Art by Ernst was a one-man “photo art” business whose original photography, “combined with artist’s touches,” brought forth “a spiritual expression of the physical world frozen by a camera lens.” These essentially retouched photographs of the Austrian landscape and sights of Salzburg were, the web ad reads, “an expression of beauty…a gift to its owner and a gift for all who see it.” Purchase inquiries could be made by telephone or email. The phone number listed on the ad was an Austrian one.
But who was Ernst? In May 2009, following a lead, a camera crew from the Austrian state broadcaster ORF showed up at an apartment in the picture-postcard town of Zell am See, about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Salzburg, looking for him. He wasn’t in, but the crew was eventually able to track down Ernst—a blond, youthful 58-year-old man. As they had suspected, Ernst, actually Ernest, was the middle name of the person they had in fact been looking for: David Duke.
Unbeknownst to the world, the man described by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “the most recognizable figure of the American radical right, a neo-Nazi, longtime Klan leader and now international spokesman for Holocaust denial,” had been residing in obscurity in the Austrian Alps. “I love the mountains, the physical culture, the Gemütlichkeit,” Duke told the ORF crew, adding that he normally lived in Italy and was only in Zell am See for a few days. But that wasn’t quite true.
Although Duke’s journey from the Klan to national infamy has been well documented, much remains untold about the years that he lived in and traveled through Europe. For nearly two decades, beginning in the mid-1990s, he went to and from Europe, spending stretches of time in Russia, Ukraine, Italy and Austria, burnishing his credentials, promoting his ideas and cultivating relationships among the far right.
In Europe, Duke established another life for himself—one that for a time included an apartment in the quiet little resort town in western Austria where my own journey begins.
As my train cuts south out of Salzburg, it travels through wooded valleys bordered by mountains capped with snow, passing glassy rivers and villages crowned by onion-domed church towers. It is Austria lifted from a fairy tale. This corner of the country is beloved by skiers and mountaineers and holds a particular place in Nazi folklore, for it was here that Hitler’s regime planned to retreat and regroup in the event of military catastrophe. Today, it forms part of the so-called brown belt, where the far-right scene is particularly well networked.
It was after the Salzburg-Tyrol railway line opened in 1875 that Zell am See, situated on a bump-out that protrudes into Lake Zell, took off as a spa town. Its prominent visitors included Austria’s Empress Elisabeth, who loved to hike and in 1885 trekked before sunrise to the nearest mountain peak in a brisk 2 hours and 26 minutes. A ski resort in the winter, Zell am See has enjoyed a second life over the past 20 years as the go-to summer destination in Austria for tourists from the Persian Gulf.
I disembark in Zell am See on an overcast and changeable morning in late September. On a normal summer’s day in a COVID-free year, people would be flocking to Lake Zell, some two-and-a-half miles long and a mile wide, its waters adorned with a gaggle of paddleboats and ringed by promenaders. Today, it plays host to just two fishermen and one lonely tour boat, which is circumnavigating the lake for the amusement of the few day-trippers braving the cold and early fall drizzle.
David Duke’s apartment was a stone’s throw from the train station at the address Skiliftstrasse 5. The building looks old-fashioned, with a pitched roof to withstand heavy snowfall and wooden balconies adorned with flower boxes facing eastward toward the lake. Duke’s landlord once told Karl Öllinger, a former Green member of the Austrian parliament who spent years tracking Duke, that the former Klansman was always cordial and paid his rent on time, though how remains unclear. Art by Ernst is unlikely to have covered his bills.
Marketing white supremacist literature and associated products, along with fundraising appeals to supporters—part of his shtick for decades—surely helped. “Pledge a monthly gift to support Dr. Duke and all his work,” his website reads to this day.
Duke first spent extended time in Austria in 1986, two years after his 1974 marriage to Chloe Hardin, with whom he had two daughters, ended in divorce. He spent the summer in Salzburg studying German, obtaining a level of semi-fluency, and enjoying the classical art and architecture preserved in the city’s many museums. Part of his stay included a train trip to Linz with his then-girlfriend Gwen Udell to visit the Mauthausen concentration camp. By Udell’s account, Duke walked around the camp enthusiastically, rushing to tell her that the gas chambers preserved there were “too small” to have functioned as sites of mass death and that they were, actually, rooms for delousing prisoners.
