A long-suppressed debate about Austria's Nazi past erupted into the open here today on the fringes of a rally addressed by Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary general who is campaigning for the Austrian presidency.
The discussion started after police had moved in to thwart demonstrators who had sought to draw attention to Waldheim's controversial wartime record. Banners proclaiming "antisemitism must not pay off" and "Waldheim No" had been torn apart by the pro-Waldheim crowd.
The slick stage set -- Austrian flags, a picture of the candidate behind a large desk, the slogan "Waldheim Der Grosse Oesterreicher" (Waldheim the Great Austrian) -- had been dismantled.
Then, as the brass band laid on by the conservative People's Party marched home and Waldheim was whisked away in a car, little groups formed in the shadow of Vienna's medieval cathedral. They argued about antisemitism, the Holocaust, and Waldheim's fitness to be president with a passion rarely heard in a country that has preferred to keep silent about what took place here from 1938 to 1945, when Austria was a part of Hitler's Third Reich.
Polls still indicate that Waldheim, 67, is headed for victory in the second round of the Austrian presidential elections on June 8, despite evidence that he published misleading accounts of his war record and knew about mass deportations of Jews from the Balkans to concentration camps in Germany. The predominantly youthful demonstrators found themselves outnumbered and, in Austrian political terms, outargued by Waldheim's prosperous, middle-class supporters.
"I can't understand how people like Waldheim kept silent. He isn't a credible presidential candidate. He had to know that people were disappearing into the camps and didn't do anything about it. He may have even been involved himself," said an earnest young man with a ring in his ear who was distributing anti-Waldheim leaflets.
"You don't understand anything," shot back an elderly woman in a severe two-piece suit. "You have no idea what war is like in a totalitarian state. These days, you can refuse to go into the Army. Then, you would have been shot."
A middle-aged man in a green felt hat wandered up. "Waldheim was never a Nazi," he said. "All this has been provoked by the Socialists who are afraid of the election. It's nonsense. Waldheim was a soldier, like everybody else."
"All these demonstrators, they are just friends of Israel," said a refined-looking woman with black lace gloves, adding, as if to clinch the argument, an antisemitic vulgarity.
"The responsibility for antisemitism rests with the Jews," complained an elderly man who said he had served in the German Army in the war. "They have provoked these feelings by the way they have attacked Waldheim."
The outspokenness of some of the Waldheim supporters surprised bystanders unaccustomed to hearing such things said in public.
"Until today, I did not know what antisemitism meant in Austria," said Andreas Forsi, 29, a graduate student who had been beaten when he tried to interrupt Waldheim.
The prime organizer of today's anti-Waldheim demonstration was not an Austrian, but a German citizen, Beate Klarsfeld, who has devoted much of her life to chasing down former Nazis. Based in Paris and married to a prominent Jewish lawyer, she flew to Vienna this week with the declared intention of trying to persuade Austrians not to vote for Waldheim.
Acknowledging that she and her companions represented a "small minority," she told reporters: "The Austrians jumped on us as soon as we appeared. In 1938, they opened the door to Hitler. But today they closed it to us."
The comment underlined a major difference between public attitudes in Germany, which constantly frets about its Nazi past, and Austria. Austrians depict themselves as "Hitler's first victims," although the 1938 Anschluss, or unification of Austria with Germany, was popular among many Austrians.
"Waldheim's lie is an accepted lie in Austria. Most people in his position would have done the same. We are in a different situation to the Germans, who had no alternative but to confront their past. We were able to simply forget it," commented Walter Manoschek, who opposes Waldheim.
Apart from the issue of Waldheim's past, much attention in Austria has focused on the election's significance for domestic politics. A Waldheim victory would mark the first step toward removing the Socialist Party from power after 15 years of rule. It would also be the first time that the presidency, a prestigious if largely ceremonial position, has been occupied by a conservative.
The Socialist candidate, former health minister Kurt Steyrer, 65, who served in the Nazi Army as a medic and was a prominent dermatologist before he entered politics, has been widely dismissed as lackluster and uninspiring. Despite a reputation for personal honesty, he has been hurt by corruption scandals in the Socialist-led government.
In the first round last month, Steyrer got 43.7 percent of the vote; 49.6 percent went to Waldheim and the rest to fringe candidates.
Steyrer has been involved in a dispute with traditional Catholics in Austria, which is nominally more than 90 percent Roman Catholic, over abortion. He denies allegations that he performed an abortion, but has acknowledged that he quit the Catholic church because of disagreement with its opposition to abortion.
The controversy over Waldheim's war record has been further diluted by what were widely viewed here as politically insensitive remarks by Israel Singer, the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress. Singer, who helped publicize documents indicating that Waldheim had published misleading accounts of his military service, was quoted in the local press as warning Austrians that they were in for a tough time if they elected him.
"I saw Singer on television. He had hate in his heart. It made me think that this whole affair has been exaggerated," said Gerhard Raicher, 41, a bank clerk, who turned up to back Waldheim today.
The backlash against what many Austrians call "smear tactics" has been exploited by Waldheim's managers. "A vote for Waldheim is a vote for Austria," has become a favorite People's Party slogan.
Introducing the candidate at this morning's rally, Vienna's deputy mayor, Edward Busek, drew applause when he declared: "The press campaign is not against Waldheim, but against Austria. That is why we have to stand up for Austria."
Waldheim, meanwhile, is doing his best to portray himself as above the political fray. From the height of the podium, he seemed not to notice when balloons went up bearing the slogan "Waldheim lies."
"We too want political change -- but in a different way than these people. We identify with the freedom of western democracies. These people want to abuse it," he said, smiling the smile of a politician who sees victory within his reach.