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25th Feb 2024

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.

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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.

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