That summer, Duke and Udell also toured Germany. According to journalist Tyler Bridges’ 2018 biography, The Rise and Fall of David Duke, traveling by rail, Duke would strike up conversations with those who had lived through the Third Reich whenever he could, prodding them with questions about the way things used to be and what their beliefs were about race. “I always got the impression that these people thought he was a nut,” Udell, who left Duke in 1987, told Bridges. Duke also visited another concentration camp, this time Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, re-airing his delousing theory. “Hitler was his idol,” Udell stressed to Bridges. “David thought he was the greatest man who ever lived.”
Duke, who first expressed his admiration for Hitler while a student at Louisiana State University, began reading Holocaust denial literature while part of the Klan, with which he identified himself starting in 1973. The following year he founded the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan (KKKK) in Louisiana, becoming the youngest grand wizard ever in 1976. Duke grew the Klan by recruiting members from white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles, opening membership to women and Catholics, and courting media attention through high-profile activities. But by 1980, he had parted ways with the Klan. Looking for new ways to spread his racist beliefs free of the Klan’s baggage, he established the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP), which replaced the Klan’s white robes and coned hats with business suits, and violence with political and media campaigns, but promoted similar ideas. His attempts to build a larger audience didn’t have much success at first.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Duke toured Europe, drinking from the fount of far right ideas that have clearly influenced recent white nationalism in the United States.
By the mid-1980s, NAAWP membership had dwindled, and his 1988 run for the presidency on the Populist Party ticket saw him win just 47,047 votes: 0.05 percent of the popular vote. But, in 1989, hungry for larger platforms to express his ideas, Duke managed to outmaneuver the GOP establishment in a special election to win a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, running in an extremely conservative district on an anti-affirmative action, anti-tax and pro-law-and-order platform that won him support and respectability among wealthy homeowners and business groups. From there, Duke made formidable runs for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and the Louisiana governorship in 1991 in contests where local and national Republicans would endorse his Democratic opponents.
It was after his 1991 race for governor that Duke’s political star began to dim. His 1992 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination was lackluster, gaining him a grand total of zero delegates. At a political dead end, he turned his attention to Europe. “I think he ended up finding that his efforts in the United States were not advancing, so he was looking to find supporters among white ethnic groups” in Europe, says Bridges, who covered Duke extensively for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune.
Duke’s first stop, in 1995, was Russia, at a time when the post-Soviet state was emerging from communist rule and in political and economic flux. He met with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who, as leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, had won a seat in the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) in 1993 and had presidential ambitions. “We’re nationalists,” Duke told the Associated Press. “And Zhirinovsky is very protective of what you might call the white race.” In 1999, back in Russia again, Duke met with and befriended Albert Makashov, a Communist known for his anti-Semitic outbursts blaming Jews for his country’s woes. (He had recently called for the expulsion of all Jews.)
In October 1999, The Moscow Times reported Duke as saying, “Russia’s biggest problem is organized crime and its leaders are influenced by the Russian mafia. But it’s not right to call it a Russian mafia, it’s a Jewish mafia.”
During the five years that Duke claims he lived in Russia, renting an apartment in Moscow, he met privately with far-right extremists and activists who sought his advice, including Semyon Tokmakov, charged by Russian authorities in December 2020 with murder motivated by ethnic hatred. The Russian edition of Duke’s book, The Jewish Question Through the Eyes of an American (a translation of several chapters of his 1998 autobiography), the preface for which was written by a former official in then-President Boris Yeltsin’s government, was on sale in the bookstore of the State Duma.
Russian authorities never granted him a residency permit, and Duke floated around Europe, making contact with individuals of similar beliefs and launching the white nationalist European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), an organizing and fundraising vehicle, around 2000. Notorious as both a former American Nazi and Klansman, Duke resided where he could. He was banned, for example, in Britain, and some countries were more vigilant than others. By 2002, SPLC records show that he was living part time in northern Italy, using it as a base of operations to travel to Austria, Switzerland and Romania and to meet with far-right extremists in Germany, where he attended a 2,000-strong neo-Nazi National Democratic Party convention on August 3, 2002.
