Animal Protection > AR Interviews

Activism The European Way - Martin Honsch of the Austrian Vegan Society
By Claudette Vaughan. First published in Vegan Voice.

Martin Honsch is 38 years old. He first became active in the animal rights movement in 1982. Vegetarian for 22 years and vegan for 14, he is the founder and president of the Austrian Vegan Society. For some years now he has been a humane educator with the Association Against Animal Factories and recently he was elected that organisation's president. In September 2001, Austria held its first national animal rights conference, organised by Martin to strengthen and unify activists in Austria. He has lived in England where he was very active in hunt sabbing. He supports direct action and gave up his promising career in physics to devote himself full-time to animal rights issues. He has a PhD in astrophysics, which he taught at Cambridge and he has now completed all the necessary course work for a PhD in philosophy. For two consecutive years he was guest speaker at the US National Animal Rights Conference, and he has completed some fascinating research on the parallels between factory farming and the Nazi use of slave labour, especially with regard to the Slavs. Recently, Martin has been working on legislation to prohibit circuses. That's just for starters. Here is his story.

Q. You are founder and president of the Austrian Vegan Society. How big is veganism in Austria and in Europe itself?

A. England, surely, has the longest history of veganism, having founded its Vegan Society in 1944. In the rest of Europe, veganism is catching up in Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries. Austria is somewhere in the middle. We founded our Vegan Society in 1999. Austria was ripe for it, and veganism started with an avalanche. There are no statistics for how many people are actually vegans. But from 1995 to 2002, the number of vegetarian restaurants in Vienna increased from five to 30, and basically all of them have vegan options on the menu, nine are almost completely vegan, and one is 100 per cent vegan. The first vegan sausage stand, a traditional thing in Vienna, has hit the headlines this autumn.

Vegan alternatives are available everywhere now. There are, for example, some 15 different vegan sausages, most of which can be bought in supermarkets. The vegan trademark, controlled by the Vegan Society, has been introduced and can be seen on quite a few products already. The Italian company Garmont is producing a series of vegan mountain boots, which are readily available in shops. Vegan toiletries, vegetarian shoes and belts, and vegan cat and dog food can be bought in a shop in Vienna too.

Q. You are the president of the Association Against Animal Factories. What kind of work do you undertake?

A. Our primary aim is to fund and support grassroots activity. We offer our entire infrastructure and legal support to grassroots groups, who suggest projects to us which we fund individually, budget permitting. Another part of our work is to go into schools and teach animal rights, or organise AR projects. We have been doing this as a society since 1995.

Also important is our ever-growing archive of video footage and photographs of the animal abuse industry in Austria. We are constantly increasing the amount of data. People go out regularly and film inside factory farms and even in vivisection labs.

We do try to challenge the general attitude in society, as well as in the legal system, toward non-human animals. We do this by going into a factory farm and rescuing a non-human animal, and then going to the police and reporting ourselves in order to provoke a trial. We believe it is legal to rescue a non-human animal if it is in need, even if by doing so we are breaking the law.

As we are the fourth largest animal organisation in Austria, with 18,000 paying members, we use that fact to speak in public and with lawmakers and politicians to promote the AR ideal. As a grassroots individual, I would never have had the chance to talk to our Prime Minister, for example. But as the spokesperson of such a big organisation, I have done exactly that a couple of times already in the last six years.

Innovative electronic civil disobedience is a feature of a strong worldwide anti-globalisation movement. Examples include politically motivated hackitism, culture jamming and cracking web sites, as well as e hijacking. Do we need to get savvier in this area, in your opinion?

I think that the internet offers us a huge opportunity as a social movement that is up against powerful interests, politically and economically. The internet is cheap and fast. The civil rights movement in the last century, or the anti-slavery a century before, did not have this advantage. It is therefore vital that we stay on top of new developments in this area and that state control is kept at bay.

Q. Of all your direct action activities which have been the most personally fulfilling?

A. With direct action, it must be hunt sabbing. "Personally fulfilling" is probably the wrong phrase, though. It was wonderful to see so many people getting involved, and so many people coming to help if hunters attacked someone. But my most fulfilling activities were campaigns, of which direct action was only a part.

We were very successful against fur farming in Austria. After a long campaign, including much direct action like animal liberations and occupations, but also arson, fur farming was banned in 1998 and all fur farms closed.

The other most successful campaign was against wild animal circuses. Since 1996, we have been outside most of the shows of the three wild animal circuses in Austria. We had to take a lot of violence, and the ALF retaliated with two arson attacks, and we lost in all court cases, but still two of the three circuses went bankrupt. Our circus video, which was sent to all parliamentarians, together with lots of public video showings, did the trick, seemingly: we are about to get a new law saying that all wild animal circuses will be banned from Austria from 2005 onwards. As a consequence, all circuses have sold their wild animals abroad. Right now, there is no wild animal circus in Austria.

Q. What is your opinion on rights versus reform?

A. There is not so much of a split in the movement regarding this question here in Austria, as I know there is in the USA, for example. Thinkers like Paula Cavalieri made the point quite clear when she visited Austria last time: reform does not hinder the development of the rights ideal, but it waters down our expectations and it costs us time.

I guess this is the attitude everywhere, mostly. I am very positive about the future of the rights movement. It is getting to be more and more of an issue in Austria.

Q. Tell us about your research on the parallels between factory farming and the Nazi use of slave labour. What conclusions did you arrive at?

A. If you read the original sources, you find that the attitude of the Nazi leaders to Slavic people was very similar to the attitude of human society today to non-humans, i.e., we are superior to them, and we use them to our advantage, but are nice to them if it does not cost us much. Slavic people were caught in their millions in the east of Europe and carted to slave labour camps in the Third Reich. They were not considered persons before the law. But there were welfare laws to protect them. However, the more desperate the war or the more important the situation, the more brutal was their treatment, including a complete exploitation leading to death from exhaustion similar to battery hen farms today, for example.

Indeed, the situations are eerily parallel: from the basic ideology to the practical implementation to the individual fate of the victims.

Q. You are the first person in Austria to strengthen and unify the movement by organising the 1st National AR Conference in September 2002. Tell us about that.

A. From the 5th to the 8th of September, we had the first Austrian AR conference, indeed. Some 400 people came and participated in a total of 30 workshops, four discussions and 10 main talks and debates. Also, 20 hours of AR videos were shown in a special video room. We modelled the conference on the Washington AR conference in the USA. It was very successful.

Since the conference, a new spirit has emerged, a new flavour of cooperation and tolerance within the movement, and more active people than ever before. I definitely recommend this type of activity to anyone.