Behind the Headlines Protests in Austria Against the Possibility That a Former Nazi Might Get a High

Protests are rising in Austria against the possibility that Friedrich Peter, faction leader of the smallest parliamentary party, the Freedom Party (FPOE), might become the Third President of the Parliament.

Peter was a member of the notorious First SS Infantry Brigade, and this has become a source of sharp controversy with, among others, Nazihunter Simon Wiesenthal. Although no specific charges have been brought against Peter, many Austrians feel that his past membership in a brigade notorious for mass murder is not compatible with one of the highest offices of the Austrian Republic.

There were protests this week from Jewish communities, the Socialist Youth Organization, and from a group of journalists, artists and intellectuals.

BACKGROUND OF THE DEVELOPMENT

The background of this development is the attempt to establish a coalition government comprising the Socialists and the Freedom Party. A coalition government became necessary after Chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s Socialist Party lost the absolute majority it had held for 12 years in the Parliament. in the elections on April 24, the Socialists won 90 seats, two short of an absolute majority.

Grave differences over economic policy made it impossible for the Socialists to form a coalition with the second largest party, the Conservative People’s Party. The Socialists, moreover,will have to yield less power and posts to a coalition partner with only 12 seats than to one holding 81.

The coalition talks have been going smoothly and might conclude in a few days. The Freedom Party will probably get the office of Vice Chancelor and three Cabinet ministers. Norbert Steger, the party leader and representative of its liberal wing, is expected to become Vice Chancellor under Socialist Chancellor Fred Sinowatz.

The coalition deal will probably give Peter, former chairman of the Freedom Party, the office of Third President of the Parliament. Until now, the First and Third Presidents were members of the majority party, while the second President was a member of the largest opposition party. Peter has served as the factional leader of his party in the Parliament.

Although many Socialists are not happy to see Peter elevated to one of the highest offices in the country, it is fairly certain that party discipline will prevail in the decisive vote May 19 when the new Parliament holds its first session.

KREISKY IS INDEBTED TO PETER

Kreisky, who governed Austria for 13 years and who is now retired, is indebted to Peter and has on several occasions intervened on his behalf. In 1970, Kreisky’s Socialist Party gained a relative majority, pushing the governing Conservative People’s Party to the opposition benches.

He survived a year of a minority government only with the help of Peter’s Freedom Party, which in turn, gained status as a result of a new electoral law favoring small parties. The law secured the Freedom Party’s permanent representation in the Parliament.

In 1971, Kreisky won an absolute majority and no longer needed the Freedom Party. But he still considered the possibility of a future coalition with the small party as a means of avoiding collaboration with the conservatives. That time has now arrived and Peter wants his share. But the public, or at least part of the public in a country that still accommodates a fairly large group of anti-Semites, does not think that he should get it.

On Monday, a group of intellectuals, artists and journalists ran a two-page advertisement in the newsmagazine Profil and signed a letter of protest addressed to the President demanding that he refuse Peter a ministerial post. They also urged the political parties not to elect him Third President of the Parliament.

WIESENTHAL UNCOVERED PETER’S PAST

Peter’s past was uncovered in 1975 when Wiesenthal said in a television interview that Peter had been a member of the First SS Infantry Brigade which killed some 8,000 Jewish men, women and children in the Soviet Union, Wiesenthal, however, said then that Peter’s personal role in this slaughter was not known.

Peter rejected Wiesenthal’s accusations and said that he had “just done his duty as a soldier.” He argued that he served at the front but never participated in any “cleaning actions, “the euphemism at the time for mass murder. However, according to orders given by SS leader Heinrich Himmler, the First Brigade was not intended to fight at the front but for “cleaning actions” in the hinterland.

Peter was not the only one who took issue with Wiesenthal. He received the support of Kreisky who called Wiesenthal’s accusations outrageous and rejected the charges as party propaganda, Wiesenthal was known to be a conservative.

Meanwhile, Peter has sued Wiesenthal. The trial was scheduled to begin May 17, two days before the first session of the Parliament. It has been postponed until next fall. Peter recently dissociated himself from his Nazi past, according to some prominent Socialist politicians. But he has done so only privately, among friends and colleagues, not publicly.

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