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Jörg Haider

The Austrian politician who led the far Right

The Austrian politician who led the far RightJörg Haider1950–2008

Jörg Haider, who died in a car accident at 58, was considered among the most reactionary mainstream political figures of modern times. As the leader of Austria’s ultraconservative Freedom Party, the handsome, athletic, and charismatic Haider was an unapologetic xenophobe who opposed efforts to unify Europe and often praised the Nazis. Nonetheless, his political movement helped end the unquestioned pre-eminence of Austria’s two main political factions, the conservative People’s Party and the liberal Social Democrats.

“Haider’s quest for respectability and power stemmed from the belittling experience of his parents,” said the London Times. Both became Nazis in 1929, “when it was still illegal to do so in Austria.” During Hitler’s reign, his father served in the Wehrmacht and his mother was a member of Hitler’s League of German Maidens. Following the war, they were reduced to menial labor; his father became a grave digger and his mother worked in a retirement home. After graduating from law school, Haider joined the Freedom Party and, in 1979, was elected to parliament, becoming party leader seven years later. “Until then, the Freedom Party had been a strange hybrid, made up of liberals, aging Nazis, and pan-German nationalists.”

That changed under the “photogenic and perpetually tanned” Haider, said The Washington Post. Brash and eloquent, he deployed “his fiery rhetoric against immigrants, the European Union, and the euro.” An ultranationalist, he blithely called Poles “car thieves,” Yugoslavs “burglars,” and Russians “experts in blackmail and mugging.” Haider repulsed many by embracing the Third Reich, once lauding Hitler’s “orderly employment program” and extolling SS veterans as “decent men of character.” But his fierce nationalism touched a chord: In 1999, the Freedom Party won 27 percent of the national vote, making it the second largest party in Austria’s governing coalition. Within months, however, “an international backlash and mass protests in Vienna” forced Haider to step down. He retreated to his 38,000-acre estate in Carinthia, which an uncle had bought “at a bargain price after its Jewish owners were forced to flee in 1938.”

As his party splintered into competing factions in 2005, Haider formed the somewhat more moderate Alliance for the Future of Austria, which two weeks ago won 11 percent of the national vote. Haider was killed this weekend near the city of Klagenfurt when his Volkswagen Phaeton crashed into a pillar and overturned after he tried to pass another car at almost 90 mph.

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