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Q & A: How a fancy Austrian ball stirred worry about neo-Nazis

February 1, 2012 |  1:32 pm

Freedom Party leader Heinz Christian Strache, left, speaks at the opening of the ball.
In Austria, protesters condemned a fancy ball that has been linked to extremists and neo-Nazis. The ball happens annually, but it caused extra uproar last week because it dovetailed with worldwide commemorations of the Holocaust. The event has also struck a nerve as the Freedom Party, a radical right party that has won support from Islamophobes and Holocaust deniers, gains popularity.

To understand this event and why it kicked up so much controversy in Austria, we turned to Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst who studies extremism with the Paris think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques.

A fancy European ball normally conjures up visions of chandeliers and waltzes. How did this ball become linked to neo-Nazis in Austria? Is it really linked to them?

This ball does include chandeliers and waltzes in the magnificent Vienna castle that once was the winter residence of the imperial family. But there is a political flavor to the event, as many of the student fraternities in Austria were founded in the 19th century as a vehicle for pan-German nationalism, a tradition they still hold today. [Pan-Germanism is the idea that all people who speak German should be united politically. It was a key element of Nazism.]

True, some of those fraternities are faithful to democracy and do not ban the Jews from membership: Zionist leader Theodor Herzl himself belonged to one of them. German and Austrian burschenschaften [fraternities], however, are not the mere equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. The fraternity that hosted the ball is clearly linked to the most radical wing of the Freedom Party.

Many of our readers may not be familiar with the Freedom Party. Can you describe the party and why it is considered a possible problem?

The Freedom Party stands for nationalism in a specific way, emphasizing the ethnic German dimension of the Austrian people. It is against the European Union, immigration and Islam. After de-Nazification, it has served as a refuge for former members of the Nazi party.

Why has this ball taken on so much importance in Austria?

In the past, it has received guests like the British Holocaust denier David Irving. Second, because the vice president of the parliament belongs to this fraternity and the Freedom Party. And third, because the ball takes place at the Hofburg Palace, which is the seat of the Austrian state presidency.

This ball is a private event; it is an undue privilege to hold it in an official building. As a result of the public outcry, the presidency issued a statement saying they will not host the ball again.

What does the reaction reveal about Austrian politics?

It reveals that the Freedom Party, which now polls 28% of voters and may well be in government again after the September general election, is seen as a mainstream party in Austria. The prospect of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Freedom Party is real.

How far has Austria come in overcoming its Nazi past? What more could it do?

Austria has always pretended that it had been a victim of Nazism. The historical truth is that the Nazis had no difficulty in annexing Austria because the overwhelming majority of the people acclaimed them in 1938. De-Nazification was lighter than in Germany. There is nothing more the state can do now. It is up to the mainstream political parties to reject any agreement with the Freedom Party.

Is it worth worrying about a ball? Do you think this event really feeds extremism?

Everything which is related to the Nazi past is very sensitive in Germany and Austria, both in the country and abroad. On the other hand there is always a temptation to overreact when a neo-Nazi event takes place in Wien or Berlin, and to downplay what is happening elsewhere in Europe. The way the Orban government in Hungary is behaving right now is certainly more worrying than the Olympia ball. [Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have been criticized by activists and civil rights groups who say they have passed laws that erode democracy.]

But the real test for Austrian democracy will be the September election. Having the Freedom Party back in government would be a big win for the extreme right.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: The leader of the Freedom Party, Heinz Christian Strache, left, speaks during the opening of a controversial ball held last week by student fraternities at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. Credit: Fayer / European Pressphoto Agency

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