There is a photo from 2002 of David Duke eating ice cream in Germany with Belgian white supremacist, website designer and computer expert Emmanuel Brun d’Aubignosc and Nick Griffin, the leader of the white supremacist British National Party (BNP). According to the 2007 Intelligence Report article in which the photo appeared, d’Aubignosc would become “a major behind-the-scenes promoter of white nationalist ideology in more than a dozen countries.” He has also been the chief website manager for several high-profile white nationalist organizations, David Duke’s personal webmaster and the webmaster for EURO. According to the Intelligence Report article, d’Aubignosc met Duke in Europe in 2000.
Between 2002 and 2006, Duke also spent time in Ukraine, where he found fertile ground for anti-Semitic propaganda at the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP). Dubbed a “University of Hate” by the Anti-Defamation League, MAUP was, as of 2006, responsible for 70 percent of the anti-Semitic material published in Ukraine, including Duke’s The Jewish Question Through the Eyes of an American. In 2002, Duke received an honorary doctorate from MAUP, and three years later completed a PhD in history there with a dissertation entitled “Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism.” He also lectured on history, international relations and “Zionist influence in the United States.”
For MAUP, “the strategy was to sell Duke by giving him an honorary doctorate, inviting him to seminars, publishing his book and giving him a citation count by citing his work,” says Per Anders Rudling, an associate professor of history at Sweden’s Lund University and a close observer of MAUP’s activities during this period. Duke, says Rudling, suited the institution’s political agenda, which was aligned with radical far-right, anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalism. For Duke, MAUP became a home where his ideas could be disseminated (his articles were published regularly in MAUP’s in-house journal, says Rudling) and given a veneer of academic respectability.
Duke’s extended period abroad came to an end in 2002. In November 2000, while he was on his fourth visit to Russia, federal agents had raided his Louisiana home. He was charged with falsely reporting his income on his 1998 federal tax return and running a mail fraud scheme between 1993 and 1999 that swindled supporters out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. After returning home, Duke pled guilty to tax and mail fraud and in April 2003 was fined $10,000 and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
After a year in a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Big Spring, Texas, Duke spent a month in a halfway house in Louisiana. In 2004, he resumed his European travels. For a while, he was in and out of Ukraine, and in 2006, made headlines when along with assorted European Holocaust deniers, he attended Tehran’s infamous International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust. He also embarked on tours to promote his book Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question, traveling to Sweden in 2005, Hungary in 2006 and Spain in 2007. The following year, he was the keynote speaker at a white supremacist Euro-Rus Congress in Belgium that attracted racists and anti-Semites from Europe and the United States.
Duke’s visits to Europe were not always welcomed. On April 24, 2009, he was holding court with supporters in the Black Eagle restaurant in Prague when Czech law enforcement surrounded the building and took him into custody on suspicion of Holocaust denial and promoting neo-Nazism. Duke was in town at the behest of the Czech neo-Nazi group National Resistance to promote his book with lectures in Prague and Brno. Less than 24 hours after his arrest, Duke was ordered to leave the Czech Republic. Thereafter, he returned not to the United States or Italy, Russia or Ukraine, but to Austria.
Duke’s residence in Zell am See officially began in May 2009, when he formally registered his address with the local authorities, a requirement of Austrian law. Yet there is every reason to believe his time there started much earlier. The Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) states that Duke lived in Zell am See as of the beginning of 2008 and believes he might have been there as early as 2005. The SPLC’s files on Duke first mention his Alpine art business in February 2009. The then-district commissioner in Zell am See, Rosmarie Drexler, told the press in May 2009 that Duke had been fined for violating the registration law, indicating he had been living in Zell am See far longer than he owned up to.
Duke loved hiking in and around the town. He is a nature enthusiast, and at white nationalist conferences in the States, would organize walks in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. The Rise and Fall of David Duke author Bridges tells me that Duke’s love of nature and “deep appreciation of hiking and climbing” were not merely aesthetic, but ideological. Bridges says Duke believes that “God created this wonderful universe, that part of [it] is white people, and that white people should want to live among themselves with their own values.” White people in Duke’s conception of nature are stewards of the earth, Bridges continues, “responsible for its beauty and culture.”
