Wednesday

26th Jul 2017

Focus

Far-right waltz in Vienna: the Freedom Party and its fraternities

  • The Hofburg Palace in Vienna (Photo: Paula Funnell)

Once a year, the Viennese faction of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) invites members and friends of the Burschenschaften (student fraternities) to a ball night at the city’s imperial Hofburg palace.

On 24 January the ball was held once again. It is a platform for the biggest networking meeting of right-wing parties and representatives in Europe.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

Ever since its beginnings, in 1952, the annual event has polarised public opinion and within the last few years it attracted thousands of protestors.

The extraordinary measures taken by Austrian police ahead of the ball further enflamed political debate. Protesters were banned from wearing masks or other disguises. Police restrictions were placed around the centrally located Hofburg and it was declared off-limits for the media as well.

The sealed-off area was considerably larger than that put in place for former US president George W Bush's visit to the Austrian president in 2006.

However, clashes between protesters and the police still occurred when around 6,000 anti-fascist and leftist protesters – 200 were considered violent – faced 2,000 police men equipped with tear gas and batons at the edge of the downtown area.

Police reported that six people were injured, 11 police cars damaged and 15 protestors arrested, causing up to €1 million in damage.

Ribbons, scars and agitation

Austria's historic seat of power, the Hofburg palace, can accommodate up to 6,000 guests and runs to over 1,000 square metres. But this year only a few hundred guests attended the controversial highlight in Vienna’s ball season.

Many guests, especially the young men, were wearing various uniforms as well as colourful caps and sashes. Many arrived in couleur, the distinctive headgear with ribbons that is worn by all student society and academic fraternity members.

The colourful garb did not entirely distract from the traditional marks on some of their faces. Some had little scratches and cuts. Others had deep scars running along their cheeks. These marks – worn like a badge of honour – come from what is known as Mensur or academic fencing. This is a short stylised duel in which the participants wait for their face to be marked.

Far-right politician and MEP Andreas Moelzer occasionally moved across the dance floor, dressed in white tie with fraternity insignia and federal medals.

The Freedom Party's leading ideologist, who intends to run in the European elections again, also has sword traces across his cheeks.

Explaining these student fraternities, Heribert Schiedel, an expert on right-wing extremism in Europe and author of Extreme Rechte in Europa says: "Strongly traditional Burschenschaften in Austria are mainly characterised by support for German nationalist ideology and the continued practice of academic fencing, a traditional initiation rite that is carried out to undermine self-defence strategies and break individualism among young members."

The far-right magazine Zur Zeit – of which Moelzer is publisher – described the ball and protests as "Kristallnacht 2014" a reference to the coordinated attacks carried out against Jews in Germany in late 1938.

"It was an inappropriate comparison," the 61-year-old politician said weeks after its publication. But he added he was a publisher, "not a censor".

Meanwhile, Moelzer finds himself under public pressure for his latest comments.

The Green Party and the Jewish community recently said he should not run in the May European elections.

Their criticism came after he stated that the EU was in danger of turning into a "conglomerate of Negroes, where chaos multiplies through mass immigration".

In its magazine edition, the Sueddeutsche newspaper reported that Moelzer also compared the EU to a dictatorship, stating that Hitler's Third Reich was "possibly informal and liberal" and had fewer "rules and regulations".

Comments of this nature are not rare.

Two years ago, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who is known for having a past in the neo-Nazi scene, caused a stir by comparing the guests at the ball to the victims of the Holocaust.

"We are the new Jews," he declared, unaware that media was present.

Schiedel says statements such as these make other rightist politicians in Europe wary of teaming up with the Freedom Party.

"The FPOe is still a party of Nazi apologists with anti-Semitic sentiments, which is the reason why right-wing populists like Geert Wilders [of the Netherlands] hesitated to form a political partnership," says Schiedel.

Dancing and networking

In the recent past, the ball appears to have turned into a political event.

A look back on attendance is recent years reveals a who's who of Europe's hard right.

• Jean Marie Le Pen (Front National: 2008)

• Frank Vanhecke (Vlaams Belang: 2008)

• Philip Dewinter (Vlaams Belang: 2009, 2010, 2011)

• Bruno Gollnisch (Front National: 2009, 2011)

• Kent Ekeroth and Björn Söder (Sweden Democrats: 2012)

• Marine Le Pen (Front National: 2012)

• Philip Claeys (Vlaams Belang: 2012)

The event was traditionally hosted by the Burschenschaften but after public pressure increased the Freedom Party took over organisation of the event in 2012.

