The Waltz of the Austrian Far Right: The Freedom Party, founded by Nazis, is trying to soften its image.

Author:Hoare, Liam

In January, Austria's Freedom Party (FPO) hosted its annual Academics Ball, where women in gowns and men in tuxedos and three-piece suits dance and socialize in Vienna's splendorous imperial palace. Attendees also proudly dress in the colors and regalia of their Burschenschaften--student fraternities founded during the 19th century, some of which espouse pan-Germanism. Once described as a "networking event" for the European far-right, this year's gala drew 8,000 antifascist demonstrators to the streets. Inside the hall, Freedom Party leader and Austrian vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache--the second-most-powerful man in government--addressed the partygoers: "Anti-Semitism, totalitarianism [and] racism are the opposite of fraternity thinking," he said.

The FPO's return to government in December 2017 as the junior partner in a coalition with the center-right People's Party was viewed as a shift to the right--part of a pan-European trend that has empowered nationalist, anti-immigration parties in Poland, Hungary and Italy. Founded in the 1950s by former Nazi functionaries, the FPO has historically represented the so-called Third Camp in Austrian politics: a mix of nationalism, liberalism and German-ethnocentricity. The party played a minor role in Austrian politics until the 1990s, when under the flamboyant provocateur Jorg Haider's leadership, it became an anti-EU, anti-immigration party, and its vote share exploded. In 2000, the party was strong enough to form a coalition with the center-right People's Party despite Haider's praise of the Third Reich and Waffen-SS and his description of the Mauthausen concentration camp as a "punishment center."

When Strache became FPO leader in 2005, he expanded the party's anti-Muslim message, which became even more strident during the 2015 refugee crisis. At the same time, he "tried to change the image of the FPO from an extreme-right party to a moderate conservative one," explains Austrian political scientist Anton Pelinka. Strache took a friendlier line toward Israel, making multiple visits, including a controversial trip to Yad Vashem in 2016, and has made efforts to distance the FPO from anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and neo-Nazism. In addition to his speech at the Academics Ball, he deleted an anti-Semitic cartoon (posted in 2012) from his Facebook page and has argued that the far-right Aula magazine is no longer an "organ" of the FPO.

But some Austrians believe these changes are rhetorical...

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