“Although I don’t live in Austria, I do visit for very short periods sometimes because I love the mountains and the friendly people of that country,” Duke claimed in a letter posted on his website on May 20, 2009 in response to an article that appeared in Britain’s Daily Telegraph that reported Duke had set up a home in Austria where he was running a birdwatching business. “I do no political work there,” Duke continued, “I come to walk and think and sometimes photograph in the mountain air among the inspiring peaks.” But there was more to it than that.
From Zell am See, “Duke spoke to the entire world,” says former member of parliament Karl Öllinger, who also runs the anti-fascist website “Stoppt die Rechten.” The DÖW believes Duke was one of the people behind the now-defunct European neo-Nazi website “Altermedia,” shut down by German authorities in 2016. Photographic evidence supplied to Öllinger and shared with me shows that Duke was filming videos for broadcast in his Zell am See apartment. The interior of the apartment—the wallpaper, artwork and furniture—can be matched to the background in videos Duke uploaded to his website with titles such as “Zionist Running Dog Obama and the UN Veto” and “David Duke for President?—It’s up to You!”
Öllinger passed this evidence on to the Jewish community in Vienna, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien or IKG, which has around 7,000 members. Compelled by what it sees as its responsibility to fight anti-Semitism on behalf of its members, the IKG instructed its lawyers to move against Duke and his videos. Julia Andras, managing partner and head of litigation at Lansky, Ganzger + Partner, tells me that she and her firm brought the case in the state of Salzburg (in which Zell am See is located) in December 2011 on the basis of anti-Semitic comments Duke made in some of the videos. In her view, these videos constituted a Verhetzung, hate speech or a hate crime. The district attorney in Salzburg, however, dismissed the case. Although Duke may have made anti-Semitic statements in the videos, he did not, in the DA’s opinion, explicitly call for action or incite violence against Jews.
The IKG was unable to appeal since, according to Austrian law, neither the Jewish community in Austria nor a specific Austrian Jewish individual was the direct victim of Duke’s words—a problem, Andras says, the IKG faces often when dealing with hate crimes. The intelligence services at the federal and state levels believed the videos did constitute hate speech, Andras says; still, the DA turned the case down. “The problem is that Duke knows where the legal border is for his actions”—what he can say and what he can’t—concludes Andras. A spokesperson for Austria’s interior ministry, which is responsible for Austria’s security services, told me that during the time Duke maintained an address in Austria, he neither committed a criminal offense nor made an appearance on the domestic far-right scene. Whether or not this is true, Duke was certainly active outside Austria during this period.
On November 25, 2011, he was picked up by police in Cologne, Germany, where he was due to give a speech to neo-Nazi groups. His presence in Germany, the police claimed, contravened a Swiss decision, handed down in 2009, that deemed Duke persona non grata. This ruling theoretically applied to all 26 member countries of Europe’s Schengen Area, inside of which passport and border controls have been abolished. The Germans sent Duke packing and he returned to Austria.
The expulsion from Germany and the Jewish community’s legal case in Salzburg turned up the heat on Duke. “We don’t want him in [Zell am See],” District Commissioner Rosmarie Drexler told an Austrian newspaper point blank in November 2011. The question of his legality in Austria had always been a dubious one, and the Germany episode brought his Swiss-imposed Schengen ban to light. Öllinger submitted 14 questions about Duke’s residency status, his far-right connections and the Schengen ban to the Austrian interior ministry in the form of a parliamentary inquiry in December 2011. His questions went unanswered.
Duke seems to have understood Austria’s and Europe’s residency laws. Americans are entitled to visit the Schengen Area, which includes Austria, for tourism, business or medical purposes visa-free for up to 90 days within every 180-day period. Drexler says that Duke came and left the country accordingly in order to trigger new 90-day stays. But between 2009 and 2011, something changed. A spokesperson for the interior ministry told me Duke had obtained “valid residency permits issued by other Schengen states”—likely Italy and Malta—which meant that the Swiss order banning Duke was practically unenforceable.
