VIENNA — A debate over surviving honorary titles to Adolf Hitler in Austrian towns shows up the far-right Freedom Party’s ambivalence as it eyes the chancellor’s post in 2013, analysts say.
In late May, the town of Amstetten, 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of Vienna, voted to remove the still-existing title of honorary citizen awarded to Hitler after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.
The Freedom Party (FPOe) deputies abstained from the vote.
“The FPOe is sending signals,” said political expert Anton Pelinka. “This strategy shows that the party’s radical pan-German core has not weakened.”
Braunau, the Fuehrer’s birthplace, has also launched an inquiry to determine whether he remains an honorary citizen.
But FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache argues that the titles disappeared with Hitler’s death in the last days of World War II and that the Allies removed all honorary titles in a 1946 ruling.
“In the weeks following the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Germany), many towns named Hitler as an honorary citizen, named a street after him or planted an oak tree in his honour,” said Green deputy Karl Oellinger.
Oellinger said the Allied ruling removing honorary titles only applied to Germany.
Moreover, Austria experienced a very different occupation from its northern neighbour and has yet to come to terms with its Nazi past, he said.
“The suppression (of honorary titles) after death is absurd: we have examples of towns that still lay flowers on the grave of their former Nazi mayor who has been named an honorary citizen,” he told AFP.
Peter Ulram, a political scientist, said the FPOe’s actions showed it wanted to consolidate the party around its leader, whose new programme centres on the idea of Austria as a community with a Germanic people, language and culture.
Under the party’s charismatic former leader Joerg Haider, killed in a car crash in 2008, such ideas were abandoned to make the FPOe more presentable.
Having taken in many former Nazis after 1945, the party has not been able to distance itself entirely from the pan-German line, despite its official rhetoric.
Strache himself has faced accusations — backed up by photographs — of having had ties to neo-Nazi or closely-related movements in his youth.
In a sign that the honorary title debate has hit a nerve, the FPOe leader lashed out during a recent press conference in Strasbourg with France’s far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, when an Austrian journalist asked what she thought of the FPOe deputies’ abstention in the Amstetten vote.
Strache accused him of sullying the image of Austria abroad.
Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger later commented: “This is an Austrian debate that should be discussed in Austria and that we should not internationalised,” sparking a furious reaction from the Foreign Press Association in Vienna, which insisted the press could not be muzzled.
For Oellinger, Spindelegger’s comments were proof that the conservative OeVP party leader was considering a coalition with the FPOe, a move he has never formally rejected.