VIENNA (Dec. 28)
Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s high-profile visit here last week has ricocheted in the face of the right-wing Austrian businessman who hosted it.
Edwin Neuwirth, the 69-year-old bankrupt timber dealer who hosted Zhirinovsky at an Alpine resort, now faces a judicial investigation for publicly expressing doubt that gas chambers existed in the Nazi concentration camps.
Neuwirth, who told reporters he “does not know of any gas chambers in German concentration camps,” set in motion an investigation by Austria’s chief prosecutor.
If Neuwirth denied the existence of gas chambers, a punishable offense here, “he could be charged with renewed activity in the national socialistic sense,” Chief Prosecutor Dietmar Pacheiner said in Klagenfurt, a city in the Austrian province of Carinthia.
Faced with the probable consequences, Neuwirth, who was an SS volunteer between the ages of 16 and 19, later tried to soften his provocative statement.
“I saw it with different eyes at that time,” he subsequently said, referring to his membership in the Waffen SS. Until the get-together, Neuwirth was just an unknown in the small village of Reichenfels in Carinthia, where he hosted Zhirinovsky.
The Alpine visit was one of several stops Zhirinovsky is making since his Liberal Democratic Party scored an impressive and frightening victory in Russian parliamentary elections on Dec. 12.
“I just wanted to show him where I live,” Neuwirth now claims. Neuwirth met Zhirinovsky in Moscow under unclear circumstances and, Neuwirth now says, the Russian took him up on a casual invitation.
The meeting was anything but casual.
EXPELLED FROM BULGARIA
Zhirinovsky arrived Dec. 23 with 10 advisers and gave a three-hour news conference, following a highly publicized stopover in Munich with a prominent right-wing leader, Gerhard Frey. He left a political tumult in Germany over his visit.
He also had two lengthy medical checkups at the central hospital of Graz, in eastern Austria, and enjoyed three days of skiing during his trip.
In the meantime, curious journalists began to investigate Zhirinovsky’s Austrian host and friend, who was a virtual unknown until the visit.
Neuwirth did his part to bring attention to himself by being quite outspoken during the news conference.
As a Volksdeutsche (native German), he said, he came “home to the Reich” in 1940 from Moldavia, Romania.
He said he had proudly joined the Waffen SS as a volunteer and was stationed in Russia and Yugoslavia. And he recalled, “I belonged to the unit that chased (Josip) Tito in 1944.”
Neuwirth now is surprised about the amount of publicity he is receiving. Without Zhirinovsky’s visit to Reichenfels, nobody would have taken notice of the tiny place or its inhabitants.
But Neuwirth is likely to pay a high price for this publicity and his sudden fame.
After his visit to Austria, Zhirinovsky continued on to Bulgaria, where he was ordered Tuesday to leave the country within 24 hours. The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said he was being expelled for using “offensive language and attitudes toward the Bulgarian head of state.”
Zhirinovsky was quoted Sunday as saying that the Bulgarian president should resign. He also is reported to have said that Bulgaria should play a larger role in the Balkans. He suggested that Bulgaria could reacquire Macedonia, the former Yugoslav republic that was annexed by Bulgaria during the Nazi era.