as a fact. The arrival of Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the FPÖ, to the Vice-Chancellor’s Office has not surprised anyone.
During the 2016 presidential elections, the Strache party won much support, obtaining more than 46% of the votes, which meant it was in second position, behind Die Grünen, the ecologists led by Alexander Van der Bellen, current President of the country and winner with 53.78 percent. The gap between the parties (7.57 percent) has now reversed. In just one year, the popularity of the ecologists has plummeted and the FPÖ has become the third political force in the country.
Signs of opposition in the streets against the rise of the extreme right to power are very few and not strong enough. On March 17, many personalities from the Austrian opposition political scene, pro-refugee groups, students or LGTBQI+ associations, joined forces to gather some 8.000 people in Karlsplatz, one of the squares in the center of Vienna, to demonstrate against the Kurz-Strache alliance and protest against racism and fascism. 8.000 is a relative small figure if we take into account that only the urban metropolis of Vienna has more than two million inhabitants.
For the past five months, the Omas Gegen Rechts have been on the streets because we are concerned about how fascism is growing in our country
In snow and with temperatures below zero, a colourful group stands out against the mass of dark coats and banners that are crowded together in the center of the square. They are old women, around 70 years old, and they all cover their heads with handmade wool hats, imitating the pussyhats of the Women’s March in Washington. Since the legislative elections of 2017, they have been fighting for a more just and tolerant society. They are the Omas Gegen Rechts, grandmothers against the right.
“For the past five months, the Omas Gegen Rechts have been on the streets because we are concerned about how fascism is growing in our country,” Protestant pastor Monika Salzer said on a small stage on March 17. Despite how young it is, the movement has become a symbol of the struggle and resistance against the Kurtz-Strache alliance. Stopping the rise of fascism and fighting against racism and xenophobia by means of history and memory are the fundamental ideological pillars of this group composed mainly of septuagenarian women.
In mid-December, when the alliance between the two leaders was finally agreed on, only ten Omas attended their first demonstration. Six weeks later, during a pro-migrant march, they were 250; today they have more than 3.000 supporters spread throughout the country.
National media such as the leftist newspaper Der Standard or the liberal Die Presse, as well as the international The Huffington Post, Vice and even the Franco-German television channel ARTE have become interested. Are the media responsible for their outstanding increase in popularity? Well, not really: “Without realizing it, we have entered a vacuum opened up by the discomfort and distrust of citizens towards traditional parties. Normal people do not want to have anything to do with them, they feel that they have been betrayed. There is a need to believe in something that does not fight for power, that does not aspire to a seat in Parliament, that does not want to become the Chancellor, so here we are, the grandmothers”, explains Susanne Scholl, a retired journalist and member of the Omas Gegen Rechts.
The visibility and militancy of the elderly
In most of the Western countries, when one reaches a certain age, men and women disappear almost completely from society, relegated to a secondary role. ‘Ageism’, the discrimination based on age, affects older people in all aspects of their lives in a negative way: “Many times they see themselves as a burden for others, and this makes them prone to depression and social isolation” claims the International Center on Aging (CENIE).
In many countries in recent years, older people have experienced a radical change in their habits and customs, which shows that they still have much to offer and to say, but society unfortunately does not advance at the same pace and remains anchored to the traditional imaginary of the elderly, stigmatizing old age, turning the fight against ageism into a war that is almost invisible and until now very difficult to fight.
The systematic use of ‘old person’ or ‘grandfather/grandmother’ for anyone who is 70 years old is another of the elements that characterizes ageism, limiting a person to his or her family role. There are different groups of activists, such as the Iiaoflautas in Spain, born during the 15M movement in 2011, made up of thousands of retired people who are constantly demonstrating in Spain under the motto ‘For a decent pension’, or the Omas Gegen Rechts in Austria; these are just some examples of collectives that have decided to appropriate the term ‘old’ and its variants, showing that older people still have a lot to say.
