Recently, international media reporting on Austria has been disturbingly negative: in Upper Austria state elections, the xenophobic, divisive right-wing Freedom Party doubled their voting share to 30% and relegated the Social Democratic party in this industrial heartland of Austria to third place; refugees coming to Austria in the ten thousands mainly via Hungary on foot, with the help of smugglers, on trains had to sleep on the streets because the government was not able to provide them with shelter; 71 refugees were found dead in a sealed truck on an Austrian autobahn, and so on.
However, in this authority-conscious state where people habitually look at the various levels of government for solutions to many of their problems, civil society took over en masse and has been welcoming, supporting, feeding and sheltering the incoming refugees at the two main train stations in Vienna and at the border villages across from Hungary: day and night housewives, students, entrepreneurs, doctors, policemen, red-cross volunteers, civil servants and former refugees in their free time „swamped“ the train stations to help the exhausted and desperate refugees, to welcome them, to take them to their desired destinations (mainly Germany and Sweden), bought them train tickets, i them with clothes, started teaching the many children German, played with them – in short did what human decency requires. They showed to the government that its inability and lack of political will to provide shelter and refuge from the Syrian and Afghanistan wars, from IS threat, from civil strife at the Horn of Africa, from the disaster in Libya and other countries was unacceptable to Austrian civil society.
The absurdity that the third richest country in the European Union cannot organize shelter for people fleeing from war and hunger, from the hopelessness of several years in refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, that the federal government, the state governors and the communities, represented by the interior minister, the governors and mayors were unable to cope with this influx and transition of desperate people activated the otherwise rather lax Austrian civil society. Suddenly they performed really challenging managerial and organizational tasks, donated time, labor power and money, provided clothes and shelter and in this way gave refugees hope, security and the needed rest. All this in the face of a negative, nationalistic, tabloid-supported fear-mongering campaign by the Freedom party. It turned out that civil society managed this gigantic effort without government help. Suddenly organizations like „train of hope“ sprung up to organize the welcoming at the train stations, the Austrian Railway Organization provided extra trains to Germany, „Voices for Refugees“ organized a demonstration, and a large benefit concert on Saturday, October 3, at the Heldenplatz in Vienna, notorious for Adolf Hitler declaring the „Anschluss of Austria“ into the German Reich from the balcony of the Hapsburg City Palace (Hofburg} in front of 200.000 cheering and flag-waving Austrians in February 1938. Heldenplatz had already once in recent times been the location of a manifestation of the good side of Austria in January 1993, when 300.000 Austrians demonstrated in a „Sea of Lights“ against a Freedom Party referendum and against the restrictive Austrian asylum and refugee policies. In 2015 the number was probably smaller (around 150.000), still very impressive, but it assembled persons from all strands of life, celebrating the continuing efforts of refugee aid by listening to speeches (including the Austrian President as the only politician present), hearing many bands and singers, stand-up comedians, actors, and the like.
The date is also ominous, since on October 11, 2015 there will be an election fort he City of Vienna’s parliament and government – which has been stylized as a competition between the reigning (for 70 years) Social Democrats and the Freedom Party. Polls show that this might be a close race, which also will reduce the other parties running (the conservative People´s Party, the Greens (up to now in coalition with the Socialists), and the liberal NEOS) to be relegated to small minority status. Vienna being Austria`s capital, this election will acquire more than provincial importance. In this sense, this demonstration and concert manifestation is also a sign against marginalization, anti-refugee, „Austria First“ Freedom Party aspirations to obtain governing status, instead of an open society.
The testimonialsof concerned citizens, the harrowing personal stories of refugees, the silent minute honoring those refugees who had died, the mood under the mild autumn sun at the Heldenplatz, the music and even the speeches were heart-rendering and heart-warming. A necessary and very welcome sign that human rights and human decency still dominate a large part of Austrian society, that denunciation, slandering, marginalizing which one hears in the media and election speeches have not yet poisoned the minds of many people. It was also a powerful wakeup call to Austrian and EU politicians to deal with this humanitarian crisis in a humanitarian way, to help people in dire need, to promote integration in save havens and to act more forcefully to eliminate the causes of these migration flows. As one of the young organizers of this powerful manifestation said: „Had these refugees been banks, they would have been saved a long time ago“.