Torches for Tolerance

The Vienna Review (04/01/2010)

At the “Dance of Lights Against Rosenkranz,” thousands demonstrated against a far-right candidate for president

Demonstrators marched with candles at Ballhausplatz in Vienna’s 1st District on the evening of March 25, joined in a protest against far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, Barbara Rosenkranz from the Austrian Feedom Party (FPÖ).

The mood at Ballhausplatz, in Vienna’s 1st District, felt unusually welcoming on the evening of March 25, as a sea of brightly illuminated torches were carried high over the heads of thousands of marchers, joined in a protest against the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, Barbara Rosenkranz (FPÖ).

“We have to get up and fight to declare that we don’t want such things to happen,” said Ariel Muzicant, president of Vienna’s Jewish Community. “People need to understand that such events will only harm Austria’s reputation.”

Rosenkranz’s candidacy has revived old fears that are never far under the surface. After decades of effort by Austrian leaders to distance the country from the legacies of National Socialism, fears surfaced again in 2000, when the charismatic FPÖ leader Jörg Haider led the party to a resounding victory in the polls, clearing nearly 30 percent of the vote. And while the Social Democrats still led the field, the final negotiations put the Freedom Party government for the first time into a coalition with the center-right Peoples Party (ÖVP) under Wolfgang Schüssel, who became Federal chancellor.

Rosenkranz speaks at a rally in Sankt Pölten with the face of party leader Hans-Christian Strache glaring behind her.

“The Dance of Light Against Rosenkranz” had gathered largely in response to a Facebook protest group (“Gegen Barbara Rosenkranz als Bundespräsidentin – Against Barbara Rosenkranz for President”) mounted by Robert Slovacek, that laid its unvarnished motto on the line. Designed to raise public awareness on the growing radical right-wing sentiment in the upcoming presidential elections, the demonstration was also directed against the FPÖ candidate herself.

Backstage, thousands of torches were standing by to be handed out to the protestors as they arrived. And they showed up in droves, estimated at between 3,000 (by the police) and 6,000 (by the organizers) people.

Hosting the event, cabaret artist Ditmar Chmelar encouraged the crowd to gather at the square into a massive protest. He officially fired a ceremonial gun, triggering the illuminating of the torches. And suddenly, Ballhausplatz exploded in dazzling flames of light, swelling the strong feelings of community among the protestors. Many had decorated their torches with handmade anti-Rosenkranz buttons just to emphasize their message.

“The intention of this event,” Chmelar explained, “is to exile once and for all the current [radical] impression of Austria.”

Co-host and entertainer Alfons Haider, who brought along a piece of stone from the Mauthausen concentration camp in Upper Austria, challenged the absent presidential candidate: “Come to Mauthausen with me and experience it yourself. It is a massive dishonesty to deny the existence of gas chambers.”

“I can’t understand how a presidential candidate can doubt the Verbotsgesetz” – the law outlawing the denial of the Holocaust – Robert Slovacek declared, and thus question the “fundamental anti-Fascism principles of the Second Republic.”

To a cheering crowd, he restated the motto of the demonstration: “Let us offer this protest as a symbol and declare that there is no space in Austria for racism and extremism,” he said.

The demonstration ended with a symbolic gesture that had once marked the end of WW II and the Holocaust, as well as the reintroduction of a peaceful democracy for Austrian citizens – the national anthem. With 6,000 participants singing along, and the sound of “…viel gerühmtes Österreich, viel gerühmtes Österreich,” (highly renowned Austria) the night was plunged into darkness again. Slowly the crowd dispersed, some still carrying their torches, heading back out through the city streets to find their way home.