Fraternities set the tone in Austria's politics

Hypocrisies are on display at the Viennese academy ball.

SUPPORTERS WAIT for Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO), during an election campaign rally in Vienna. (Reuters) (photo credit: REUTERS)
SUPPORTERS WAIT for Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO), during an election campaign rally in Vienna. (Reuters)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every year, Vienna hosts the so-called Academy Ball in the city’s imperial Hofburg palace, near the square where Adolf Hitler proclaimed the annexation of Austria, and every year thousands protest outside this opulent gathering of Europe’s far-right elite. The annual ball is sponsored by the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Nobel Prize-winning Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek has condemned this “scandalous event” and called it a “denigration of Austria.”
In previous years, before the FPÖ was in the government, I was among the demonstrators. This year, I infiltrated the ball; it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Though worried about being exposed, I secured a position next to the lectern from which I could survey the ballroom. Palpable in every conversation was the exuberant mood and self-confidence that today unites European right-wing parties. Here Polish, Estonian, French and Austrian politicians networked and celebrated the strengthening of ties.
A group of elderly ladies stood nearby. One said “that the Israelis are the best slave owners is clear. Who can mistreat better than former slaves? ....The Jews are smart, they take the money of the Germans. It is the Germans who are stupid to give it to them.” At that moment, the absurdity of my situation became clear to me. Not only was I a stranger here, I also represented the Jewish scapegoat.
The fanfare music sounded, the guests of honor moved in, followed by the polonaise of the Young Ladies and Gentlemen’s Committee. Young men, some bearing the red scars on their cheeks that marked them as reactionary fraternity brothers, held their partners’ hand as they positioned themselves on the dance floor.
The right-wing fraternities are strongly represented in the Austrian Parliament (20 of the 51 posts are members of a fraternity) and form the ideological backbone of the FPÖ.
In fact it was a nationalist fraternity that brought Jörg Haider to the FPÖ party leadership in 1986. Haider was a “Schlagender” himself (part of the “blade culture” connected to right-wing fraternities). Under Haider’s chairmanship, the Freedom Party became increasingly xenophobic, focused on “defensive Christianity” and “Austria first” campaigns.
When Haider split off from the FPÖ and Heinz-Christian Strache became the new FPÖ leader, the nationalist fraternities – still guided by antisemitic ideology – have once more gained ascendancy in Austrian politics. Current efforts to purge their Nazi past are widely regarded as hypocritical.
The herald announced, “Alles Waltzer!” – and elegant couples began to waltz under crystal chandeliers.
I joined a table where some ladies were chatting. One of them asked whether I felt like a German nationalist since I was born in Germany. “No,” I replied, “this is not a relevant category for me; I consider the idea of nation a construction and the German one plays no significant part of my identity.” A lady in a black-red-golden sash agreed with me, but only in relation to the construction of Austrian identity. “I was born in Vienna, and I am related to Beethoven, not to Esterhazy,” she said, referring to a Hungarian noble family loyal to the Habsburgs. The implication was that a noble Hungarian ancestry is inferior to Beethoven’s supposedly German origins.
This is precisely the kind of selective historical narrative that underlies the view of Austria as part of Greater Germany.
Nearby, the power couple Martin Sellner and Brittany Pettibone were surrounded by well-wishers and hounded for selfies: Sellner, 29, is the leader of the “New Right” Identitarian Movement of Austria (German: Identitäre Bewegung Österreichs). “This is the extreme-right superstar,” said my companion. Sellner overhears this remark and radiates.
Sellner explains the concept behind the ball: “It’s a gathering of conservatives from Europe; it’s a political battlefield.”
His girlfriend, a petite, brown-haired young woman, is also part of the Identitarian Movement, and a vehement admirer of US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant views. Brittany is an alt-right commentator who refers to herself as an “American nationalist.” She is currently helping to build Identitarian groups in Canada. “The illegals have to go,” she said. “The wall is the only thing that helps... And it’s going great, really great.”
I’m conscious of my Jewishness, and all too aware of the ways antisemitism plays a unifying role for those present. Their most pressing problems, however, are the threat of loss of identity and culture. In their view, it is democracy that stands in the way of saving one’s nation. It is liberal forces that torpedo their own identity and ethnicity. In this way, traditionalists, conservatives, chauvinists, nationalists and racists, whose self-perceptions may even be contradictory, can suppress the differences between them and come together at this ball.
At some point, even Jews can be seen as allies, as part of a hoped-for joint front against those who feel their own identity threatened. That the Israelis have their own land is great: everyone should belong to a country and defend it, with arms if necessary. At the same time, the idea of the ethnically homogeneous nation-state is upheld by support of the Jewish state. In this respect, it is no surprise that many Israeli and Austrian politicians of the Right understand each other. Those who uphold the notion of nation-state can agree to disagree about everything else.
As the evening draws to a close, I move to the disco area, toward the sounds of “Despacito.” I left the ball longing for Richard Wagner.
The author is currently enrolled in the Austrian Studies masters program at the University of Vienna, her research focuses on Austrian literary history in the interwar period. She is involved in the conception of the permanent exhibition at the Kärntner Landesmuseum.