Is Austria rediscovering its Catholic roots? Or is the country moving further away from Christian values under its soon-to-be head of government, Sebastian Kurz?
The 31-year-old Catholic’s recent landslide victory has caused considerable consternation across Europe’s commentariat, even among some Catholic observers. The German satirical magazine Titanic raised eyebrows by proclaiming on its front page: “Time travel in Austria: It’s finally possible to kill baby Hitler!” This was accompanied by an image showing cross hairs aiming at the heart of the young Chancellor-to-be.
More serious-minded media expressed their alarm differently. The Munich-based broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung interpreted the victory of “the populist Kurz” as a warning to Germany. Vatican Radio’s German section published an article that described the election as a “swing to the Right that is difficult for Christians”.
As Stephan Baier, the veteran Vienna correspondent of the Catholic German newspaper Die Tagespost points out, however, voter turnout would suggest that many Christians are, in fact, pleased with Kurz’s ascent.
Eighty per cent of the electorate went to the polls on October 15 in a country that, as of 2016, was 60 per cent Catholic (a further 10 per cent were either Orthodox or Protestant Christians).
The results show that Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) won 31.5 per cent of the vote. In second and third place, almost neck and neck, came the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ). This suggests that a large number of Christians not only voted for Kurz, but also for the more right-wing FPÖ, with which the Chancellor-to-be is currently in coalition talks.
The road to this moment has been a long and arduous one for Kurz, the only child of Catholic parents in Vienna’s working-class district of Meidling. He took on political responsibilities from an early age, ultimately abandoning his law studies at the University of Vienna to pursue his career in politics.
Kurz is hard-working and pragmatic, and even political enemies concede that he is the opposite of a political opportunist or classical careerist. “While he certainly has an instinct for power,” one source close to him told the Catholic Herald on condition of anonymity, “he is not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. And this includes his own Christian values.” Kurz has surrounded himself with a close circle of dedicated team members, several of whom are practising Christians.
As to whether Kurz’s personal life is shaped by the faith, the record is somewhat less clear. He still lives in the district of Meidling, sharing a flat with his long-term girlfriend Susanne Thier.
But those who accuse Kurz of not having Christian values cite his handling of the migrant crisis as foreign minister, rather than his personal life. Kurz believes that there is no contradiction between his Catholic faith and his stringent approach to tackling mass migration, which was crucial to his election victory and his remarkable rise in popularity beforehand. As foreign minister, in the spring of 2016, he closed the “Balkan route” by which hundreds of thousands of migrants had illegally crossed into Austria.
In an interview with the Swiss website Jesus.ch last month, Kurz said he had sought the counsel of a priest when dealing with the migrant crisis. He had received “advice that I try and live by to this day. He told me: ‘As a human being, one must never lose our compassion with our neighbour.’”
Kurz added: “As a politician one must, however, never lose sight of reality. And what one should always preserve as a politician is the determination to make the necessary decisions, even if they are difficult.”
Despite his youth, Kurz has a track record of taking hard decisions and clear positions, avoiding the professional political discourse that stultifies public speech in German-speaking countries, as it does in the Anglosphere. His direct way of speaking is evident in all his television appearances. In one, for instance, he said: “What has shaped Europe, what has shaped Austria? We have a culture shaped by our Judaeo-Christian heritage and the Enlightenment – and this culture needs protecting, especially at a time of high and rising immigration.”
Kurz is infallibly polite and yet firm in his convictions. This approach, observers note, is not just restricted to the migration issue which helped him win the election, but also to less popular positions.
Kurz attended the “March for Jesus” in Vienna in 2016, instead of a much more popular gay pride march on the same day. He holds a strongly pro-life position, one he clarified in an interview with the site Glaube.at shortly before the election – at a time when some savvy strategists might have suggested he remain silent.
Though Kurz is a good listener – his large ears lend themselves to many a caricature – he expects committed responses from those he deals with once he has proposed a way forward. “Christians should comport themselves with confidence,” Kurz said last year in an interview with the Archdiocese of Vienna’s newspaper, Sonntag. No one doubts he will do just that as Chancellor of Austria.
Anian Christoph Wimmer is a German-Australian broadcaster, writer and journalist. He is editor-in-chief of CNAdeutsch.de