Duke was never banned from Austria. In the end, he left of his own accord. In February 2011, he established residence in Belluno, a ski town north of Venice in the Italian Dolomites. In the spring of that year, he met up with Derek Black (the son of Duke’s old friend Don Black, founder of the white supremacist internet forum Stormfront, and Duke’s ex-wife, Chloe Hardin) in Munich. According to an account of the visit in Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred, the two walked around discussing history and ideology, stopping to see Odenonsplatz, where Hitler and his SA battled with police during his failed 1923 putsch. Duke had referred to himself as Black’s mentor, godfather and second dad. Once a star among American white nationalists, Black has since left the movement and has become a spokesman against it.
In September 2012, Duke deregistered in Zell am See, officially ending his residency there. According to a contemporaneous newspaper report, Duke traveled back into Austria and around South Tyrol, an autonomous German-speaking province in the far north of Italy, during the time he lived in Belluno.
Unlike their Austrian counterparts, Italian authorities pushed back against Duke’s presence. In November 2012, Italian police ruled that Duke constituted a threat to Italian national security on the basis that he wanted to found a new right-wing extremist organization there. In November 2013, a regional court in Venice upheld the police’s decision. With that, Duke decided to return to the United States and to Louisiana, scene of his long-ago political triumphs, where he has a home in Mandeville, a city on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain across from New Orleans.
For the town of Zell am See, Duke’s time there is a closed chapter. Zell am See’s mayor at the time, Hermann Kaufmann, died in office in 2013. The current mayor, Andreas Wimmreuter, declined to comment for this piece, directing me to Austria’s interior ministry. District Commissioner Drexler left office in 2014 and now resides elsewhere in the state of Salzburg. She tells me via email, “Duke’s residence has ended. We carried out many spot checks [on him] during that time. To my knowledge he was not [politically] active in Zell am See.” The present district commissioner, Bernhard Gratz, tells me he has nothing to say about Duke. “I was not involved with this matter,” he says. “That’s Austria,” Öllinger says, laughing and leaning back in his seat as I recount these statements to him.
For Öllinger, questions remain about how it was that America’s best-known white supremacist could have built a life in Austria—an apartment, a new girlfriend, a cell phone number, a car, a photography business, cross-border trips to meet with fellow ideologues—and remained undisturbed in his Alpine paradise. He believes there was a tacit agreement or nonaggression pact between Duke and domestic intelligence. “He can live here in peace and quiet so long as he does not involve himself in Austria’s internal politics. Duke stuck to that,” concludes Öllinger.
Back in the United States, Duke stayed active in white nationalist circles, giving major speeches in 2011, 2012 and 2013 at gatherings hosted by Stormfront. In Louisiana, he ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2016, winning 3 percent of the vote. And he was one of the main speakers at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “This is the first step toward taking America back,” Duke told the crowd.
“Duke has played a major role in the internationalization of far right ideologies and, in particular, anti-Semitism.”
Duke endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, but by 2020, he had soured on him as a candidate and ultimately threw his support to Democratic contender Tulsi Gabbard. Once extremely active online, Duke was banned from YouTube as part of a sweep in 2020 of far-right users; a month later, Twitter also locked him out. He does continue to host an internet radio show and to raise funds via his website, where one can also buy his books and art photographs.
Duke, now 71, has been eclipsed by a new generation of far-right and white supremacist voices, but his long-lasting influence is not to be underestimated. His work paved the way for many of these groups and helped propel the movement—with anti-Semitism at its core—from the fringe to where it is today.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he toured Europe, drinking from the fount of far-right ideas that have clearly influenced recent white nationalism in the United States. Anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway and Halle in Germany have mirrored each other in target, method and motive. The slogan “Jews will not replace us,” thundered on the streets of Charlottesville, references ideas first set down in the 2011 book, The Great Replacement, by the French writer Renaud Camus. And anti-Semitic slogans and sentiments were in evidence at the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“Duke’s time abroad was very significant,” Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, tells me. Through his organization EURO and personal meetings with far-right extremists, speeches in which “he was able to promote his racist and virulently anti-Semitic views,” appearances promoting his books and online broadcasts, Duke, says Mayo “has played a major role in the internationalization of far-right ideologies and, in particular, anti-Semitism.” The personal and ideological links between the American and European far right stand as a key part of his legacy.
Opening picture: Duke speaks to journalists on a street in central Barcelona in November 2007 after the cancellation of a planned news conference on the Spanish version of his book Jewish Supremacism. (Photo credit: Reuters / Alamy Stock)
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