Shadowy Far-Right Fraternities ‘Infiltrating’ Austrian State, Ex-Chancellor Says

  • Former Chancellor Kern makes claim in Vienna press conference
  • Freedom Party leader dismisses ‘absurd conspiracy theories’
Christian Kern.

Photographer: Lisi Niesner/Bloomberg

Austria’s new government is allowing secretive groups with links to the far right to exert control over powerful positions in the state, according to former Chancellor Christian Kern.

Kern told reporters that it was the job of his successor, Sebastian Kurz, to halt the creeping takeover by members of fraternities linked to the nationalist Freedom Party, the conservative chancellor’s coalition partner.

Kern, a Social Democrat, was speaking after anti-semitic songbooks were found in the possession of two of the shadowy groups, prompting the Austrian Jewish community to boycott official Holocaust memorials last month.

“There’s a massive, creeping restructuring of our state,” Kern said in Vienna on Friday. “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.”

The Freedom Party’s parliamentary leader, Johann Gudenus, dismissed Kern’s remarks as “absurd conspiracy theories” and said in a statement that the former chancellor is himself linked to “dubious international billionaires’ networks.”

Men Only

The fraternities in question are mostly male-only, often ultra-nationalist groups rooted in German 19th century university tradition. Long the main intellectual and leadership cadre of Austria’s Freedom Party, they are facing increased attention since the formation of Kurz’s government in December. Monitoring groups say that more than a third of the party’s lawmakers are members of such fraternitites.

Originally student societies, membership in most fraternities is a lifelong affair. While there are also moderate and religious groups close to Kurz’s conservatives, the more extremist fraternities typically have mandatory fencing duels and some advocate the unification of Austria and Germany, a proposal with echoes of the “Anschluss” of 1938, when Austria was annexed into Nazi Germany.

Austrian media have uncovered anti-semitic songbooks linked to two fraternities -- the Germania and the Bruna Sudetia -- prompting investigations by prosecutors and forcing a regional party leader to resign. A member of Transport Minister Norbert Hofer’s staff took a leave of absence this week while a probe is pending. No charges have been brought in the cases so far.

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, himself a member of the Vandalia fraternity, has sought to dispel the fallout by disowning those fraternity members who are anti-semitic or show Nazi sympathies, while at the same time defending against blanket condemnation of the groups as extremist. Strache also plans a committee that will investigate the Freedom Party’s history since it was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s.

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