“We represent the opposite of the cliché of the grandmother who takes care of grandchildren and goes out for walks. We are the generation that, at the age of 18 or 19, demonstrated in 1968 and wore Palestinian and Che Guevara shirts with an ideology behind them. We have experience in terms of resistance to the government, and we have a lot to say” says Monika Salzer.
The militant actions of the Omas are many, from demonstrations, to the organization of meetings and debates or support to various organizations that defend the rights of refugees. Its activity is not only visible at street level, in fact new technologies are used as an instrument for internal organization and for online activism. “Many of the Omas cannot move easily due to their age. But that does not mean that they are not interested in the fight! They are very conscious women and use social networks to spread the messages!” says Salzer.
We, the Omas, were born with the traumas of the war and we know what fascism means, what it did in our country. Where is our memory?
The atrocities committed in the two world wars, as well as the constant memory of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938 decided after a democratic vote, are two points frequently mentioned in their speeches. “We, the Omas, were born with the traumas of the war and we know what fascism means, what it did in our country. Where is our memory?” cried Salzer, followed by an outstanding ovation during a demonstration. “After the end of World War II, many of the Nazis continued to live unpunished in the country and influenced it, spreading their ideas and messages without obstacles. We are part of that generation that wanted to break the taboos, that looked from their homes to those who were responsible of the atrocities and wanted them to be accountable” explains the journalist Susanne Scholl.
The FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria, was created in 1956 by former supporters of German National Socialism, in fact its first president, Anton Reinthaller, was a member of the SS and minister during the annexation to the Nazi Germany.
It may seem that the dark years of the Nazi Austria have been buried in the past, but the FPÖ’s arrival to Parliament has only revived them. Last January, the Minister of the Interior, the ultranationalist Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), proposed during a press conference to “concentrate” all the refugees in one place. These words completely revolted the Austrian opposition.
The young and Omas
In the 2017 general elections, the FPÖ became the most voted party by young people under 29, according to a study carried out by the Austrian Institute for Social Research and Consultancy (SORA).
Are young people aware of the dangers that the far-right governments can pose? “I do not think so, at least not all of them,” says Elga S, who recently became member of Omas Gegen Rechts. “There are many different people and naturally many of them are not interested in politics, or they prefer to wait and see what happens with this Government. I believe that not many people really realize the dangers of having a party like the FPÖ in power” she adds.
The current FPÖ has little to do with the party it used to be only a few years ago, when it had few followers. The party members no longer cover up their words and their speech has become more aggressive since the beginning of the migration crisis, their presence has been legitimized with the massive return to power of far-right parties throughout Europe. Their position on issues such as the refugee crisis, security or employment has dazzled a generation that ignores the history of the country in the past century.
In spite of the efforts in recent years of the Austrian Memory Service, an institution created at the end of the 1980s as an alternative to the military service and whose objective is to help other organizations in the denazification processes, the Austrian society continues to be divided with respect to its role during World War II, divided between those who think Austrians were victims and those who think they were collaborators of the Nazi regime. “Some kids argue that it’s not their responsibility because they were not even born. It is true that they are not guilty of what happened but they are responsible for not wanting to know” explains Salzer.
School history books do not help the young population to be aware of their country’s past. For example, the book of History by the Weber editor devotes four pages to fascism in Italy during World War II, but in no way does it point out how Austria became one of the greatest allies of Nazi Germany.
The Omas do not conceal their concern for the future. They feel that the fragile stability built after the end of World War II is disappearing and that the world is sinking. “We are at a time when many things are at stake. We are concerned that 43% of young people in our country, almost one out of two, want men like Kurz or Strache in power”, Salzer explained to the 8.000 people who a few weeks ago demonstrated against racism and fascism in Vienna.
These are difficult times in the heart of Europe, but the Omas trust their forces, believe that another reality is possible and that young people are a fundamental part of it. “Young people are often not respected because of their young age, even though they can be as wise as the elderly. I think our hearts beat well when we’re together. Only together we will resist and fight fascism around the world.”
Teresa Suárez is a photographer and a journalist. She lives between France, Spain and Ukraine.
This reportage was first published on the printed version of El Salto.
It was translated from the version published on Pikara Magazine. It has been published here with permission.