The far-right were able to keep the Hofburg palace – currently the official residence of the Austrian president and the place from where Hitler officially annexed Austria into nazi Germany in 1938 - as their ball's venue.

But the organisational handover has affected the ball's turnout. Guest numbers continue to decrease and, notwithstanding some German hardliners, European politicians did not visit this year's event.

According to Schiedel, the far-right try to build and sustain a transnational network, but the parties' various backgrounds and origins differ fundamentally.

Indeed, most international guests as well as some German student unions try to avoid public contact with the Freedom Party, since it has developed a reputation for political extremism.

After visiting the festivity in 2012, Marine Le Pen then said she had not known what kind of event she had been invited to.

This kind of political double-dealing only works, believes Schiedel, so long as there is no general European public to call attention to it.

The party's power base

At a traditional academic feast organised by student fraternities in 2009, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache spoke out against "nonconformist people", "professional antifascists" and "evil imperialists".

"We feel in debt to our German people," he said.

In fact, Austria's Burschenschaften are often more right-wing and radical than their German equivalents.

As membership substantially declined in the 1990s, they were able to gain influence and power in the transnational umbrella organisation "Association of German Burschenschaften".

In 2005, when former leader Joerg Haider left the FPOe to create the breakaway Alliance for the Future of Austria, the party crashed financially. Strache seized his opportunity.

He was able to rebuild the party with the grassroots support of his fraternity brothers.

"Without them [the fraternities] the Freedom Party would not have been able to recover that quickly," says Schiedel.

The revamped party swung further to the right, with the Burschenschaften still serving as its intellectual backbone.

At the national assembly's constitutive meeting in 2006, all members of the Freedom Party arrived with cornflowers in their buttonholes, a symbol Austrian Nazis used instead of the Swastika after the banning of the Nazi Party in the early 1930s.

In 2011, the party changed its political manifesto.

In order to keep the far-right base satisfied, their allegiance to the "German people's community" was readopted. Wording on this had been removed in 1998.

Since Strache's leadership of the Freedom Party, the far-right has seen a rise of 10 percentage points at the national level. It gained 21.4 percent in the most recent parliamentary elections. Polls suggest it could get around 30 percent in the EU elections.

Vienna: A reluctant cosmopolis

Vienna excels in quality of life surveys due to its local government, but Austria's capital may need to show more openness to foreign influences if its success is to endure.

EUobserved

When two worlds collide

Two worlds collided at the end of last week. The shrill, uncompromising one of British politics and the technocratic, dry, world of the European Commission.

EUobserved

Schadenfreude and fire-walking in the EP

There was outright glee in the EP on Thursday. It was time to dust off everyone’s favourite German word for pleasure in the misfortune of others.

EU parliament approves Juncker commission

MEPs have approved Juncker's new EU commission, with a slightly smaller majority than in 2010, and following a number of concessions on portfolios.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  3. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  4. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  5. ECPAFood waste in the field can double without crop protection. #WithOrWithout #pesticides
  6. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  7. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  8. Martens CentreWeeding out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  9. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  10. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Episode 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  11. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  12. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way

Latest News

  1. EU and Turkey fail to defuse tensions
  2. European law will apply 'for years' in the UK, says EU judge
  3. US votes to sanction EU firms in Russia project
  4. Journalists on trial highlight Turkey crackdown
  5. EU to give research tips on dual food quality
  6. Polish president's veto leaves uncertainties over next move
  7. EU Commission unmoved by Polish president's veto
  8. UK presses the Brexit pause button

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  2. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  3. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  4. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  5. EU2017EEPM Ratas: EU Is Not Only an Idea for the 500mn People in the Bloc, It Is Their Daily Reality
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy
  7. ILGA-EuropeGermany Finally Says Ja - Bundestag Votes for Marriage Equality!
  8. EPSUJapanese and European Public Sector Unions Slam JEFTA
  9. World VisionEU, Young Leaders and Civil Society Join Forces to End Violence Against Girls
  10. UNICEFNarrowing the Gaps: The Power of Investing in the Health of the Poorest Children
  11. EU2017EEEstonia to Surprise Europe With Unique Cultural Programme
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Vs. Critical Voices