The FPÖ and the Fraternities’ Ball

Under the guise of ‘academics’, Austria’s far-right waltzed once again at the Hofburg

Opinion | Werner Reisinger | March 2013

Every year at the end of January, a "happening" takes place on the streets of Vienna’s inner districts that might seem strange to the eyes of visitors (see TVR, Feb. 2012). While inside the Hofburg, right-wing politicians and friends are taking the floor at what until last year was called the Wiener Korporations-Ball, on the outside, demonstrators of every stripe are protesting the far-right celebrating at Vienna’s most representative building.

As a result, the Hofburg decided to ban the WKR Ball of the conservative university fraternities from Vienna’s Heldenplatz, because of intense pressure of the Green Party and smaller leftist or anti-racist groups – and of course, the media coverage.

But shortly after the ban, FPÖ politicians Johann Gudenus and Martin Graf simply re-organised an "academic ball", trying to disguise the nature of the event by officially registering it under the FPÖ – even though many FPÖ politicians were themselves fraternity members.


Demonstrators block the streets 

So this year’s protest-marches were as strong as ever, with demonstrators blocking the streets around the Hofburg and thus the arrival of the ball guests. As last year, protesters attacked guests with paint bombs and even spit on the face of a young woman attending the ball, provoking harsh criticism and media attention.

Again, the actions of a minority threatened to discredit the cause of the peaceful majority.

So, how is it that in Austria, the rather small German-nationalist and right-wing holds such disproportional power within the society? Why are the Austrian anti-Fascists limited to a marginal left-wing scene, despite strong public outcries in 1992 and in 2000, when the late Jörg Haider formed a government with the conservative ÖVP?

To understand the FPÖ as the stronghold of the far right, one must take a closer look at the post-war era. After the defeat of the National Socialist regime in 1945, there was only a short period of so-called denazification in Austria. With the advent of the Cold War in 1947, anti-Communism rather than anti-Fascism dominated public discourse, and the Allies focused on the integration of post-war Austria with the West. In the same year, almost half a million ex-NSDAP party members, the so-called "Minderbelastete" (minor transgressors), were pardoned and regained their right to vote, forming the "Federation of Independents" (Verband der Unabhängigen, VdU) which in 1956 became the FPÖ.

In the early post-war years, the so-called "victim-doctrine" took hold, encouraged by the Allies, who were eager to support Austria as a buffer zone to an increasingly Communist Eastern Europe. This made it possible for Austrian authorities to externalise responsibility for war crimes committed during the time of National Socialism. Austrians had been "forced" to take part in a "war nobody wanted", politicians announced in the Declaration of Independence of 27 April 1945.

The majority of Austrians thereafter were able to see themselves as the "first victims" of Hitler’s aggression, making the Holocaust a "German responsibility". While the SPÖ and the ÖVP were campaigning for the votes of ex-Nazi party members and returning war prisoners, the FPÖ became a melting pot for die-hard German nationalists along with disappointed SPÖ and ÖVP voters. The party of the former National Socialists became an integral part of Austria’s political landscape.


Breaking down the ‘victim doctrine’

Things began to change in the 1970s and 80s, with a new official culture of remembrance – peaking with the "Waldheim Affair" – that eventually broke the "victim doctrine" and stimulated intense public debate about Austria’s responsibility for its past. With the controversy over Waldheim’s fragmented biography, the self-conception of the war generations coalesced. And although he triumphed at the presidential elections in June 1986, the thesis of "co-responsibility" has since prevailed both on an official and on a collective scale.

With the "Waldheim Affair", the former political culture unravelled and a civil society emerged, which later manifested itself in the Lichtermeer (Sea of Lights) demonstrations against the xenophobic anti-migration referendum of the FPÖ in 1992. Even though the referendum failed, the late party chief Jörg Haider succeeded in establishing harsher migration and asylum legislation, and the mainstream parties, especially the ÖVP, shifted to the right.

And while the culture of remembrance has changed the society fundamentally, Austria is still lacking a serious socio-political discourse about the role of the Freedom Party.

The WKR or "academic" ball of the FPÖ is probably the most important symbol of the party’s position in Austria’s political system and its society.

Intense protest against xenophobia and right-wing extremism has waned for the moment. Still, anti-fascism should be about alliances between members of the entire democratic spectrum and should not be left for those who mainly seek confrontation.

Now, it’s time for the mainstream political parties to mobilise against a political culture of fear and intolerance that is an integral part of Austrian society.


Werner Reisinger is a Master’s candidate for Contemporary History at the University of Vienna.



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