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Crime For Members

EXPLAINED: What is Austria’s prohibition law and how is it about to change?

Sarah Magill
Sarah Magill - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What is Austria’s prohibition law and how is it about to change?
Protesters hold a sign with a crossed out swastika during a rally in 2018 in Vienna. Photo: Alex Halada / AFP

Originally introduced in 1947, the Austrian law aimed at preventing the spread of Nazi ideology is now set to be tightened even further.

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What is the Verbotsgesetz?

The Austrian Verbotsgesetz, or "Prohibition Law", was first introduced at the end of the Second World War to help stamp out National Socialist activities and suppress any attempts to revive Nazi ideology or promote neo-Nazism in Austria.

Under the law, which was last updated in 1992, it is forbidden to establish or support associations or parties that perpetuate the ideas or ideology of National Socialism. Any form of approval, denial or trivialisation of the Holocaust or other crimes of the Nazi regime is also prohibited. It is also illegal to display or use Nazi symbols, slogans, or emblems, such as the swastika or SS insignia.

Certain offences under the law, such as establishing or actively supporting a National Socialist organisation can lead to ten to twenty years of imprisonment, and even life imprisonment if the perpetrator is deemed to be particularly dangerous.

Following the 1992 amendment to the law, a separate offence of the so-called "Auschwitz lie" was established, which makes it an offence to “deny, grossly downplay, condone or justify the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a printed work, in the broadcast media, through another medium, or through any other public channel".

The 1992 amendments also lowered the limits of certain prison sentences, in order not to put jurors off finding defendants guilty of "lesser" crimes - such as distributing leaflets - due to what they might have considered to be disproportionate sentences.

READ ALSO: Austrian authors want overhaul of anthems penned by Nazis

In right-wing circles, it is frequently argued that the Prohibition Act restricts freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the European Court of Human Rights has consistently rejected this argument and referred to Article 17 ECHR, which deals with the "prohibition of abuse of rights".

Why is the law being changed?

The Austrian Federal Government included the revision of the Prohibition Act in its legislative programme for 2020 to 2024, as part of its "fight against anti-Semitism".

In November 2022, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Green Party (Grüne) announced the draft of an amendment, and in early June 2023 it was completed and sent for review to the Austrian Parliament. On Wednesday this week, the Austrian government completed its review period of the draft law.

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The amendment will bring about several significant tightening measures; civil servants who are convicted of any offence under the Prohibition Act will lose their jobs and offences committed on the internet from abroad will also be punishable under the new law.

In future, it will also be easier for authorities to confiscate Nazi memorabilia - such as an "honour ring" of the SS - from circulation even without having to bring criminal proceedings. The draft law also proposes to make it easier to take action against people who wear Nazi symbols, such as the modified Jewish stars which were worn at coronavirus demonstrations in the country during the pandemic.

For this purpose, the word "gross" is to be removed from the term "gross trivialisation" in relation to downplaying the atrocities of the Nazis. 

One of the most controversial aspects of the draft law is the possibility of "diversion" for adults. Diversion is a process whereby an offender can avoid a criminal conviction if they agree to certain conditions, such as paying a fine or completing community service. Critics of the proposal argue that it would allow people who have committed severe offences to avoid the full consequences of their actions.

Does Austria have a problem with neo-Nazis?

According to Statistics Austria, the number of convictions under the Prohibition Act has increased significantly in recent years. While there were 40 convictions in 2010, the number rose to 67 in 2015 and 128 in 2020. In 2021, there were 207 convictions, then 215 in 2022.

READ ALSO: Austrian police run huge operation against right-wing extremists

Anti-Semitic crimes are also on the rise. At the end of June, a huge weapons cache and Nazi memorabilia belonging to neo-Nazis and the "Bandidos" biker gang were confiscated during raids in Upper and Lower Austria, amounting to a seizure of over 70 rifles worth approximately €1.5 million.

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There was also controversy this week in Braunau - the birth town of Adolf Hitler - when police officers failed to arrest a man with tattoos which included an SS skull and the words "Blood and Honour,", at a public swimming pool.

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