Why I reject the “Leitkultur” (the concept of a “Leading Culture”.

On a current debate about culture and politics in Austria.

An iconic image of 'Austrian culture' as seen through AI

“Anyone who rejects our way of life must leave!” The ÖVP’s Leitkultur is directly linked to motifs from Austrofascism in the 1930s.

  1. Expulsion

The “Kleine Zeitung” from Graz, of all places, a media voice that is unsuspected as a left-leaning organ, found the clearest formulation of the ÖVP’s strange media campaign to demand an Austrian “Leitkultur” when it summarized the ÖVP demand as follows: “Austria’s identity is more than legal borders.”

I am not a lawyer, just an Austrian citizen and child of Austrian-citizen parents. Okay, my mother was a naturalized Sudeten German. But otherwise I am a true Austrian. However, we adopted a child – now of age – from Romania, who acquired Austrian citizenship in 1995 on the basis of a court order from the district court in Timisoara, Romania, at my request. Does this Austrian adult now have to swear oaths to Austria? Which ones?

Dear Federal Chairman of the ÖVP, dear Federal Chancellor Nehammer, dear Constitutional Minister Edtstadler, I must ask you: Which of us “must go” if tomorrow he, she or I “reject our way of life”? In other words, the “way of life” according to the guidelines of your party, the ÖVP. And on what legal basis do you imagine that this expulsion should take place?

Because it is about “expulsion” when the ÖVP’s slogan on “Leitkultur” decrees: “Anyone who rejects our way of life must leave!”

  1. The healthy village versus the city without values

In the ÖVP’s polemical advertisements, it is not only the blatant threat of expulsion (“…must go”) that echoes the political catastrophe dynamics of the 1930s in Austria.

“Customs” is used as a central factor in the ÖVP campaign in images and text. The imagery in the ÖVP’s advertisements and social media campaigns refers to an alpine – western Austrian – Austria. Even after a few corrections in visual and typographical details, the ultimate demand is: “Integration through adaptation. For us, this is part of the leading culture (or ‘Leitkultur’)”.

Born and raised in Graz, and having spent 9 months working in the refugee camp in Traiskirchen near Vienna for my ‘civil service’ in the 1980s, I am personally appalled by these attributions.

My ‘civilian’ job at the time was to take refugees, mainly from Poland to the embassies of ‘immigration countries’, i.e. Canada, Australia or South Africa, for their visa applications after the Jaruzelski coup against the Catholic workers’ movement Solidarnosc. Because it was said at the time: “These Poles are far too Catholic to integrate into Austria!” Today’s immigrants seem to be ‘not catholic enough’ by the Leitkultur’s standards – which highlights the odd quality of those standards indeed.

Of course, I am not seriously worried that I myself will soon be expelled from Austria. But this completely unnecessary provocation campaign by the ÖVP plays on another central motif from the pre-fascist 1930s: It suggests the radical incompatibility of life and values between urban and rural areas.

Lately, this 100-year-old, destructive juxtaposition of city and countryside has already contributed massively to the destructive polarization of politics in our some of our neighboring countries, notably in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, and so in absurdly updated forms.

Is this a promising perspective for Austria?

  1. The law

The closer I look at these unspeakable “Leitkultur” maneuvers by the ÖVP, the more clearly I see them as tactical preparations to ‘slide over’ as easily as possible after the upcoming parliamentary elections in Austria in autumn 2024, to enter a federal government as a junior partner in an FPÖ government under the hard right’s leader Herbert Kickl, or with some shadow construction in which Kickl and his party comrades set the line.

The First Republic in Austria in the 1930s brought great disaster to our country with such actions of ‘sliding over’ into authoritarianism. We don’t want to repeat that.

The strongest line of defense against such a slide was formulated already also in the interwar period of these same 1930s, in clear terms by legal scholar Hans Kelsen, the author of the Austrian Federal Constitution. With the principles of equality of all citizens before the law, the rule of law and democratic principles for the appointment of the highest organs of the state, we still have a solid foundation for our peaceful and successful society in modern day Austria, which does not require any conjuring up of “identity” or other diffuse declarations.

Mr. Federal Chancellor, I do not see how evocations of regionally very different customs or threats of expulsions and deportations would be of any great help in overcoming our current challenges and for the future of Austria in Europe.

In short, let’s stop the incantations. Let’s work, very practically, and together with everyone who lives here, for a good future for this country.

Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get notified about new reports, blogposts and events