Photo by Vladimir Simicek. Celine Jankowiak video
Just outside Vienna, climbers climb “Fortress Europe”, one of the routes on an imposing rock face overlooking fields and forests.
But the name – and others like it that some climbers see as racist or sexist dog whistles – is raising hair in Austria and elsewhere.
“The use of these names leads to a normalization of right-wing extremist propaganda which is simply spread,” mountaineer Daniel Kufner told AFP as he set out with a friend to climb the route.
By centuries-old convention, whoever first climbs a route on a rock can name it.
Kufner and others particularly blame an avid Austrian climber for the tension over names in the small Alpine nation.
Thomas Behm has pioneered many hundreds of routes and has published several guides.
They accuse him of waging a persistent campaign to spread far-right ideology through route names.
In addition to “Fortress Europe,” they include “Greta Dummberg,” a pun that labels teenage climate change activist Thunberg as “stupid,” and traditional dessert names now considered racist.
Others contain subtly veiled references to Nazi terminology, according to historians, which strike a particular chord in Austria, where Adolf Hitler was born and which his Nazi Germany later annexed in 1938.
With anti-Semitism well documented in the past in mountaineering circles in both Austria and Germany, several outlets have distanced themselves from Behm’s books. And the Austrian Alpine Club no longer sells them.
“The Alpine Club faces its own mistakes from the interwar period with care and responsibility,” he said.
Behm told AFP he didn’t want to talk about route names. “In my opinion, this topic has already been dealt with enough.”
But in an article last year, he accused “hysterical counter-movements” of questioning names that “ironically look at climate change and its protagonists, or terms that address the dogma of excessive political correctness.”
However, Behm either changed some of the names of his routes or removed them altogether from his latest guide.
The “Greta Dummberg” route is now called “Greta Thunfisch” (Greta Tunafish) and “Fortress Europe” has been irreverently shortened to “FEurope”.
The debate over the controversial names of the routes extends beyond the borders of Austria.
In Sweden, more than a dozen names associated with the Nazis, such as “A Little Hitler”, “3rd Reich” and “Zyklon”, have appeared on the climbing spots near Stockholm, causing outrage.
“Many climbers understand the criticism, but at the same time they think that you … shouldn’t try to censor or block an old tradition,” Andreas Andersson, head of the Stockholm Climbing Federation, told AFP.
In the United States, Californian group Climb the Gap, which aims to encourage black climbers, has compiled a spreadsheet of hundreds of controversial names since the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2020.
They convinced some climbers and publishers to change offensive names and put pressure on advertisers, according to group founder Jaylene Benggon Chung.
“I think people have become more aware of it,” he said.
“Obviously there are very strong voices of people who are on the defensive and think that nothing should change, but for the most part people understand why it is inappropriate,” added the activist.
Kufner said he was “absolutely in favor of climbing while remaining free as it is” and that changing names “must be agreed between us”.
At a campsite near the Fortress Europe route, opinions differed on how to deal with the problem.
A climber from Prague said it was right for the first person on a route to pick whatever name they like. But another Hungarian said name changes should be considered.
Meanwhile, a plaque that appeared one day in remembrance of “all those who died because of Fortress Europe” was quickly demolished.