The Reign of Terror in Vienna

Perhaps because of the severity of the Covid restrictions currently in place, the public in Austria has had more pressing worries than the follow-up investigation into the Islamic terrorist murder spree on November 2. The All Souls’ Day massacre that claimed the lives of three people in Vienna’s downtown district as well as the twenty-year-old assassin was at first called simply the work of one man.

But bad as the original story was, the fact that the three who died turned out to be mere targets of opportunity was worse. For apparently, the murderer had actually intended to slaughter seventeen youths gathered in the Ruprechtskirche—the oldest church in the city—for a prayer service. Because the service was not public, due to Covid restrictions, the church door was locked by a timer. When they heard the gunshots outside, the young people turned out the lights and hid, finally being released by police at 2:30 in the morning.

Despite authorities’ initial claim that the murderer was a one gunman, according to the Viennese daily Der Standard: “It is known that several jihadists met in July 2020. They are said to have been in a Whatsapp group in which IS terrorist videos were shared.… The network in Austria was also tight. Arrested the night of the attack, a total of at least 20 people are being investigated, some of whom have a relevant criminal record. There are now ten people in custody. Their main hearings will take place in a month to see if they can stay in prison.” Shortly afterward, the government ordered six mosques that the gunmen had frequented to be closed.

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Severe as the lockdown has been, while the Austrian churches remain open, the bishops themselves forbade public Masses (which, however, resumed on December 7). This past week, church visitors in Vienna have been aware of a renewed police presence around churches—and assumed it had something to do with enforcing the Covid lockdown. As it happens, it is nothing of the sort. Instead, the new taskforce shall be keeping an eye on things until after Christmas for the express purpose of preventing further terrorist attacks on churches.

On November 11, in the wake of the shooting and subsequent investigations, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz made a remarkable announcement: “In the fight against political Islam, we will create a criminal offence called ‘political Islam’ in order to be able to take action against those who are not terrorists themselves but who create the breeding ground for such.”

Here is where things get rather interesting. There is a fault line through Europe right now. In the West, politicians in and out of power try to minimize the religious aspects of terrorism—or any crimes—committed by Muslims. Deeply secular themselves, their attitudes toward Christians in general and Catholics in power may subconsciously be closer to those of the Vienna terrorist or the recent murderer in Nice than they would like to admit. Certainly, the closing of churches as “unnecessary” during the Covid crisis tells us a lot. The havoc wreaked by the new Islamic arrivals in Germany is routinely covered up, and those who point it out are just as routinely denounced as “extremists.”

In Central Europe, things are quite different. The Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, Czech, and Croatian governments are resolutely anti-immigration. Poland in particular has begun to expel immigrants considered to be threats to national security. Even Slovenia, the most liberal of the Central European nations, returned Janez Janša as Prime Minister this year. Mr. Janša was the only Head of Government to call and congratulate President Trump on his re-election on November 4.

Behind the worry about terror are greater concerns in the Islamic world. Erdoğan’s Turkey successfully flexed its muscles alongside its ally Azerbaijan’s mostly successful invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh. There remains a great deal of suspicion here over both Turkey and Russia, and to what degree the latter may be a reliable ally against the former, should that be needed. Of course, in recent months, even France’s Macron has exchanged increasingly testy words with Erdoğan.

To be sure, attitudes toward Islamic terrorism are only one of the many issues dividing the leadership of the Western European countries from Central Europe. Membership in the European Union seemed, on the demise of the Soviet Bloc, to be a real sign of having “arrived” into the Western Community of nations—in other words, a real achievement. But since those heady days of the 1990s, both Brussels and the national governments in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and elsewhere have become wedded to policies that can only seem suicidal to Central Europe, with its shared experiences of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Habsburg Empire, the two world wars, and Soviet domination.

Thus, despite the still-flourishing national and ethnic hatreds plaguing them, these countries have seen in recent years a number of efforts aimed at bringing greater unity and strength to the region, rather than simply relying on the E.U.

Most venerable of these is the Visegrád Group, created in 1991, and bringing together Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia, and Poland. Nineteen years later, the first three countries joined former Habsburg sister nations Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia in the Central European Defence Cooperation. In 2016, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia started the Three Seas Initiative. This year, Poland and Lithuania joined Ukraine in forming the “Lublin Triangle.”

What all of these varying initiatives have in common is the attempt to build out of the small nations of Central Europe a bloc capable of sustaining itself against any aggressor—military, political, economic, or cultural: the list of such aggressors may include Turkey and Radical Islam; Russia; China; Western Europe; and even the United States. Certainly Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been in favor of such collaboration throughout his political career, and never more than since the terror attacks last month.

If such attacks increase in number or intensity, or both, in Europe, there shall be a number of byproducts. In whatever form, Central Europe shall surely be pulled more closely together. Western Europe’s population shall no doubt be radicalized. If the current establishment remains deaf and blind to this, political groups they characterize as “right-wing extremists” shall come to the fore. Unhappily, life may become more difficult for the many peaceful and hardworking Muslims across the Continent. Ultimately, if the Catholic Church in the Mother Continent does not regain her fervor and act as the soul of the new Europe, that New Europe may become very unpleasant, indeed—and not only for Muslims.

What has any of this to do with us? Quite a bit, actually, but not what you might think at first. To be sure, from 9/11 to the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, the United States have had their experience of Muslim terror. But we do not face the Near East and North Africa on our doorstep. Neither Mexico nor Canada serve as breeding grounds for large numbers of Muslim terrorists, although Justin Trudeau has the appropriate costume in his extensive wardrobe and has worn it a few times. Nor do we have an interior space for such as Europe does in Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo. (The Vienna murderer was an Albanian, although the vast number of Albanians, Bosniaks, and Kosovars are not belligerent—at least not with outsiders.)

Regardless of the final outcome of our election, President Trump will not—and President Harris cannot—guarantee European security, either interior or exterior. While we try to sort ourselves out, the Europeans, like the rest of the world, shall have to take care of themselves. One cannot foresee what the return of multipolarity to the planet will look like, but it will definitely necessitate redefining our national interests more narrowly.

On a higher level, while giving up the role of world policeman may hurt our national pride somewhat, regaining the Faith and cultural dynamism on the part of all or a large portion of Europe cannot help but ultimately benefit these United States. For good and ill, major intellectual trends over there echo here. If the rise in Muslim activism causes Central Europe—or all of Europe—to regain its Faith in response, there shall definitely be beneficial effects here. To put it another way, if the Continent from which we sprang regains her soul, so may we. If not, it shall inevitably be that much harder for us.

[Photo credit: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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