Marcel Amoser | PhD Candidate, Department of Contemporary History, University of Innsbruck
Protest by and for migrants has long been a niche topic, at least in German-speaking movement research. This is even more astonishing since international solidarity was and still is written in capital letters, especially in the new left. In many cases, however, the concerns of migrants were considered only as side contradictions and were subordinated to the worldwide anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist struggle. Therefore, the solidarization with the concerns of migrants remained fragile. This was also the case in the protests against the Austrian Foreign Student Service in 1974. Using the example of the protests in Innsbruck, I will focus on the relationship between the Communist Group Innsbruck (KGI) and the foreign students, to discuss the limits of solidarity towards migrants in this specific case. The KGIs interpretation of the protests and their understanding of international solidarity are of particular interest here, because they were in some way symptomatic for dogmatic left groups during this period. But first things first. What was the ÖAD and what was its problem?
The Austrian Service for Foreign Students and its problems
The Austrian Foreign Student Service (ÖAD) was founded in 1961 by the Austrian Student Union and the Austrian Rectors’ Association. The founding of the ÖAD was a reaction to the increasing number of foreign students at Austrian universities. Students from developing countries were of particular interest from the 1960s onwards. Not only the two superpowers, but also Austria – albeit on a more modest scale – tried to expand their own economic and political influence with development aid. In this context the ÖAD fulfilled an ambivalent function. It helped students to find their way around in Austria, advised them on study matters and helped them find work and accommodation. At the same time, it was also an instrument of the dominant development policy logic.
Potential for conflict lay above all in the University Preparation Programs, which were obligatory for all foreign students whose school-leaving certificate was not considered “equivalent” by the responsible dean’s office. These courses had to be attended primarily by students from developing countries and socialist states. This unequal treatment, but also the long duration of the course (up to one and a half years) and the abundance of obligatory courses that were not adapted to the later subject of study met with criticism. Especially the subject “European Studies” was in many cases perceived as unnecessary harassment, the primary aim of which was to convey a good picture of Europe.
Another problem was the power of the Lecturers of confidence, who acted as contact persons for foreign students. And. At the end of the 1960s, the Ministry of Interior sought a direct line to the university to obtain information on the progress of foreign students, because “quasi-students” were considered a security policy problem. Between 1967 and 1974, an agreement between the Federal Police Directorates and the ÖAD existed. From then on, letters of recommendation from Lecturers of confidence formed the basis for extending residence permits. This meant an enormous concentration of power and the possibility of monitoring and disciplining foreign students. In addition, the ÖAD also maintained contacts with foreign embassies, which seemed highly suspicious, especially to students from countries like Iran or Greece.
The protests, the KGI and foreign students
For the above-mentioned reasons, foreign students at the University Preparation Programs in Innsbruck went on strike in April 1974. Previously, protests had already taken place in Vienna and Graz. They demanded an unlimited residence permit for the duration of their studies, the abolition of the University Preparation Programs, the ÖAD and the system of Lecturers of confidence, as well as social and legal equality between Austrian and foreigners. To inform the public about the situation and the goals, leaflets were distributed teach-ins were organized and a petition was set up, which reached 1,000 signatures. The strike ended in June 1974 with partial successes. A decree of the Ministry of the Interior rescinded the existing agreement with the Lecturers of confidence, the University Preparation Programs were reformed and the subject of European studies abolished. However, in some areas the changes were only cosmetic in nature, the large number of courses remained, the start of studies was delayed for some foreign students and the ÖAD resumed its activities after a short time.
