BERLIN, Germany — Last Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, but that didn’t stop members of Austria’s right-wing student fraternities from holding their annual ball in Vienna. The elite ball also attracted over 2,000 demonstrators, who tried to stop it from proceeding.
Now one of the country’s most prominent far-right politicians faces possible charges over his reaction to the disturbances.
As the left-wing activists gathered outside the venue, a journalist with Der Standard newspaper overheard Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party (FPOe), comparing the demonstrations with the persecution of the Jews.
“We are the new Jews,” Strache was quoted as saying to others who attended the Burschenschaft Ball, which has been described as “an international gathering of right-wing extremists.” He was also heard to compare the attacks on the ball to Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass in 1938.
The Burschenschaften are male student fraternities found across the German speaking world that are often criticized for being reactionary.
Friday’s event attracted leading figures from Europe’s far-right, including Marine Le Pen, head of the French National Front party. Members of the Belgian Vlaams Belang and Schwedendemokrat parties were also there.
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The fact that the ball had been organized for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 was seen as a provocation by many on the left. Buses ferried over 2,600 demonstrators from across Germany to protest outside the opulent Hofburg Palace. Although they managed to delay the opening of the event, the police prevented them from entering the venue. There were over 20 arrests, including that of a German man, who police said had been carrying explosives.
Strache’s comments have been widely condemned in Austria. The Social Democrats criticized them as a “trivialization of the Nazis’ industrialized mass murder.” Green party lawmaker Karl Oellinger called for his resignation. “Anyone who today – more than 70 years after the November pogrom against the Jews – utters such a comparison, is either crazy or is trying to trivialize the horrors of Nazi rule.”
Vienna’s Jewish community has now said it is referring the incident to the prosecutor’s office and has called for his parliamentary immunity to be lifted.
Read more: Anti-semitism widespread in Germany.
The FPOe says that the comments were taken out of context and presented in a biased manner. Strache had simply wanted to say that the attacks on the ball reminded him of the terrible reports from the Nazi era.
The FPOe was formerly lead by the controversial Joerg Haider, who died in a car crash in 2008. In 1999 the party entered into a coalition government in Austria, causing the EU to impose sanctions on the country.