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Austria shaken by ‘Nazi songbook’ scandal

A scandal in Austria over a student fraternity songbook with lyrics glorifying Nazis has put the new government under pressure and prompted soul-searching about the country's relationship with its past.

Austria shaken by 'Nazi songbook' scandal
FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache. Photo: AFP

The songbook, brought to attention last week in the media, contained lyrics such as “Step on the gas… we can make it to seven million”, a referens to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The timing could not have been worse for Udo Landbauer, a candidate for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in elections in Lower Austria state last Sunday – and the Germania fraternity's vice-president.

After what Landbauer called a “media witch-hunt” and protesting he knew nothing about the book, the 31-year-old resigned on Thursday and suspended his party membership pending an investigation.

Regardless of his guilt or innocence, the affair has thrown a spotlight on the FPÖ, on the nationalist fraternities that many senior party members belong to, and on conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

For historian Stefan Karner, the “biggest scandal” about the affair is that the book was produced not in the 1940s or soon after World War Two but in 1997.

“After so much research, exhibitions, discussions, witnesses talking in schools (and) Holocaust films and dealing with our past… nobody can claim to be ignorant,” Karner told the Kurier daily.

The reason, believes political scientist Matthias Falter, is to do with Austria's “tardy and incomplete” process of facing up to its complicity in the atrocities of the Nazis.

“In the 1950s and 60s hardly any trials took place. Collective memory was steeped in memories of fallen soldiers,” he said.

For a long time after 1945, Austria thought of itself as Hitler's “first victim”, having been “annexed” – to no resistance and to general public approval – into the Third Reich in 1938.

This changed in the late 1980s when a scandal over the – actually minor – wartime record of former UN secretary general and Austrian president Kurt Waldheim prompted a collective re-think, Falter said.

Duelling scars

But whether this process that Austria's other politicical parties went through in confronting the past has also happened to the same extent with the FPÖ is a moot point.

Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, who flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth, has toned down the party rhetoric and has expelled party members overstepping the mark.

But the party is still viewed with suspicion, even after entering a governing coalition under Kurz in December. Austria's main Jewish organization spurns all contact with FPÖ government ministers.

The student fraternities do not help. Many of them are like something from a bygone age, duelling with (blunt) sabres, wearing militaristic uniforms and believing in a “Greater Germany”.

More than a third of the FPÖ's 51 MPs and ministers, including Strache, reportedly not shy of duelling in the past, belong to such organizations. They are men-only, although a handful of women-only ones exist too.

Strache, attending a fraternity Viennese ball last Friday, said that “anti-Semitism, totalitarianism (and) racism are the opposite of fraternity thinking”.

Strache, now deputy chancellor, has also said he intends to organize a historical commission to delve into his party's past, although the historians have not yet been found to do the job.

“Time to lie on Freud's couch,” the Die Presse daily said in a recent editorial, referring to Sigmund Freud, the Vienna-born father of psychoanalysis who had to flee the Nazis in 1938.

“The ability of the FPÖ to govern, which Strache has to prove, will be measured by its readiness to submit to an analysis and to confront its past,” the paper said.

Article by AFP's Sophie Makris

ANTI-SEMITISM

Austrian Jews call for investigation into far-right leader for comparing Covid measures to the Holocaust

Jewish associations have called for a criminal investigation into Austrian far-right leader Herbert Kickl for comments they say grossly trivialise the Holocaust, which is illegal in Austria.

Covid protest
Demonstrators march and light flares during a rally called for by the far right Freedom Party. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Kickl, who leads the Freedom Party (FPÖ), has supported demonstrations against Covid-19 measures, at which some protestors have carried signs comparing themselves to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

Speaking on Austrian TV in December, Kickl was challenged about the anti-Semitic elements of the protests.

He said: “National Socialism did not begin with a world war, not with any extermination camps, but it began with people being systematically excluded. It began by not allowing children to go to school because they were of Jewish descent, for example.”

INTERVIEW: Why one Holocaust descendant chose to become an Austrian citizen

The Austrian Union of Jewish Students, together with the Executive Councilor of the World Jewish Congress, and a board member of the Association of Jewish Victims of the Nazi Regime (BJVN), has asked state prosecutors to investigate whether these comments fall under the Austrian crime of “gross trivialisation of the Holocaust”.

Sashi Turkof, President of the Jewish Austrian University Students, said: “The statements by Herbert Kickl must be understood as a massive danger for us all. The comparison with the Nazi regime and the constant and open trivialization of the Shoah are a conscious tactic and pave the way for the normalization of anti-Semitism and the relativisation of history.”

Only the state can file criminal complaints under this law, which is why the associations have called on Vienna prosecutors to begin an investigation into the comments.

READ ALSO: Vienna Nazi art show seeks to address Austria’s WWII legacy

Signs comparing Covid-19 measures to the Holocaust have been shared by protestors at several Covid rallies, including likening Austrian politicians and health officials to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor and SS officer who performed deadly and unethical medical experiments on prisoners of the concentration camps. Other protestors have worn yellow stars with the word ungeimpft (not vaccinated), in a nod to the Star of David many Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi era.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer has condemned the anti-Semitic elements of the protests, and warned of extremist groups who he said saw the protests as a “golden opportunity” to exploit tensions.

In a statement given while Interior Minister, Nehammer said these statements “insult the millions of victims of the Nazi dictatorship and their families”.

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