global politics, relationally

Russia sponsors right-wing parties, but Soviets did it too


As the FBI investigates Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 Presidential elections, the Kremlin continues to bankroll European far-right and neo-Nazi parties to destabilize governments from France and Germany to Scandinavia. Under President Putin, Russia offers money, cooperation, and propaganda support to a wide variety of movements from Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party to Le Pen’s Front National to Hungarian neo-Nazis.

For a country that boasts of being the successor of the Soviet Union, the former beacon of proletarian internationalism, Russia, and European far-right parties would appear to be strange bedfellows. Historians have long studied how the Soviet Union both overtly and covertly supported Western-European communist parties in order to destabilize post-war democratic regimes throughout the region. It had been long thought, however, that the brutal war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany would preclude any Soviet collaboration with surviving Nazi elements.

Recently declassified archives from CIA and the Russian State Archive offer compelling evidence that Moscow deliberately established ties with Austrian National League in the 1950s, a party they well understood was made up of former Nazis.

After World War II, the four Allied Powers occupied Austria and divided the country and its capital Vienna into zones of control. As the shadow of the Iron Curtain descended over the old continent, the Soviets threw their support behind their ideological ally, the Communist Party of Austria (CPA), in hope that communism would triumph in the country. But the 1945 general election dealt a serious blow to the Soviet hopes as the CPA received a meager 5% of the vote. Soviet concerns about its influence in Western Europe increased sharply when in 1948 the United States launched the Marshall Plan to decrease Europe’s economic hardships. Only a year later, CPA suffered another staggering election defeat causing alarm within the Kremlin.

Moscow blamed the CPA’s election failure on their inability to win over the countryside, penetrate unions and, most importantly, attract Christian voters. The Kremlin sought to remedy this situation by linking to alternative partners, who could both attract these voters and penetrate the right-wing in order to weaken the ruling conservative People’s Party.

The CPA, with Soviet support, first tried to infiltrate nationalist Federation of Independents or VdU (a predecessor of Freedom Party of Austria) through a caucus around Josef Heger. But when VdU leadership found out that Heger was a Soviet mole, he was ousted together with his supporters in the aftermath of the 1949 elections. This forced Soviets then to choose a more radical solution after its intelligence services noticed Adolph Slavik and his newly formed right-wing party, the National League (NL). According to the Soviet archives, Adolph Slavik was a former SS officer and Hitler Youth member who established the NL together with 80 former Nazi officers and servicemen in Viennese restaurant “Fuhrer” in January 1950. NL quickly set up its committees in Vienna and Lower Austria, which drew in “quite a crowd” of “workers, peasants, housewives and petty bourgeoisie”. For a party of ex-Nazis, NL nourished a suspiciously pro-Soviet political stance aimed at “cooperation with the Soviet Union, and against turning [Austria] into a satellite or colony of American imperialism”. By 1952, NL had organized more than 500 gatherings and owned a daily newspaper with a circulation of 8 thousand copies (in contrast, the ruling conservatives had no party newspapers). Its tentacles quickly spread to rural areas where CPA had failed to garner strong support in previous elections.

Bizarrely, the Soviet report referred to NL as a “democratic” movement, while simultaneously castigating the then conservative government of Austria as “neo-fascist”. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In 1953, the Soviets admitted that there are contacts between CPA and Slavik (in the Soviet’s words he was a “progressive man”). Since Western European communist parties could not enter arrangements with other political parties without Moscow’s blessing, it is almost certain that Soviet officials encouraged this peculiar alliance.

Dozens of recently declassified CIA documents regarding Slavik and NL cast more light on Slavik’s relationship with the Soviets. In one such report, the CIA finds that as early as 1950, NL propagandists were allowed to operate in Soviet-occupied Vienna and Lower Austria in their bid to attract former Nazis to their ranks. Slavik even received funding from the Administration of Soviet Property in Austria (USIA) to publish party newspapers. Similar to present day right-wing pilgrimages in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NL also sent delegations to Communist-sponsored Peace Council meetings. In 1950, Slavik traveled to East and West Germany to set up an intelligence network for the Soviets in Austria, and he reportedly engaged in cross-border arms smuggling.

The most blatant show of collaboration with the Soviets, which ultimately spelled NL’s political demise, occurred on the eve of 1952 Presidential elections when Slavik openly instructed his party members to cast blank ballots in congruence with Moscow’s position, and called for NL to join the communist People’s Opposition coalition. This created dissension among League members as a number of leaders also found that Slavik had received a monthly contribution of 42,000 shillings from USIA firms to sustain the parties daily. Faced with the brewing discontent, Slavik backtracked on his decision, but it was too late as the NL voted him out of leadership. After the 1953 elections, NL largely fell into political oblivion together with its founding father.

The collapse of the National League suggests a possible strategy that similarly highlighting Russia’s ties with current right-wing parties could also discredit them with their countries electorate. This is especially important given that a few such parties may grow stronger after the elections in Germany, France, and Italy, in 2017. Failure to do so will expose Western societies to more xenophobic, anti-democratic and anti-liberal rhetoric that the weakened ruling conservatives may adopt to remain in office.

Author: Milos Popovic

I'm a Research Consultant for Columbia University.