The beautiful flower with an ugly past

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It looks simple – a pretty blue cornflower – but this plant is causing controversy in Austria. It’s the chosen flower of the far-right Freedom Party, even though it was once associated with the Nazis.

Dieter Dorner takes a long sip of his Gemischtes, a mix of dark beer and lager, and smiles.

We are sitting in an inn in Untersiebenbrunn, a little town east of Vienna, where he is a councillor for the far-right Freedom Party. Over a meal of sausage, chips and locally grown white asparagus, he tells me about a planned dance.

In true Austrian fashion, it’s to be a ball – the local Freedom party’s first Cornflower Ball, Der Kornblumenball.

“We’ve never had a Freedom Party Ball in Untersiebenbrunn before,” he explains. “So we said to ourselves, let’s do something, let’s have a ball. The band will play dance music. My favourite is the slow waltz.”

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A poster for the Austrian Freedom Party’s Cornflower Ball

The ball was arranged last September, but the timing is felicitous, because these days the Freedom Party in Untersiebenbrunn has a lot to celebrate. In the first round of voting in Austria’s presidential election in April, 53% of people here voted for the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer.

Dotted through the town’s leafy streets are the blue Freedom Party campaign placards and posters for the Kornblumenball, featuring a silhouette of a dancing couple in evening dress.

“Hasn’t there been some controversy about the blue cornflower?” I ask. “Something to do with the Nazis?” Dieter shakes his head. “The cornflower is simply the Freedom Party flower and we like it,” he says.

“To discuss what happened 80 years ago, or what didn’t happen or perhaps happened doesn’t bring us forward. There is certainly nothing deliberately nasty about it.”

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But other Austrians are not so sure.

“The cornflower is a complicated symbol,” Vienna historian, Bernhard Weidinger, tells me. “It was the German Kaiser Wilhelm’s favourite flower, and was used by pan-German nationalists in the 19th Century.

“Then between 1934 and 1938, when the Nazis were a banned party in Austria, it was the secret symbol they used to wear in order to recognise each other.”

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Austrian Freedom Party members Heinz Christian Strache and Martin Graf, 2008

Nowadays, it’s traditional for Austrian MPs to wear a flower in their buttonholes at the opening of parliament, he explains. The colour of the Freedom Party is blue, so they wear a cornflower.

“You are not a neo-Nazi if you wear a cornflower,” he continues. But it is fair to say that the Freedom Party cultivates a certain ambivalence when it comes to the past.

Their presidential hopeful, Norbert Hofer, continues to face sharp criticism about his occasional choice of floral decoration. In response to a question last week, he declared that he wanted nothing to do with the Nazis, and wouldn’t let them take away things like the cornflower.

The Cornflower

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  • Latin name: Centaurea cyanus, also known as bachelor’s buttons
  • Native to the Mediterranean and Europe
  • National flower of Estonia
  • Worn in France as a “le bleuet” a symbol of remembrance akin to the poppy in the UK

The Freedom Party has moved on a long way from the heyday of its firebrand leader, Joerg Haider, who died in a car crash in 2008. Back in the 1980s and 90s, Haider openly praised aspects of the Third Reich. These days, Freedom Party members who veer in that direction are quickly silenced or removed from their posts.

A day or so later I fall into conversation with a young man called Michael, in a park in Vienna.

It’s a balmy spring evening, the chestnut trees are in bloom, and in the distance a jazz band is playing a free concert on an open-air podium. “What do you think about the Freedom Party and the cornflower?” I ask.

“I hate those people,” he replies. “And the cornflower isn’t great. But you know, I’m not quite as worried about their attitude towards the past as I am about their attitude to what’s going on now. Their barely-concealed racism, their rhetoric against Muslims and refugees is really wrong.”

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A demonstrator at an anti-Hofer rally in Vienna holds up an image of the cornflower

He looks around at a family playing with their well-groomed dogs. “And the other thing that bothers me,” he says, “is that they are working on people’s fears and encouraging our worst instincts. Like Donald Trump does. Austria is better off than most countries in the world. It’s safe – and in general life is pretty good here. But to hear the Freedom Party talk, you’d think we were living in some desperately difficult country.” He shrugs.

I think back to my conversation with Dieter in the comfortable little town of Untersiebenbrunn. I had asked him if the Freedom Party was deliberately stirring up fears to gain votes.

“We don’t create people’s concerns, we express them,” he had said. “We’re worried about our future. When you have a lot, you also have a lot to lose.”

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