8. Mai, Nazi Frei!

Clashes occur between anti-fascist protesters in Vienna and authorities protecting the FPÖ and the Burschenschaften

Anti-fascist protesters gather on the steps of the main building of the University of Vienna in preparation for a march and demonstration at Heldenplatz | Photo: Monica Slavov

For Europeans, May 8 is an important holiday. It was on this day in 1945 that Nazi Germany signed an unconditional surrender, drawing Europe out of six years of warfare that had resulted in the loss of over 56 million military and civilian lives. Each year, May 8 is a day of celebration in Vienna, commemorating the end of fascism, oppression and the Holocaust.

But this year, things turned ugly as conflict erupted in Heldenplatz when extreme-rightists who had gathered to lament their “fallen heroes,” were met by antifascist protesters.

Proceedings began at 15:00 in Schwarzenbergplatz, the location of the Heroes Monument of the Red Army, where representatives from the Jewish community, the Green Party and members of the post-Soviet community as well as representatives of their respective Embassies gathered to remember the victims of the most atrocious war in history.  Flowers and wreaths were laid upon the steps of the monument to the Russian soldiers who died in the “fight against fascism.”

It was a traditional remembrance, with speeches about the past, reflections on the present and hopes for the future. However, it was the day’s agenda that was on everyone’s minds: A march into Heldenplatz to raise their voices against the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), and the groups of right-wing fraternity brothers, the Burchenschafter, who are understood by many to hold neo-Nazi sympathies, and who would be gathering there to hold a memorial service for those they call “heroes.” There, Schwarzenberg Marchers would speak out.

“The 8th of May should be celebrated as a day of liberation in all of Austria,” said Ariel Musikant, head of the Jewish Community in Vienna to the crowd at the Soviet Memorial. “But this must also extend to the level of the citizens. We will never again give over Heldenplatz to the Nazis and those eternally living in the past.”

Police responding to firecrackers set off on Heldenplatz | Photo: Monica Slavov

The crowd listened quietly and attentively, each speech followed with applause. This was only a warm-up to what would later be a far more impassioned outcry.

“Anyone who doesn’t celebrate today has lost,” declared David Ellensohn, party leader of the Vienna Greens. “We are here not just to commemorate the victims, but to celebrate – that through the defeat of the Nazi’s criminal regime, this horrible war was brought to an end.”

During the proceedings, organizers walked through the crowd passing out orange and black armbands, similar to those originally given to the most honored of the Soviet army. The orange standing for fire, and the black for ash.

“It is for strength, struggle and bravery,” said one elderly Russian woman, “which is why every protester deserves one on this day.”

As the memorial service in Schwarzenbergplatz continued, parallel demonstrations were already underway on the steps of the Main Building of the University of Vienna at 17:00. Students sat upon the steps drinking beer as a Russian band entertained, playing popular Russian songs, as well as infusing Jewish vocal melodies with rock ‘n’ roll sounds. Calling themselves “antifascists,” they had made huge banners they had spread out, covering the steps:

“The March to Stop the Nazis, the Frat Boys and the FPÖ” and

“Gotta Catch‘em All: Nazis Flambé.”

It was a spirited atmosphere, full of passion and high purpose, getting the protesters primed for the march at 19:00 into Heldenplatz, where they would confront the procession of Burschenschaften mourning the fallen Nazis.

Burschenschaften and the FPÖ holding their disputed memorial service on the steps of Heldentor | Photo: Monica Slavov

Led by the FPÖ, the procession of party regulars, the Burschenschaften and other supporters entered Heldenplatz from the direction of the Volksgarten. As they crossed the square, the students were ready, shouting out “Nazis raus! Nazis raus!” – the voices of over 2,700 antifascist protesters exploded in fiery echoes across the square, as they pressed against the police controls containing them on the other side of the square. The policemen, fully padded, armed with guns, and plastic riot shields in hand, moved along behind the ad-hoc barricades to the jeers of the antifascist crowd, as glass bottles were thrown across the “safe-zone” at the procession.

Suddenly there were firecrackers, exploding with a sharp crack, and the police reacted, leaping over the barriers, pushing protesters back to look for whoever had set them off.

On the stage outside the Palais Hofburg, antifascist speakers from the Jewish community and the Sozialistische Jugend Wien (Socialist Youths of Vienna) voiced particularly heated criticism of a past still unacknowledged, that “Austrian fascists” young and old have yet to recognize the role Austria had played in the war and the pain left behind to World War II’s victims and their families. It was an insult, they said that the Burschenschaften and the FPÖ were allowed to mourn Nazi soldiers in the Heroes Square.

“They are anything but,” exhorted one speaker.

Following the protest, as the Burschenschaften and the FPÖ left the square, protesters took to the streets at a final attempt to interfere with the procession. Along one of the side streets, several demonstrators attempted to break through the barrier until police officers came and slammed it shut again.

Later, videos appeared on YouTube of a follow up protest outside the Restaurant Leupold on Schottengasse where the Burschenschafter had gone for dinner. Here the crowd continued shouting the insults that had echoed at Heldenplatz, while others stood by in support, milling about in the street behind. At 22:00, when the city noise ordinance took effect, the police called in the canine unit in an attempt to disperse the remaining protesters. Several were arrested and many others temporarily detained.

Back at Heldenplatz, the square was quiet. With the exit of the Burschenschaften, everyone else dispersed; banners were rolled up and the stage dismantled, as crew packed up the last of their cables and microphones to clear the area.

The demonstrators went home satisfied. “It was a huge success, that thousands of people came to protest on Heldenplatz and speak out against the extreme right,” said Stefan Jagsch, head of the Socialist Youths of Vienna, the next day. “That pathetic little pile of radical right Frat Boys did the disqualifying all by themselves.”

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