Austria's Latent anti-Semitism

What is needed is not to remain silent, given the ongoing 'faux-pas' of politicians toward the far-right end of reason.

VIENNA - The scandal was as obnoxious as it was rapidly forgotten - a typically Austrian tendency, as disenchanted observers would say. On January 27, the Wiener Korporationsring (WKR ) held its annual ball. The WKR is the umbrella association of a number of student fraternal organizations, all of them devoted to a strict regimen of physical toughening-up and a nationalist ideology. Guests of the ball, officially a smart social event, included prominent figures of the Freedom party (FPO ) - known for its open xenophobia, Islamophobia and, when convenient, also anti-Semitism - as well as French National Front head Marine Le Pen and other far-right leaders from the German NPD and the Belgian Vlaams Belang.

The ball is traditionally held at the end of January. The scandal erupted this year when it became clear that the date coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day (the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau ). Aggravating matters was the fact that the ball was to be held in Vienna's distinguished Hofburg, the former imperial residence. Aside from its numerous wings and ceremonial halls - some of which can be rented for events - the Hofburg also houses the offices of the president of Austria.

When the unfortunate timing became known, and the WKR refused to change the date, there was an outcry, with some accusing the ball-goers of "dancing on Auschwitz graves." Anti-fascist demonstrations were announced for the same evening.

When some 1,500 protesters showed up outside the Hofburg, unease rose among the guests and it was reported that some had felt harassed while making their way inside. The irony of this was only compounded by a comment made to an undercover journalist by FPO leader Heinz Christian Strache, who compared the atmosphere outside to "Kristallnacht" and stated: "We are the new Jews."

This was just the latest proof, if proof was needed, that Austria has never succeeded in eradicating its latent anti-Semitism, which still emerges from the most unexpected places. For instance, on Vienna's splendid Ring Boulevard, where a memorial stands to Karl Lueger, who served as the city's mayor from 1897 until his death in 1910. Installed in honor of Lueger's political achievements, the statue ignores his highly problematic role as a vigorous anti-Semitic agitator. His populistic Jew-baiting inspired Hitler, who in "Mein Kampf" named Lueger the "grandest German mayor of all times" Traces of Lueger's slanders are echoed by today's right-wing politicians. His slogan "Great Vienna must not become Greater Jerusalem," for example, reverberated as an official slogan in electoral campaigns of the xenophobic FPO: "Vienna must not become Istanbul."

In 2009 the city's Academy for Applied Arts issued an "open call" for proposals to transform the Lueger statue. The initiative reflected a feeling widespread in liberal circles that Vienna should no longer pay honor to someone whose rhetorical racism greatly contributed to broad social acceptance of anti-Semitism, with all its historical repercussions. The call to restructure the monument was carefully formulated: The Lueger statue was not to be removed but should highlight a troubled past. The call elicited 220 entries from architects, designers and artists.

When the challenge to reshape the statue was picked up by the media, the reactions ranged from interest to wild protest, with some asking, Why butcher the beautiful landmarks of Vienna? In spite of their important presence in the urban space, monuments reach a point of invisibility after a certain time, shifting into the background of our perception.

The strongest argument of the transformation opponents was that the statue is subject to monument conservation. Indeed, it is considered a "site of historic interest." But who decides the terms of historic interest, and why can't they be redefined? As every notion of history expresses the way that one generation transmits facts and values to succeeding ones, monuments are a tangible part of cross-generation storytelling. Considering the growing social shifts in Europe toward the extreme right, don't moderate parties have to act if they want to remain in power?

Whereas initially, city officials had shown enthusiastic interest in the project, they backed out once the jury selected a winner. Klemens Wihlidal's concept suggests inclining statue and base by 3.5 degrees, tilting it slightly both to the right and toward the earth. The oblique presentation would challenge the ostensibly permanent, turning an object of cultural hegemony into a symbol of Austria's unease with its heritage. Instead, the proposal turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: It became emblematic of exactly what it had dared to criticize: a deeply rooted reluctance to confront and make a break with a past that is now unacceptable.

Now, a year after the selection of a winner, the process is at a standstill. Though the city of Vienna is the statue's official owner, municipal leaders are not making any decision. They remain silent, waiting for the time when all is forgotten and we can go on as before.

What is needed is not to remain silent, given the ongoing "faux-pas" of politicians toward the far-right end of reason. Leaving the Lueger monument in place indirectly helps perpetuate the impression that rightist views can be expressed without repercussions. Leaving the Lueger monument untouched means not only perpetuating the legacy of a man who turned the Jew into an icon of "the enemy." It also means accepting the trivialization of anti-Semitism amid this beautiful landscape. It means not to consider those blind spots worthy of adjustment. Not even by 3.5 degrees.

Dr. Jacqueline Nowikovsky is a Vienna-based art-market analyst and curator, and author of "$100.000.000? Der Wert der Kunst" ("$100,000.000? The Value of Art" ). Updates on her essays and observations can be followed on Twitter: @JacquelineNow.