(CN) — To gauge the impact that fleeing extremist ideologues have on the communities they move into, researchers turned to an unlikely source: the phonebook. Specifically, the Austrian Reichstelefonbuch as printed after World War II, spanning 6,800 pages and 2.6 million names.
Research published in the Economic Journal, published by Oxford University Press, on Wednesday traces and contextualizes the influence of Nazism in Austria from World War II to the present day in order to shed light on the potential long-lasting impact of other extremist ideologies like jihadism in modern politics.
Although many governments around the world enacted travel bans and harsh surveillance against immigrants from the Islamic State, there is little academic research to support the whether these measures are effective or necessary to reduce the spread of extremist ideology.
“Despite huge differences between the situation in post-WWII Austria and jihadi-inﬁlitrated suburbs in Europe, we draw the following important conclusion: not only migrating extremists themselves but also particular institutions founded by migrating extremists can have persistent effects in the long term,” concluded co-authors Christian Ochsner and Felix Roesel at the Dresden University of Technology.
Austria’s unique history provided the researchers with a natural experiment.
After World War II, the northeastern state of Upper Austria was split along the Danube River, with the United States taking control of the southern half and the Soviet Union the northern half. The Soviet Union negotiated this divide to remain in full control of the Czechoslovakian border.
Unknowingly, the countries created two control groups. In response to Soviet threats to kill Nazis, an estimated 5,000 people, including former party leaders, fled to the U.S. territory for safety.
Researchers noted similar diasporas of former Nazis concentrating elsewhere in the world including in Flensburg, Germany, where by 1950 seven of eight state ministers were former members of the Nazi party.
These regions “that witnessed an influx of Nazis in the summer of 1945 exhibit significantly higher vote shares for far-right parties until the present day” researchers explained. One party exemplified is the Freedom Party of Austria which carries neo-fascist, neo-Nazi ideas, and has had a seat in Austria’s parliament since 1949.
Today, the Freedom Party of Austria remains characterized by nationalistic, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Former members of the Nazi party lost their ability to vote from 1945 to 1949. In 1949, however, 83,000 former Nazis regained their ability to not only vote, but influence politics more broadly.
Austria has historically exhibited three main politics schools of thought – social democrats, Catholic conservatives, and the far right – and all have roots stretching back to the second great war. About 13% of Austrians identified with the Nazi party at the end of World War II, and while the country’s political view shifted toward liberalism through the 1980s, there was a marked rise toward populism during the 1990s and 2000s.
Researchers compared the names of 17,000 candidates from elections in Upper Austria over seven decades with phonebook entries from 1942 and found that a higher concentration of names associated with Nazis remains in the former U.S. region compared to the former Soviet territory north of the Danube River.
In addition to former Nazi involvement in local politics, the researchers point to family ties as an underlying reason for the legacy of far-right values in Austria.
“The transmission of political attitudes within families for at least three generations and the spatial pattern of local party branches provide a rationale to explain the long-term effect of migrated extremists,” the researchers explained. “We document that migrated Nazis founded and penetrated local party branches at their destination.”
Although researchers also accounted for other variables that might cause Austria to lean right in the 21st century, like unemployment levels, income, immigration, and eligibility for funding from the EU, no other variable quite accounted for the support of far-right ideas quite like Nazi heritage.
“We were surprised to learn that imported extremism can survive for generations and does not fade away,” said the paper’s lead author Felix Roesel in a statement. “The good news is that liberal and democratic values spread in a very similar manner. This is what new research has shown. Populism is not more contagious than other political ideas.”