Austrian President Heinz Fischer is dropping plans to grant a prestigious award to far-right Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, in the wake of Strache's anti-Semitic remarks uttered at a gala ball in Vienna last week.
"We are the new Jews," Strache was overheard saying in response to protesters who heckled guests arriving at the event attended by right-wing extremists and alleged neo-Nazis. Strache. The turmoil was "like Kristallnacht," Strache was further quoted as saying by the Austrian daily, Der Standard.
Strache was slated to receive the "Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria" for his decade of service in government. But on Wednesday, following a public outcry, Fischer announced that he would not get the honor.
Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who played a crucial role in talks that led to the $1.25 billion settlement by private Swiss banks to compensate Holocaust survivors, and Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal are among past recipients of the award, as are many former and present world leaders, including Haile Selassie, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
The Freedom Party maintains that the conversation was distorted by Der Standard, and that Strache had not intended to minimize the Jews' suffering, but rather just to note that the “attacks” on the ball goers by the close to 3,000 demonstrators outside Vienna's imperial Hofburg Palace had reminded him of “horrible reports about the disastrous Nazi era.”
The right wingers' annual winter waltz, which all the more provocatively took place this year on Holocaust memorial day, is in and of itself controversial. Although the organizers insisted the timing was accidental and that the ball was always held on the last Friday in January, Green Party leader Eva Glavischnig said that guests would be "dancing on the graves of Auschwitz,” and later urged parliament to throw Strache out for his comments. “He has gambled away any legitimacy as a politician,” she said.
Jewish and anti Racism groups, in turn, described the event as a “scandalous ball for people nostalgic for the Third Reich," and deemed Strache's comments a "monstrous provocation." Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told reporters he was "profoundly disgusted" by Strache's words and urged him to apologize immediately.
Strache, in turn, who complained on his Facebook page that his words had been “intentionally misrepresented” and that “things (were) taken entirely out of context,” said in a television interview that he was disappointed that Fischer failed to get in touch with him directly to ask what he did or did not say Friday night. The Freedom Party’s General Secretary Harald Kickl had harsher words yet for the county’s leader, charging that Fischer acted "by acclamation of Austria’s left-leaning hunting society".
In the 2008 elections, Strache’s Freedom Party received 17.5 per cent of the vote. But opinion polls taken last year, mid-way between general elections, showed the party’s support had risen to around 24-29 percent. Among people under 30 years of age, the Freedom Party had the support of 42 percent of the population.
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