Joerg Haider's Troubled Legacy

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Joerg Haider

Austrian far-right politician Joerg Haider, who was killed in a car crash in his home province of Carinthia very early on Saturday morning, was his native country's best-known person, his sharp and perpetually tanned features ubiquitous on television and magazines. He was also Austria's most polarizing figure, with an impact far beyond that country's borders. During a long and checkered career, Haider stood out from the crowd of post-war Austrian politicians with his good looks, athletic lifestyle and devilish talent for provocation. But he was also a populist and demagogue who played on and amplified his homeland's native anti-immigrant and anti-European Union sentiment, courted Western pariahs like Libya's Muammar Ghadafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and even at one point praised Adolf Hitler's "orderly" employment policies.

Haider, 58, was on his way home from a political event near the provincial capital of Klagenfurt just after 1 A.M. when he lost control of his vehicle on damp pavement while overtaking another car. He skidded off the road and plowed into a concrete pole. The car flipped repeatedly before coming to rest almost 40 yards away, according to police. Haider was wearing a seat belt but died almost instantly of massive injuries to the chest and head, police said. His neck may have been broken and his left arm torn from his body. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.

Austrians were shocked to wake to the news Saturday. Even political opponents remarked on the huge impact Haider has had on recent Austrian history. Only last month, he had helped Austria's far right mount an unexpected comeback in national elections. The party he led, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, combined with his former party, the Freedom Party, to take 29% of the vote. It was the best showing for Austria's anti-immigrant, anti-Europe right wing since the Second World War.

Austrian television on Saturday was dominated by somber reports and early footage of his political career. Austrian President Heinz Fischer, a political opponent, nevertheless called Haider's death a "human tragedy." "For us, it's the end of the world," a tearful spokesman from Haider's party, Stefan Petzner, told reporters in Klagenfurt. "Joerg Haider was a politician who changed the face of politics in this country."

Haider was born in the province of Upper Austria, but he made his political career in the mostly rural southern province of Carinthia, a mountainous region bordering Italy and Slovenia dotted with turquoise lakes and snow-capped peaks. Both his parents had been early supporters of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party, which ruled Austria after it was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938. After the war his father was briefly penalized for his Nazi affiliation and his mother lost her job as a teacher; those bitter consequences, biographers say, helped shape their son's political views. Haider also inherited a $16 million mountain estate in Carinthia with a controversial past: his great uncle had purchased it from an Italian Jew forced to flee Austria in 1940. Critics said that the price of the land was artificially low because its owner had been forced to sell, a view Haider disputed.

Haider joined the nationalist Freedom Party in 1976, and rose to become its leader in just ten years, ending the party's brief flirtation with liberal ideas and strengthening its nationalist roots. Political analysts praised his oratorical skills and manifest charisma as well as his talent for reducing complicated political and economic problems to easily recognized root causes. He espoused anti-immigrant positions and attempted (unsuccessfully) to prevent Austria from joining the European Union in the 1990s. In a country reluctant to acknowledge its role in Nazi atrocities carried out during the Second World War, he also repeatedly hinted that Hitler was not all bad: at one point he said that the Waffen S.S., the unit implicated in some of the worst crimes of the Holocaust, was "part of the Wehrmacht (German Army) and thus deserves all the honor and respect of the army in public life." In interviews, including with TIME, the blue-eyed lawyer adamantly denied any sympathy with Hitler's ideas and said that his comments had been taken out of context. But critics suspected him of consciously courting an older generation of ex- Nazis in Austria.

More recently, Haider was seeking to re-invent Austria's far right. In campaigning for this year's national parliamentary elections, he steered clear of Nazi references, focusing instead on the alleged threat posed by immigration, a potent political issue in Austria. His greatest political success came in 1999, when he led the Freedom Party to 27% of the vote, a result that triggered outrage in Europe and, ultimately, sanctions from the European Union when the party was invited to join the government. Haider never held national office himself, preferring instead to work behind the scenes from his post as governor of Carinthia. Several years ago he split with the Freedom Party to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria. The Freedom Party's new leader is a former Haider protege named Heinz-Christian Strache, who is 39. In the most recent campaign, both parties did especially well among young Austrians. Nearly 50% of those under 30 supported one of the far-right parties. That result alone is enough to assure that Haider's legacy will live on in Austria.