PARIS - Alleged neo-Nazis and extreme right-wing leaders from across Europe gathered in Vienna Friday for an opulent winter ball, an increasingly controversial annual event which this year coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen was among those who attended the waltz in Austria's capital Friday night, according to the French L'Express.
Others in attendance reportedly included Belgium's anti-immigration politician Philip Claeys of the Vlaams Belang party, and Martin Graf, a leading member of Austria's own rightist-populist Freedom Party. Graf is a member of the Burschenschaft Olympia, a student fraternity with alleged neo-Nazi links.
Just last week, bowing to complaints that the champagne-laced gala attracts neo-Nazi guests, a committee reporting to the UN's culture organization, UNESCO, decided to strike it and all the rest of the country's balls from its list of Austria's noteworthy traditions.
"In connection with the WKR-Ball, we can tell you that we have removed the tradition 'Vienna Ball' from our list," stated an email from the Austrian UNESCO committee to The Associated Press, using the event's German acronym.
While some of the more ostentatious Vienna balls have long been criticized as out-of-touch showcases of the rich, the WKR ball has received particular attention and criticism in recent years for political reasons, with protests outside its venue, the ornate Hofburg palace, sometimes turning violent. In response, the Hofburg announced late last year that the ball will have to move elsewhere as of 2013.
Graf, whose Freedom Party is the second-strongest political force in the country, said critics of the WKR-Ball were trying to "publicly pillory and vilify ... all those who do not share their ideologically distorted opinion." Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache called the committee's decision a result of "mobbing from the extreme left."
Organizers of the event claim that the timing of the ball this year - which fell on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - was nothing but a coincidence, as the event is always held on the last Friday of January.
Opponents, however, were incensed. Ariel Muzicant, head of Vienna's Jewish community, said the ball made "a mockery" of the Holocaust. Muzicant asked sarcastically, "Are they kind of celebrating the 2 million dead in Auschwitz, or what? Are they dancing, kind of, on 6 million Jews, or what are they thinking of?"
The issue made it all the way to the floor of Austria's parliament Thursday, with members of the opposition Green Party demanding that the ball be observed by government intelligence agencies. Defense Minister Norbert Darabos described the WKR-Ball as an event "where year after year, internationally known right extremists pass the door handle to each other." Darabos forbade members of the military to wear uniforms if attending the function.
In a statement to L'Express, the French National Front responded to the criticism: "Unlike many fanciful details being thrown around, Marine Le Pen has been invited to one of the most famous and traditional dances of Vienna. The ranting in the media is outright slander emanating from the far left. As it so happens, politicians and personalities, including journalists, from all backgrounds are present at this world-famous event. "