The Wiener Ball is stricken from the UNESCO list of immaterial world heritage
Every year from 11th of November until Shrovetide a series of classic Viennese Balls are organized; many of them in the spectacular surroundings of the old Hofburg. The Viennese Balls have a long tradition, which stretches at least four centuries back. Apart from that each ball conforms to a tight ritual consisting of an opening ceremony, midnight shows and the so-called “Damenspenden”, a traditional gift to the ladies present. Part of the fun is of course also the formal dresses, long ball gowns for the ladies and tuxedo’s or traditional Austrian outfits for the gentlemen.
Most spectacular is the so-called “Kaiserball” or “Grand Ball”, which is celebrated each year on New Years Eve (with tickets sold all over the world). Another more “local” event is the “Wiener Kaffesiederball” organised by the Coffeehouses of Vienna. Around 5.500 guests take part in this event in February, dressing up as if the Empress Eugenie was still presiding as hostess. All in all 22 balls are officially listed as part of the tradition.
In 2010 UNESCO listed the traditional Wiener-Ball as an immaterial world heritage. However, a few weeks ago, the balls in general were stricken from the prestigious list, due to the fact that one particular ball was listed there: The WKR-ball. This ball was first organised in 1952 by an organisation working to further the life of students. Today the organisation works as an umbrella organisation for a wide variety of traditional student-organisations. For a long time it is however well known, that the same associations harbours a wide spectrum of right-winged radicals. It is also known that the ball extends invitations to kindred organisations in Germany. For years the ball has accordingly been accompanied by demonstrations and police has been obliged to safeguard the event. Finally in December 2011 the cooperation, which runs Hofburg, decided to deny the WKR-ball the right to use the traditional location. Immediately afterwards the whole “Wiener Ball” institution was stricken from the UNESCO list by the Austrian Commission. According to the Commission any World Heritage has to further “tolerance and respect of other cultures and prioritize cultural diversity. It is now up to the Committee for the Viennese Balls to present a sanitized list to UNESCO, which after proper scrutinizing might deem the institution worthy of a renewed designation as world heritage.
It stands to reason that a plethora of Austrian politicians and notabilities have been at an uproar. Not only are we talking about a well established old Austrian tradition, we are also talking about tourism at a grand scale.
The challenge is though, that the WKR – ball may very well be the only one, which has been hijacked by a number of right-winged radicals, eg. Marianne Le-Pen, who flew in from Paris. On the other hand, the odour of “brown waltzing” seems to have oozed imperceptibly down the corridors somehow festering the other and more innocent balls.
And then at another level the whole story must lead up to a proper discussion of what we shall do about the whole idea of UNESCO messing around with intangible culture. The problem is, that as “intangible traditions”, the people, who perform them, has all sorts of ways of stamping them with their own interpretations; or even hijacking them for their own political purposes. A building or a piece of nature is not in the same way exposed to this. UNESCO might just counter this by placing a poster explaining to the initiated what “the place” was or is all about.
Such, however wistful we may be, can not be done to living performances as grand balls!