The Balance of a Ball Night: Scandals, Lawsuits, and Violence

Heinz Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) caused a stir by comparing protests against the ball with “Kristallnacht” | Photo: Ruth Eisenreich

“Dancing on the graves of Auschwitz” is how Green Party head Eva Glawischnig referred to the WKR ball on 27 Jan., during a memorial ceremony on Heldenplatz. The nationalist fraternity ball coincided with International Holocaust Day, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945, and was hence seen as a provocation by critics. The organisers countered that the ball was traditionally held on the last Friday in January.

UNESCO removed Viennese Balls from its cultural heritage list in response to the controversy. The Austrian UNESCO Commission claimed it had “overlooked” the WKR ball entry when the list had been submitted, but said that an amended list of balls could be reinstated.

The WKR Ball needs a new venue after the Hofburg, a state-owned site, came under attack for hosting the right-wing fraternity ball. The managers announced they would no longer lease the Hofburg to the WKR, due to the “current political and media dimension”. Hence, after 43 years, the WKR ball will have to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year in a different location.

Military uniforms and medals were banned from the ball. The Minister for Defence, Norbert Darabos (SPÖ) issued the ban to avoid any impression that the military endorsed the event. Elmar Podgorschek, an MP for the FPÖ and not in active service, appeared in an Austrian army uniform anyway, telling Der Standard it was a “pure act of protest” against the minister’s “arbitrary” decision.  Podgorschek faces a fine of up to €700, said army spokesperson Colonel Michael Bauer.

“We are the new Jews,” remarked FPÖ head Heinz Christian Strache at the ball in the presence of an undercover reporter from Der Standard. “It was like Kristallnacht” Strache said, referring to an arson attack on a fraternity house and the intimidation of ball goers by protesters. The Jewish Community saw the remark as “grossly belittling” the Holocaust – an offence under Austria’s Verbotsgesetz. They have filed a formal complaint with the public prosecutor who can only start investigations if Strache’s parliamentary immunity is lifted. Meanwhile, Austria’s President Heinz Fischer took immediate action by refusing to award Strache a badge of honour he was due to receive as a senior politician.

The protests led to 20 arrests, mainly for damage to property, although one German activist was found with a homemade explosive device. Head of the ball committee, Udo Guggenbichler, said that the police had failed to provide guests with safe access, while protesters felt the police had turned against them. In the end, minor injuries were sustained by three ball goers, five police officers, and one activist.

The most serious violence was inflicted on another protester. The 69-year-old former Social Democrat MP Albrecht Konecny was beaten up by a suspected neo-Nazi after the demonstration and had to be taken to hospital. Konecny claims that officers nearby did nothing to help him, enabling his aggressor’s  escape. At the time of writing, no arrests had been made, while Konecny was considering taking legal action against the officers for
neglect, according to news agency APA.

See also Austria’s Nazi Frat Boys?

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