Nazi camp survivors, Austrian far-right party clash over memorial service

The FPÖ is infamous for its Nazi ties. (Reuters pic)

VIENNA: A group that represents survivors of a Nazi-era concentration camp said on Monday the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), junior party in Austria’s coalition government, had not been invited to a memorial service, prompting an angry response from the FPÖ.

The Austrian Mauthausen Committee holds a ceremony every May to mark the liberation of the Mauthausen-Gusen camp near the city of Linz in northern Austria by US troops in 1945. Up to 320,000 people are believed to have died there from 1938, when it opened after Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Austria, to 1945.

The committee has barred the anti-immigrant FPÖ, which was founded by former Nazis, from the memorial services since the 1960s, but the FPÖ became the junior coalition partner of the ruling Austrian People’s Party last year. It has publicly disowned its Nazi roots and has been trying to project a more moderate image.

Willi Mernyi, the committee’s head, told Austrian newspaper Der Standard that having officials from the FPÖ at the May 6 memorial service would be a “renewed humiliation” for survivors.

He said the FPÖ supported a far-right publication called Aula, which once called freed prisoners from the concentration camp a “plague on the country”.

“Should such people march by the survivors? Perhaps we should also invite the (nationalist) student fraternities to sing something for us?” Mernyi added.

The FPÖ says it has left its founders’ Nazi past behind and now denounces anti-Semitism while openly courting Jewish voters, with little obvious success. It has, however, had to expel several officials in recent years over Nazi allegations.

FPÖ General Secretary Harald Vilimsky said in a statement he regretted the committee’s stance.

“Such an important commemoration on Austrian soil should be far removed from partisan calculations. Mernyi does himself no service here, let alone the victims and their descendants,” he said, calling for a “culture of awareness and remembrance”.

The FPÖ is setting up a committee of historians to look into its past after two of its members’ right-wing fraternities were involved in an anti-Semitism scandal.

Austria’s main Jewish body, the IKG, and Israel also maintain a boycott of FPÖ officials. About 40% of FPÖ lawmakers, several FPÖ ministers, and numerous FPÖ ministry staff are members of right-wing fraternities, the IKG says.

Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Hitler’s homeland, in 1938, on the eve of World War Two, when the Nazis murdered at least six million Jews as well as other groups, such as disabled people and people of Romani descent.