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The Freedom Party's Joerg Haider
"I think many of these politicians don't know exactly what the Freedom Party is"
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Auschwitz survivor Leon Zelman
"The way to the Holocaust was, it reminded me, on this square"
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Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 10:06 GMT
Haider and the Auschwitz survivor
Anti-Freedom Party demo
Thousands of Austrians have protested against a Freedom Party coalition
By Angus Roxburgh in Vienna

Shortly after arriving in Vienna to look at the rise of Joerg Haider's dark forces, I went to visit a prominent member of the Jewish community, to see what his reaction was to the imminent inclusion of the far-right in government.

Leon Zelman is head of the Jewish Welcome Service, which helps to connect visiting or returning Jews to their Viennese heritage.

Joerg Haider made some undiplomatic comments at his recent birthday party
Joerg Haider at his recent birthday party
He is a bustling, slightly grumpy 72-year-old, who met me on the pavement and guided me at top speed along stairways and tiny corridors crammed with piled-up documents and books. We went to his office, where he hammered on the door and barked at his secretary for taking too long to open it - and then looked sheepishly contrite about his behaviour.

I think you can forgive a little grumpiness, though, in a man who spent his teenage years in Auschwitz.

But what he wanted to talk about was not the death camps, but Vienna, his adopted home city. He chose to come here when he was freed after the War, and said he intentionally shut his eyes to its defects - especially the anti-Semitism which, he said "quietly permeated the entire society".

His parents were former Nazis who felt unjustly persecuted after the war

Was this relevant, I wondered, to the growing popularity of the Freedom Party's Joerg Haider? After all, he is not on record as ever having made any anti-Jewish remark.

"That's right," said Mr Zelman. "It's not the anti-Semitism that worries me. It's the atmosphere."

He described how he had sat in his room above St Stephen's Square and watched - and listened - to a Haider rally shortly before the last election. The way he manipulated the crowd, the way the people cheered, the whipping up of hatred and intolerance - that was what scared him, and reminded him of Nazi rallies he had witnessed as a boy. He says he wept at the memory.

Formative years

Austria's Freedom Party has caused extreme alarm throughout Europe and beyond by some of the pro-Nazi statements made in the past by Mr Haider.

Joerg Haider had a very different childhood to Mr Zelman. His parents were former Nazis who felt unjustly persecuted after the war for having "just done their duty". He was born in 1950 and appeared to accept his parent's views.

As a student he joined a far-right sports club, and a university Bruederschaft - a fraternity of uniformed students run by former Nazis. According to one source, he used to practise fencing using a straw doll on which he had pinned the name of the well-known Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

With his background it is scarcely surprising that he should have played down the crimes of the Hitler period in a series of statements throughout his political life. He once referred to "punishment camps", for instance, when speaking about the concentration camps, as though their inmates had committed crimes.

When he addressed a meeting of war veterans that included former SS officers, and told them they were "decent people, people of character who have the courage of their convictions", he was perhaps merely defending the honour of people like his own parents.

The result of all this is one of the biggest crises the European Union has ever seen.

But then, this was only five years ago, when as a leading politician he should have known better. In fact, he does not seem to have learned much at all about how to express himself diplomatically. It was his looseness of tongue last weekend on the ski slopes as he celebrated his 50th birthday that - in part at least - brought upon him the ferocious reaction of so many foreign countries.

There was already growing concern at the very fact that he - or rather members of the Freedom Party - were being considered as possible coalition partners, together with the moderate conservative People's Party. Several European leaders had expressed misgivings.

Mr Haider is critical of French President Chirac
Haider has criticised France's President Chirac
So in the carefree atmosphere of his birthday party, as four aeroplanes looped the loop, balloons rose into the sky, and his supporters got drunk on bottles of Joerg Haider beer, he gave his undiplomatic retorts to the world-wide warnings about his rise.

President Chirac, he said, did not know what he was talking about, and anyway - he felt obliged to add - he had never made a success of anything in his life. As for the Belgian Government, they would do better to deal with their paedophiles and corruption scandals instead of lecturing Austrians.

The result of all this is one of the biggest crises the European Union has ever seen.

It is simply unheard of for the EU in any manner or form to try to dictate to a member state what kind of government it may or may not have.

But Austria's 14 partners froze diplomatic ties with Vienna this month after the Freedom Party joined the new coalition government.

The EU treaties allow for the suspension of a member who consistently violates democracy and human rights - but there is no provision for action against a country which might, possibly, turn nasty in the future.

Austrians - with some justification - argue that however odious Haider may be, they do not need other countries to tell them how to form their government. And they certainly do not like being condemned before they have been found guilty.

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See also:

02 Feb 00 | Media reports
Europe's press differs over Haider
29 Jan 00 | Media reports
Europe's media bristle over Haider
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