In January, Udo Landbauer, a rising right-wing politician in Austria, woke up to a firestorm: the press had discovered that he once was deputy leader of a fraternity that allegedly held neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic views.
Reporters got their hands on the secretive fraternity's songbook, which featured lyrics celebrating the Holocaust and calling for the murder of Jews.
“In their midst comes the Jew Ben Gurion / Step on the gas, old Germanics! / We can make it to seven million,” read some of the offending lyrics.
Landbauer, a 31-year-old candidate for Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in state elections, protested that he had only ever seen copies of the songbook with pages torn and certain passages blacked out. But his claims to have known nothing proved insufficient, and he resigned from his party under a cloud of shame.
But the scandal doesn’t end with him. Eighteen of the Freedom Party’s 51 MPs belong to similar nationalist “Burschenchaften” fraternities. The controversy has shone a light on a movement which analysts say acts as the intellectual core of the Freedom Party — the junior partner in Austria’s coalition government — and a gateway for right-wing extremists into national politics. Now Austria’s 150-odd nationalist fraternities, and their influence on the country’s politics, are under mounting scrutiny.
“There’s a massive, creeping restructuring of our state,” Christian Kern, the former Austrian chancellor who is leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, warned in Vienna recently. “A secret society, the fraternities, is infiltrating the state’s structures. They are taking senior posts in the bureaucracy, in the universities, in companies, they are sitting in ministers’ cabinets and have significant responsibilities.”
Austrians from across the political spectrum have been similarly alarmed by the revelation that this fringe minority — only 4,000 out of 8.7 million Austrians belong to fraternities — whose ideology lies at the margins of national politics, now finds itself at the heart of government.
“It really worries me,” a former fraternity member, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to become a target for right-wing networks, told VICE News.
“There’s been some public discussion about it, but I think most people in Austria don’t realize what it really means, what these people stand for.”
Extremism in the ranks
In response to the Landbauer scandal, the Freedom Party has tried to distance itself from the fraternities. “Fraternities have nothing to do with the FPÖ,” said the party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who is also Austria’s vice-chancellor, the day after the songbook surfaced.
But the statement was scarcely credible. Strache himself is a member of Vienna’s Vandalia fraternity. And last month, the songbook scandal returned to haunt the party, when it emerged that a staffer for an FPÖ minister was the head of a separate fraternity that sang the same anti-Semitic song.
“The Freedom Party is clearly the party of the fraternities,” said Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance who is a leading expert on the Burschenschaften. The concern, shared by many Austrians, is that the fraternities’ deep roots in the party run the risk of mainstreaming the radical right into national life, giving extremists a powerful soapbox to address their politics to a broader audience.
“When someone is trying to be heard as a fraternity member, no one will listen,” said Weidinger. “But when he speaks as a member of the Freedom Party or the government, of course they’ll listen.”
Even for the Freedom Party — a far-right political group founded by former Nazi officials in the 1950s — the association with the fraternities is politically toxic, said Weidinger. The link to the fraternities, seen as a movement of anachronistic extremists and anti-Semites, undermine the party’s attempts to brand itself as a mainstream political vehicle.
“It’s a liability,” he told VICE News. “The party tries not to push these fraternity guys to the forefront because they know their views are wildly unpopular.”
But already, the ultranationalist philosophy of the frats has begun to creep into government policy, and that’s creating tension with Austria’s neighbors.
In December, the new Austrian government announced a proposal to offer dual citizenship to German-speaking residents of South Tyrol, a majority German-speaking region of northern Italy that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it was awarded to Rome after World War I. While Austria attempted to frame the move as “in the spirit of European integration,” the proposal infuriated Italy. The policy came directly from the wishlist of the fraternities, says Weidinger, many of whom lionize those behind the abortive bombing campaign for South Tyrol’s secession in the 1960s.
In response to the ongoing scrutiny, the Freedom Party, which did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment, announced it has established a panel of researchers to investigate its history, in a bid to scrub out racism from the party.
But the opposition has already dismissed the move as a whitewash, as it will be headed by a Freedom Party politician, historian Wilhelm Brauneder.
Meanwhile Strache, while denouncing racism and anti-Semitism, has stopped short of any blanket condemnation of the fraternities as a movement.
“Wolves in sheep’s clothing”
Few fraternity members, past or present, have spoken out publicly amid the current debate. But VICE News spoke to one former fraternity member who is alarmed by the influence of the Burschenschaften on the new government.
The man, who did not want to be named, joined a Vienna-based fraternity as a 20-year-old student about 18 years ago, reaching the junior level of membership, known as a “fox.” He said he was attracted by the promise of belonging to an elite group of young people who were engaged in politics and committed to the improvement of society, and was drawn to the fraternities’ historical legacy as drivers of social change in the 19th century.
“But there was a big gap between how they presented themselves before I was a member, and how they really talk about things when you’re inside,” he said, describing the institutions as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
“If I had known what I was signing up for, I would never have joined.”
