That “We are the new Jews” comment and that Ball

Last Fridays Viennese Corporations Ball was already more controversial than normal. The timing of this annual event (which brings together members of far-right fraternities, the FPÖ and politicians of other far-right parties from across Europe) being held on the same date as Holocaust Memorial Day had heightened the controversy that surrounds this gathering.

Then Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the FPÖ, threw oil on the fire by making his “We are the new Jews” comment – as well as also making further comparisons between the persecution of Jews by the Nazis and the demonstration outside the event by around 6,000 people opposed to the views of those attending the ball. That he said these things is not disputed. His attempts to counter the outrage and disgust generated by claiming that the `overheard‘ comments have been `taken out of context‘ has been refuted by the journalist  concerned, who was part of the group to whom Strache made the statements.

That Strache, as the leader of a far-right party, should care about the outrage caused by his comments is linked, I would suggest, to the real damage this could do to him and his party‘s hopes of achieving further electoral advancement. While Strache’s electoral core may be xenophobic, nationalsitic and deeply conservative, a significant chunk of the FPÖ vote is a mix of the disenchanted, those attracted by popularist rhetoric  on issues such as crime and Europe, as well as some anti-establishment elements. These voters (and those Strache still hopes to win over) tend to dismiss or ignore the more extremist elements of the FPÖ and see in the party a ‘for us’ not ‘for themselves’ message. Which means the FPÖ is particularly vulnerable to evidence of corruption (a just like the ‘rest’ image) and even more to extremist or Nazis accusations.

More than once I’ve met young Austrians who’ve said ‘Strache is not an extremist. He’s not like the others politicians; he goes to night clubs and buy’s people drinks’.  I’ve also heard the ‘the FPÖ are not extremist’ from pensioners ‘they’re the only one’s standing up for us’. In such conversations those concerned have not been ‘rabid rightists’ but moderate or ‘non political’ voters and all of whom have when press qualified their support for the FPÖ.

It’s this image as a populist party (fit for government) that Strache has desperately been trying to protect all week, whilst continuing to propagate the ‘we are unfairly persecuted’ argument. The populist pricture has been suffering as the outrage has provided the Press and opponents plenty of opportunity to highlight the many ‘extremist’ links and statements associated with the FPÖ over the years. The more Strache has tried to defend the statements made the more the story has run and the more reminders of the party‘s extreme nature has recieved coverage.

Whether this episode will in the short or long term do any real damage to the FPÖ will probably depend upon the ability of the other parties to capitalise on the further doubts this may put in the minds of the wider public, as this has become a story with a reach well beyond the chattering classes. Alas the record of the other parties is not great in consistently and effectively challenging the FPÖ. Ironically, the alternative damage scenario is that in having to defend his statements and assert a more ‘moderate’ image Strache may end up being attacked again by his own right wing.

Now returning to the assertion that made that the assorted ‘rightists’ of the FPÖ, the far-right fraternities and other such groups are the new ‘victims’ may seem to outsiders curious and the comparison to the Jews clearly and simply outrageous. But later it has been suggested by some commentators is an indication of the degree to which the holocaust is played down or minimalised in these circles (Holocaust denial is actually illegal in Austria).  While the persecution complex may go deeper than that of the ‘everyone is our enemy and out to get us’ mentality often associated with extremists of the right and left.

The idea of the extreme right being ‘victims’ has a very specific historical root here in Austria and so is a theme that can be played in the knowledge that it has clear recognition with the target audience. After the war the de-Nazification efforts, while rather differently approached by each of the four occupying powers, did involve a large number of people being denied certain jobs and the right to vote. I have read estimates that put the percentage of those affected when you take into account the wider families as being around 20% of the population. This period created for some a real sense of victimisation of people who had not had a senior role to play in events or who were condemned by association. It is a sufficiently strong view (though dismissed by many) that I have found myself being told about this victimisation in a number of discussions, with a range of individuals, over the years. Ex-Nazi members did rejoin the democratic society that was being established and served in as well as voted for all the main parties.

Whilst all the parties made efforts to secure the support of these voters, the FPÖ (a then combination of liberal and nationalist elements opposed to the corporatist approach of both the dominant parties – the conservative ÖVP and the social democratic SPÖ) became the political home for many of these people and their families. The FPÖ was sufficiently liberal in these earlier days for the SPÖ to form a coalition government with the party in the mid-1980’s. It was only when Jörg Haider secured the leadership of the party in 1986 did it move towards the right wing populism of today – which by 1993 had caused a liberal faction to breakaway and form the Liberal Form (LIF). Ironically, a now more ‘moderate’ Jörg Haider himself (in 2005) eventually lead a faction out of the FPÖ to form the ‘Future of Austria’ (BZÖ) as a ‘moderate’ popularist party seeking to attract those put off by the more extremist elements of his former party.

Below is my updated table on party support based upon of the last five polls I’ve seen (note all taken before the current controvesy):



GE   2008


























Sources: Gallup, 28-01-2012
OMG, 26-01-2012
Gallup, 01-01-2012
IMAS, 28-12-2011  

1 Comment

Filed under Austrian Politics, Politics

One response to “That “We are the new Jews” comment and that Ball

  1. Pingback: June brings sunshine to governing & new parties but only storms clouds for the Far-Right | viennalife

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