Vienna’s peaceful demonstrations

15 Nov

Given the tragedies in Paris and the continuing, simmering chaos of the refugees streaming into Europe, I thought it was about time I write about events that I have been meaning to write about for a month, and just haven’t had the energy to complete.

We arrived in Vienna on the first of October. After a tip from our friend Edith, we learned that a major demonstration in support of the refugees and expressing Austria’s desire to welcome them was planned for the next weekend along the Ringstrasse, ending in the Heldenplatz with a concert sponsored by the national television, ORF. Being about three blocks from our apartment, we walked down there to check it out. We got there just as the first of the marchers arrived at the corner of the museum buildings–the march was to end at the Parliament Building, then have people filter into the Heldenplatz, where the concert would take place.

We were amazed. We stood there for an hour and a half, and people kept coming. Some were part of organized groups–from evangelical Lutherans to Greens to Communists–but many were just ordinary Viennese, wanting to express their hope that the tide of refugees would be treated humanely and with respect for human rights. The marchers had trekked some 45 minutes, walking down Mariahilfestrasse, the main shopping street, that had been covered in smiling images of migrants’ faces, of all nationalities and colors. A large part of this enormous turnout–it must have been over 100,000 people–was prompted by concerns about the rise of a right-wing, anti-immigrant candidate for Vienna’s mayoral race, the vote for which was scheduled for the next week. Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party had been gaining ground among Austrian blue-collar and rural voters with a campaign of fear and xenophobia, claiming that Austria would be overrun by Muslims and foreigners. If elected, Strache–who was a dental technician–would, of course, have cut funding for the usual right-wing suspects:  education, health, women’s rights, and culture. He would also have attempted to thwart the humanitarian efforts to aid the influx of refugees that were already taking place in the city. In the end, the Freedom Party did not win, but they did gain seats–this in a Vienna that has had a Socialist mayor since the end of World War II. The incumbent Socialist mayor won.

What so struck us, is that SO MANY people, young and old, felt compelled to express their solidarity for the displaced and disenfranchised–and that this demonstration took place under the auspices of the state-run television service. Sure, lots of people turned out because it was a free concert, and such a turnout will not make much of a difference politically; it was just such a moving thing to see, on the Heldenplatz:


Here’s what the Heldenplatz looked like in 1938:

Courtesy Scherl-Bilder.

The refugee crisis is a complex issue, and it will be very difficult to handle sanely and compassionately. But we were heartened to see that, at least on some barely recognized level, Austria is aware that the path of hatred and nationalism has been taken before, and it must be avoided at all costs now.

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