The protests were partially successful because they were supported by a broad alliance. Among the supporting groups in Innsbruck were the associations of Arab, Greek and Iranian Students and the Communist Group Innsbruck. The KGI, one of the many Maoist organizations that flourished in Europe in the first half of the 1970s, was particularly exposed in the protests. In their view, the ÖAD stood for imperialism, which was interpreted with dogmatic reference to Lenin as the highest level of capitalism. This provided a generalizable framework of interpretation that combined anti-colonial liberation struggles with solidarity actions for foreign students. It vanished the most diverse causes of conflict under the umbrella of a main contradiction. Iran, Vietnam, Austria and here the ÖAD were all models of one and the same destructive logic. The foreign students were thus addressed as victims of imperialism who, after an anti-capitalist awakening, would have begun to fight back. In doing so, the KGI built up a dichotomy between “the reactionaries” (university leadership, ministry, “ÖH bonzes”) and the progressive minority (underdog), who recognized the “true” situation and showed solidarity in the anti-capitalist struggle.
In this juxtaposition, the idea of a “united anti-capitalist struggle front” took on a special meaning. With it, the KGI formulated a bracket for the various groupings that showed solidarity with the foreign students. However, it also universalized the position of the KGI, which granted itself the power of interpretation over the “actual” conditions, objectives, and solutions, and declared itself the mouthpiece of the strikers. The “united front” demanded subordination for the sake of a higher goal, anything that did not correspond to the “party line” was considered a problematic attempt of splitting. This also led to the interpretation that the strike had been ended not only because of the “attempts at division” by the external enemies, but also because of the splitters within the strike committee. Ironically, the scapegoat was a student from Greece.
The postulated solidarity with the “foreign colleagues” began to crumble as early as May when a protest resolution was worked out. The KGI introduced a proposal based on the Viennese model. However, the expanded socio-political demands met with little approval in the audience. The strikers were primarily interested in improving their situation at the university and not in the world revolution. The KGI was therefore disappointed to note that “the level of the movement in Vienna was much higher than [in Innsbruck]”. Afterwards, a leaflet was published, which, on behalf of the strikers, resisted political attempts at appropriation by the supporting groups and firmly emphasized that this was not a political strike. It was published by the above-mentioned student from Greece, who had lived in Innsbruck since the early 1960s and now held Austrian citizenship, which was necessary for publishing printed works and register political assemblies. With his actions he fell out of favor with the KGI. When he then sought dialogue with the authorities on behalf of the strike committee, he was stylized as a “reactionary” strikebreaker who had acted without a mandate. This interpretation of the events is peculiar, especially since the student in question was also a foreigners’ representative of the ÖH. At that time, almost exclusively Greek students were in the University Preparation Programs. The Foreigners’ Representative was critical towards the regime of the colonels and active in the Association of Greek Students, which was an important support especially for newcomers to Innsbruck. It can therefore be assumed that he enjoyed the trust of the students in the University Preparation Programs, even though he too was in a privileged position and was not one of those directly affected. We know from postcolonial reflections, that there is no adequate representation. For sure the student from Greece had its own interests to join the protest and was not the “authentic voice” of all migrants, a particular culture, or a whole country. But his reconciliation with those responsible seemed to be in the interest of the strikers. They had already achieved partial successes and a continuation of the strike would have meant that they would not be able to begin their studies. In the worst case, their residence permits would not have been extended, which for some of the Greek students would have meant doing military service under the regime of the colonels. In the privileged position of the KGI the protest was on the other hand risk-free. It would therefore have preferred to continue the strike.
The conflict illustrates the struggles for interpretation and claims to power that could overlay alliances between Austrian and foreign students. While the strikers, at great risk, sought to improve their current situation, the KGI instrumentalized them for their anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist struggle. This shows also the different social positions and interests of foreign students and the KGI. Under the condition of existing power asymmetries solidarity was a privilege linked to terms given by a privileged group. The Alliance ended at the point where the revolutionary expectations were countered by the recipients of solidarity. When they – with the help from the student from Greece – started to defend themselves against a political instrumentalization and negotiated with the authorities. For the KGI, this was a problematic attempt at division under the auspices of a “united anti-capitalist struggle front”. Its understanding of international solidarity heard the voices of foreign students only selectively and in so far as they confirmed its own ideological view. It distorted the concerns of those affected, cemented existing hierarchies instead of weakening them and could even have been at the expense of some of the foreign students. Therefore, the alliance in the ÖAD-protests in Innsbruck remained fragile.