For many, Joerg Haider, chairman of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, evokes memories of Europe's unsavory past. But with his party's second-place finish in elections last month, he has rattled Austria's somnolent politics and gained a hold on the two parties, the Austrian People's Party and the Austrian Social Democratic Party, that have governed solo or in partnership since World War II.
The man who runs marathons and is seen in campaign television clips riding in helicopters and bungee jumping, walks a tightrope between those eerie echoes of the past and a futuristic Austria liberated from rigid bureaucracy and headed for true free-market practices. His party espouses conservative values and calls for limiting the influx of immigrants, while urging liberal economic principles, cutting red tape for small businesses, imposing a flat tax and privatizing utility and telephone services.
Asked during a meeting Friday with Washington Post editors and reporters how he hopes to shake off comments he has made praising Third Reich labor policies and other comments made to SS veterans, the stone-faced athlete who has lit a fire under Vienna's intractable plutocracy offered a stunning apology.
"It is not useful to go into details, but as a chairman of a democratic movement . . . we abhor all programs and all ideas of what [Adolf] Hitler stood for. It is not possible to point out any element as positive by the fact of the Holocaust. It was a unique criminal act towards an ethnic minority," he said with deadpan earnestness. "This was my mistake to have been less sensitive in that way. I know I have hurt a lot of feelings of people who have passed or had family members pass through that experience. If I have hurt the feelings of these people, I regret, and I apologize for that."
Haider disclosed that he will have the opportunity to meet with Israeli officials with whom dialogue has been restricted to television appearances and special emissaries. Party member Peter Sichrovsky, who accompanied Haider on his visit to Washington, said he had just returned from Israel where he had "open and successful" discussions. But he acknowledged that a lot remains to be done.
Sichrovsky reiterated the recognition of missteps with some reservations: "Some of our leaders, including Mr. Haider, made some mistakes. But no one has the right to compare him to a mass murderer or to compare a modern, democratic leader to someone who destroyed at least half of Europe and the future of so many families."
Repentance, moderation and tolerance should be encouraged, provided they are part of an evolution anchored in sincerity and not spin. Haider's Freedom Party originated in the Association of Independent Voters, founded in 1949 by former Nazi Party members barred from voting in Austria's first postwar elections.
Haider, who was also elected governor of the province of Carinthia in September, said he expects his party to "stay in opposition for a further four years" unless something changes in the relationship between the other two major parties that makes it impossible for them to form a ruling coalition again. His party's populist push for less regulation and limits on immigration in Austria has significant appeal among the rising ranks of the unemployed, who are disaffected with mainstream parties and fearful of the impact of globalization on their lives.
Haider said he is not opposed to Austria's membership in the European Union, but to the outcome of negotiations on its annual fees, since it is the third largest contributor, although not the third largest country in the union. In contrast, he is very much in favor of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, one of the pillars of Europe's collective and cooperative security effort, he said.
"We want the benefits of NATO, but we don't want to participate. Now you have Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic as NATO members and in between there is Austria still declaring permanent neutrality. It makes no sense," Haider said. He came to Washington to meet and play tennis with a number of representatives and senators and to run in the New York Marathon.
Milos Zeman, the prime minister of the Czech Republic who is visiting Washington, took issue with Haider's demands for Prague to pay compensation to Sudeten Germans whose property was confiscated and who were expelled from what was then Czechoslovakia after World War II. "Haider in Austria accentuates this problem; this is very risky," he told Washington Post editors and reporters over breakfast yesterday.
Haider believes Austria should make the Czech Republic's admission to the European Union contingent on fulfilling the demands of Germans expelled to Austria, a linkage Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima rejects. Haider has called in particular for abolishing the 1945 Benes decrees, named after then-Czech President Eduard Benes, which sanctioned the expulsion of 3 million Sudeten Germans.