Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Only in Austria

When I was a student at the University of Vienna, life was often rendered more interesting by the antics of the Burschenschaften, weird student fraternities partly left over from the 1840s who enjoyed rituals such as dressing up in bizarre coloured period fig, giving themselves silly names, drinking industrial quantities of ale - oh, and attacking each other with real actual swords, in case you might mistake them for any given Rag Week stunt. Rather more seriously, they also enjoy such pastimes as pursuing rightwing politics - sometimes extremely right-wing politics - and operating a highly influential old-boys network. In fact, there are a couple that are routinely watched by the political police as possible neo-Nazi recruitment groups.

Now, being the Institute for Political Science, you can probably guess that our view of them was, ahem, a tad jaundiced. Pretty much everyone looked at them as fascist scum at worst and pompous throwbacks at best. Every Wednesday, they trooped into the main hall of the University in order to honour their dead at a huge marble head of Siegfried that lies in the centre of the hall. That may not sound so objectionable, but the (interwar) installation of the head had been somehow associated with Nazis - I forget the detail, but it wasn't particularly closely associated. But these boys also made a point of holding a service at the Heldenplatz war memorial every year on May the 8th, specifically dedicated to the Wehrmacht's dead. Which meant there was a corresponding ritual on our side, as a demonstration would gather in the hall in an effort to prevent them doing their thing. It was all entirely silly.

Now, I had never imagined that women might be involved in anything vaguely like a Burschenschaft, but it seems I'm wrong. Austria's Interior Minister, Liesl (Elisabeth) Prokop of the OVP, has been outed, so to speak, as being an honorary life member of a she Burschenschaft, the Elisabethina. This particular club, it turns out, is officially monarchist in tendency (Unser Motto=Kaiser Otto, it sez on their website here. In fact, I'm surprised they have a website.), which caused a row as Austria is a republic. Now, Prokop saw fit to deny it, claiming she had been invited as a guest of honour only. But, it turns out, she was included in their roll of members - until they attempted to "Remove All Traces!" from the website. Good old gave them away. It further turns out that under the club's constitution, she would be a life member anyway.

The whole affair, trivial though it is, raised some interesting questions. For a start, was Austria's answer to Charles Clarke really spending her free time attempting to run her closest friends, by tradition her sisters, through with a sabre? And there were also important implications for the German language. Bursche means something like "lad". And the terminology is all masculine - brothers and fathers of the chapter and such. Damen-Burschenschaft? Surely not. Frauen-Burschenschaft? Just as illogical, and jarringly modern. The correct term for their members, it turns out, would be Schwesternschafterinnen. And no, hers does not fight duels, although from their website it would seem they drink as much as the blokes.

However, she was given the name Freya by the sisters as in the Nordic goddess - you can see what kind of people we're dealing with here. And there is apparently at least one female outfit that does indeed draw cold steel at the hat of a drop..

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