By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Jörg Haider, a divisive Austrian political figure who rose to prominence as the leader of a far-right movement that was often seen as sympathetic to the country's shadowy Nazi past, died Oct. 11 in a car accident near the southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt. He was 58.
Mr. Haider was passing another car when his Volkswagen Phaeton left the road, struck a pillar and overturned. He died on the way to a hospital. There was no immediate suspicion of foul play.
The charismatic Mr. Haider single-handedly made the ultra-conservative Austrian Freedom Party a force in national politics with his fiery rhetoric against immigrants, the European Union and the euro, the EU's continent-wide currency. He led the most successful far-right party in Europe, far outpacing the political success of France's National Front.
Handsome, photogenic and perpetually tanned, Mr. Haider was known to his supporters as the "Alpine Rambo," partly for his prowess as a mountain climber and skier and partly for his confrontational style.
Mr. Haider's parents had been members of the Nazi party, and he sometimes praised aging Third Reich soldiers at their reunions. But he also mixed easily with a younger generation in nightly visits to discos to recruit new party members.
His rallies attracted throngs of young people who responded to Mr. Haider's pleas to banish immigrants and to challenge Austria's two long-reigning parties, the Social Democrats and the more conservative People's Party.
"People are fed up with the old parties that never live up to their promises," he said in his campaigns. "They want action on everyday problems, whether it is job security, housing or uncontrolled immigration."
At times, Mr. Haider's followers would start singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," an anthem from the musical "Cabaret" that symbolized the Nazi takeover of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mr. Haider was first elected to the Austrian parliament in 1979, when he was only 29. In 1999, his Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in national elections, making it the second-largest party in Austria's governing coalition. But an international backlash and mass protests in Vienna prompted Mr. Haider to resign his position as party leader within months.
He retreated to his stronghold in the southern region of Carinthia, where he was the longtime governor, and had occasional cameos on the international stage, including several visits to Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi.
In 2005, as his former party splintered into factions, Mr. Haider formed the Alliance for the Future of Austria and appeared to moderate his views.
Two weeks ago, his party won 11 percent of the national vote, and Mr. Haider was at the center of the Austrian political stage once more. His old Freedom Party collected 18 percent of the vote, giving the far right almost a third of the seats in parliament.
Mr. Haider had abandoned his earlier calls for Austria to withdraw from the European Union and had relaxed some of his views on immigration. But, in a Sept. 26 interview with the British newspaper the Independent, he showed a touch of his old defiance.
"We are not going to let the outside world dictate to Austria how it should deal with the past," he said.
Jörg Haider was born Jan. 26, 1950, in the Austrian town of Bad Goisern. His father had joined the Hitler Youth in 1929 and soon became a storm trooper in the Nazi armed forces. He participated in a failed takeover of the Austrian government in 1934, four years before Germany annexed Austria.
His mother was a member of the Nazi League of German Maidens.
The younger Mr. Haider was a graduate of the University of Vienna and received a law degree in 1973. As a young man, he practiced fencing with a straw dummy labeled with the name of Simon Wiesenthal, the Vienna-based hunter of Nazi war criminals.
Mr. Haider repeatedly denied that he had any links to Nazism or anti-Semitism, but in 1991 he was forced to resign as governor of Carinthia after he praised the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler's "orderly employment program." (He was reelected in 1999.)
To great applause, Mr. Haider lauded a group of Waffen SS veterans at a 1995 reunion as "decent men of character who remained faithful to their ideals."
He was a prominent defender of Kurt Waldheim in the 1980s when the Austrian president and onetime secretary general of the United Nations was exposed as a former officer in the Nazi SS.
Mr. Haider had several Jewish associates in his party, but he often mocked Austria's Jewish leaders and accused his opponents of trying to appeal to interests on the U.S. "East Coast."
He spoke fluent English, often visited the United States and once ran in the New York City Marathon. He kept a U.S. flag and a California state flag in his office -- the latter in part because of California's early anti-immigration movement.
Mr. Haider lived on a 38,000-acre estate that provided a generous income from inherited forestlands. An uncle had bought the property at a bargain price after its Jewish owners were forced to flee in 1938.
Survivors include his wife, two daughters and his 90-year-old mother.