The most jarring incident came during a dinner with another fraternity, where at one point during a night of drinking, everyone in the room stood and launched into singing “Wenn alle untreu werden” (“If all become unfaithful”), a German patriotic song that was adopted by the Nazi SS during the Third Reich, and is now irrevocably associated with Nazism.
“I just stood there and didn’t join the singing, but I didn’t have the courage to protest,” he said. He eventually left the group, without having become a full member.
Drinking and bonding in strange clothes
Like their American counterparts, Austria’s fraternities spend a lot of time drinking, and forging lifelong bonds with their frat brothers that will help them throughout their careers.
But that’s about where the similarities end. Many of Austria’s fraternities remain committed to the outmoded and unpopular ideology of pan-German nationalism, with their members clinging to the trappings and prejudices of a European high culture of centuries past. They’re viewed by the general public as “outdated political diehards in strange clothes (who) have strange rituals,” said Claudia Schäfer, managing director for Austrian anti-racism group ZARA.
The fraternities have their origins in the early 19th century, when they sprang up as patriotic student associations in German-speaking university towns in post-Napoleonic Europe. Their members pledged to work towards the political unification of Greater Germany, including the territory of modern Germany, then a collection of independent kingdoms, and Austria.
While their politics have fluctuated over time — at times they championed progressive, egalitarian and liberal ideals, as well as nationalist and racist ones — anti-Semitism has been part of their movement from the outset, said Weidinger.
With membership rules aimed to safeguard the groups’ “racial purity,” Jews were barred from joining, Weidinger said. When the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s, the fraternities were suppressed but their members were quick to join the ranks of the Third Reich. The anti-semitic roots survived in most fraternities after the war, and today’s modern iterations exist on a spectrum from conservative right-wing to right-wing extremist, with some, but not all, subscribing to racist or anti-Semitic views.
These prejudices are integral to their brand of nationalism – a notion of pan-German nationalism that has been widely discredited by its associations with Nazism.
“They are nationalists in a biological sense,” said Weidinger. “When they speak of ‘the people’ — they don’t mean everybody living here or everyone holding a passport.”
The fraternities’ identity is also rooted in an anachronistic image of masculinity, most notably in their signature pastime, fencing. Fraternity members are known for dueling without the protection of face masks – a practice that leaves some with facial scars, worn as a badge of pride.
This self-image is reflected in their militaristic uniforms; for formal occasions, such as the annual Academic’s Ball in January, frat members don colorful pillbox hats, elaborately decorated Sergeant Pepper’s-style jackets, sashes, gloves and knee-high boots.
The most recent ball, held at Vienna’s famed Hofburg Palace, drew a larger than usual protest, as an estimated 10,000 demonstrators turned out in a show of opposition to the growing influence of the far-right fraternities. In the wake of the Landbauer scandal, members of the Austrian Jewish community have also boycotted government events to protest the role of the Freedom Party.
A closed community
Members swear a vow of secrecy, so the activities, traditions and beliefs of the fraternities are difficult to monitor, other than on rare occasions when their inner dealings erupt into the public sphere.
In recent years, disputes within the movement have occasionally surfaced publicly, reflecting political tensions between more moderate fraternities and their extremist peers. These splits have led to defections from the national umbrella organization, the Deutsche Burschenschaft, which represents the more far-right elements of the movement.
In 2011, controversy erupted when one fraternity objected to another having granted membership to a student of Asian descent. The Deutsche Burschenschaft sided with the objecting fraternity, saying their calls for exclusion were not racist.
The umbrella organizations Deutsche Burschenschaft and the Allgemeine Deutsche Burschenschaft did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News; nor did Landbauer’s fraternity, Germania zu Wiener Neustadt. But a statement on its website said it condemned the Nazi-glorifying lyrics in its songbook as “disgusting” and rejected anti-Semitism or any other religious discrimination.
Given the reticence of fraternities to speak about their beliefs publicly, one of the best ways to track their true political views is to monitor what is written in publications linked to the movement, said Alexander Pollak, spokesman for Austrian human rights group SOS Mitmensch.
“If you look into publications that are close to the Burschenschaften and supported by the FPÖ, you will find a lot of anti-democratic, racist and anti-Semitic ideology,” said Pollak. An analysis of one such publication last year, widely seen as the mouthpiece of the fraternities, found anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Nazi sympathies and concerns about mass migration and “blood mixing.”
“It is likely that those right-wing extremist Burschenschafter, who have now become part of the Austrian government, will try to implement at least some parts of the ideology that is displayed in these publications,” he said. “This is worrying.”
Cover image: Vienna, AUSTRIA: Austrian and German fraternity members raise their foils during a celebration at the Vienna Hofburg Palace of the 200th year since the death of German poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller who was born in 1759 and died in 1805. Around 150 demonstrators protested against the meeting calling the participants fascists. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)