Burschenschafter Ball: With the Demonstrators
Thousands gathered outside the Hofburg to protest – and a few to support – the far-right politicking at the annual Ball of the Fraternities
On 27 Jan. around 5:00 in the afternoon at Christian-Broda-Platz next to Westbahnhof, only a few hundred had gathered for one of three demonstrations against WKR ball approved by the Vienna police – one more starting at the University of Vienna and marching towards Heldenplatz on the Ringstraße, the main one taking Place on Heldenplatz planned for around 7:00 p.m. Though some families and students are attending, most of young people present are dressed in plain black, their faces covered with dark balaclavas, tight hoods or scarves. "I’m not going to tell you anything. Go ask someone else," one of them replied when I asked why he was here, then added sarcastically, "Good luck!"
Police were arriving by the hundreds, all of them in heavy riot gear, lining up just opposite the protesters, willingly posing for the dozens of photographers who had shown up.
"We are not expecting any riots," one told me. "But we are trained to protect pedestrians, ball-guests as well as protesters, just in case any violence occurs, like the demonstration in 2010," said a higher ranking officer, the only one authorized to talk to journalists. He refused to say the exact strength of police forces deployed that night, but confirmed that officers had been brought in from other federal states (Bundesländer) to reinforce their colleagues.
About an hour later, the protesters’ numbers had increased, with some 1,000 or more making their way in the direction of Heldenplatz via Mariahilfer Straße, accompanied by a speaker wagon, chanting slogans like "alerta! alerta! antifaschista!" (a slogan originally used by Italian fascists to warn their peers about approaching antifascists, later assumed by the antifascists themselves) and "Gegen Macker und Idioten!" (against machos and idiots).
"I’m just here as a spectator," says a young marcher named Roman. He was frustrated that no one seemed to learned from the history of political violence and extremism. "Though I’d consider myself an anti-fascist, I think these guys are really getting it wrong. People on both sides don’t seem to have learned anything at all."
A large, bearded man unfolded a large Austrian flag with the word "Schande" (shame) written across it. Another showed portraits of FPÖ’s Party Chief Heinz Christian Strache, the late Carinthian governor Jörg Haider and Adolf Hitler, topped by the words "Gegen Österreich, Deutschland und seine Hassprediger" (against Austria, Germany and its preachers of hate). Leading the march, a so-called "Black Block" formed with young men, mostly masked, folding themselves in large banners held in front and on the sides, making the group look like a turtle, occasionally blowing off fireworks and bangers. Between them and the police, the "demo–clowns" were marching and chanting, trying to de-escalate the tense situation fooling around with pink swords made of balloons.
Sigrid Maurer former head of the Austrian National Students Union (ÖH) was among the demonstrators. "Some of the other demonstrators coming to Heldenplatz from the University are openly supporting anti-semitic organisations," she said. "For me, this demo is the one to join," she argued, explaining the schism between leftwing groups in preparation of the demonstrations.
An elderly couple standing on the sidewalk nearby, looked on curiously. This was not what they had expected. "We are from Hungary, we are used to this [at home]," the man said. "But it’s a positive sign of Austria’s civil society that many people were taking a stand against rightwing politics…. I could do without the fire crackers, though."
It was 7:30 p.m, as the two protest marches converged on the Ringstraße near the Hofburg. The tension was palpable, as two groups faced off across the street, and a few bottles flew up out of the ranks of demonstrators toward at the officers, who shifted uneasily, not sure what to do. Eventually, all of them, word came from somewhere and the crowd turned and headed in to the Heldenplatz–demonstration.
While the ball was getting on the way inside, black masked protesters left Heldenplatz in small groups, heading along the Ringstraße for the inner city. On Twitter, messages were flying back and forth documenting the ÖH account of the proceedings. Others reporting on street blockades behind the Hofburg, were trying to prevent Burschenschaftler from attending the ball, and were urging followers to join in. Near the Rathaus, a group of young activists was arrested by the police and taken to the lockup ("in den Frosch"), without any formal charges to the witnessing press. They would be released some hours later.
Still, it was a very cold night, and difficult to stand still for long. As the speeches were getting under way on Heldenplatz, many succumbed to the icy temperatures and began heading for shelter. One older Baby Boomer (born in 1943) though, insisted on staying. Raised in a era of political participation, he felt it was important to stand and be counted.
"What bothers me the most is the role of the mass media," he said in frustration. "They are benefiting from the controversy. They focus on political in-fights in order to get good ratings. But the result is that public interest in politics is on a downward spiral, and the parliamentary system and democracy as a whole are the victims." He saw parallels with the interwar period, that his parents had grown up in. "After the First World War, this opened the field for the Nazism" he said. "Today, many young people are too accepting and just consuming what is brought to them." What he would like to see is a lot more emphasis on history, on putting contemporary politics in a larger context.
"Today, there is no serious effort of the mayor political parties to outline rightwing extremism, especially not within the Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) – Lord knows where this is going," he says.
Just days after the event, the myth machine was already well under way. On Freedom Party leader (FPÖ)s Martin Graf’s blog "uncensored" ("unzensuriert.at") one could read: "A bunch of protesters comes running towards us from the Ballhausplatz, their eyes full of hatred for those who are standing on the wrong side. Young girls screaming and spitting. A skirmish, cans of beer are emptied over our heads. In a last effort, we are heading for the police block, the officers were not taking any notice... "
Neither this reporter, nor any of the fellow journalists, photographers, pedestrians, tourists or demonstrators themselves spoken to at the event reported any behaviour of this kind, nor would agree to such a dramatic describing of that evening. In fact, however, several journalists and protesters were attacked with pepper spray by Burschenschaftler attending the Hofburg event, according to SOS Mitmensch speaker Alexander Pollack.
Although there were a few tight situations, emotions were high and (at least according to Heinz Christian Strache and some of the ball guests) violent actions took place, the demonstration, especially on Heldenplatz, was generally peaceful.
Still, this evening shows perhaps that "anti – fascism" in Austria is still limited to a rather small group of activists, some radical, some students, and the least of them party members.
As this year’s date of the WKR ball coincided with the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, attendance was higher than in recent years – but differences between protesters and activists are stronger than ever.