Published January 19, 2012
VIENNA – A committee reporting to the UN's culture organization struck Vienna's many balls from its list of Austria's noteworthy traditions on Thursday amid an uproar over one of the annual champagne-laced galas that critics say attracts neo-Nazis from across Europe.
The decision by the Austrian UNESCO Commission was welcomed by those who oppose the one often-criticized ball, staged in part by dueling fraternities including far-right alumni who display saber scars on their cheeks as badges of honor. But the committee also outraged supporters who reject labeling that event as a magnet for backers of Nazi ideology.
Martin Graf, a leading member of the rightist Freedom Party, said critics of the WKR-Ball are trying to "publicly pillory and vilify ... all those who do not share their ideologically distorted opinion." Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache called the committee's decision a result of "mobbing from the extreme-left."
Like others worldwide, The Austrian committee is a bridge between the government and the Paris-based UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization but is not part of it.
The decision is symbolic and has no bearing on whether future balls can be held. But the fact that the committee's decision was due in part to public pressure reflected a path being traveled by Austria, which has moved from a postwar portrayal of being Nazi Germany's first victim to acknowledging that it was Hitler's willing partner. Anti-Semitism remains among some members of the older generation today, but most young Austrians reject Nazi ideology and condemn the part their parents might have played in the Holocaust.
The committee spoke of a "serious mistake" in listing the fraternity WKR-Ball as one of the nearly two dozen balls comprising an aspect of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria." Noting that the inclusion of the many balls was approved by a panel including representatives of five government ministries, the committee said it decided to strike the whole category of Vienna Ball from its register.
"In connection with the WKR-Ball, we can tell you that we have removed the tradition 'Vienna Ball' from our list," said an email to The Associated Press, using the event's German acronym.
While some of the more opulent Vienna balls are criticized as a showcase of the rich, most are devoid of direct political controversy. For centuries, the city's high society has waltzed blissfully through wars, recessions and occasional firebomb-throwing anarchists opposed to the moneyed decadence they think such events represent.
But the fraternity ball started drawing flack as Austrians began to come to grips decades ago with the fact that their country was one of Nazi Germany's most willing allies instead of its first victim through its 1938 annexation by Hitler. Over recent years criticism of the WKR-Ball's staging has grown -- and protests outside its venue, the ornate Hofburg palace, have occasionally turned violent.
Bowing to the pressure, the Hofburg announced late last year that the ball will have to move elsewhere as of 2013. Tensions this year were exacerbated by its date -- Friday, Jan. 27, will be the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.
Organizers said that was coincidence, with the event always held on the last Friday of January. But opponents were incensed.
Ariel Muzicant, head of Vienna's Jewish community, spoke of "a mockery" of the Holocaust, asking sarcastically: "Are they kind of celebrating the 2 million dead in Auschwitz, or what? Are they dancing, kind of, on 6 million Jews, or what are they thinking of?"
The issue made it to the floor of parliament Thursday, with members of the opposition Green party demanding that the ball be observed by government intelligence agencies and saying past attendees included prominent members of the extreme right and neo-Nazis.
Defense Minister Norbert Darabos described the WKR-Ball as an event "where year after year, internationally known right extremists pass the door handle to each other" -- and forbade members of the military to wear their uniforms if attending.
Defending the ball -- and its place among others on the UNESCO Committee list -- is the Freedom Party, which has coupled populism to lurking Islamophobia and latent anti-Semitism to become Austria's second strongest political force.
Party official Heidemarie Unterreiner urged the committee "not to be impressed by the excited politically motivated babble of some groups which use the media megaphone to create a completely false impression of one of the most significant society events of Austria."