WASHINGTON (Jun. 27)
Last week’s visit by a far-right Austrian politician known in Europe for praising Hitler’s employment policies and posing for photos with neo-Nazis sparked considerable controversy here.
Jorg Haider, 42, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party who is sometimes called the “Austrian David Duke,” said the main purpose for his week-long visit was to solicit the support of over 200,000 Austrian citizens living in the United States who are eligible to vote in the Austrian elections.
But his visit also included meetings with State Department officials and prominent congressmen, as well as a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A slick politician who recently led an unsuccessful campaign to keep Austria out of the European Union and another one to declare, his country closed to foreigners, Haider heads his country’s third-largest party, with 23 seats in the Austrian parliament.
Prior to his ascent to the Austrian parliament, Haider was forced to resign as governor of the German province of Carinthia in 1988 after he expressed support for the Third Reich’s labor policies.
Haider, who says unabashedly he wants to be the next Austrian chancellor, continues to garner support among young neo-Nazis and old communist leaders.
Many predict his rise into the ranks of serious government players will reach new heights after Austria’s next elections in October.
Haider’s visit here was mired in controversy even before he arrived.
At the behest of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) sent a letter to colleagues on Capitol Hill urging them to refuse to meet with Haider.
“In light of the surge of extreme right-wing violence against foreigners and Jews in Europe over the past few years, it is clear that the likes of Jorg Haider should not be dignified with a visit to a United States congressional office,” Torricelli wrote.
CONGRESSMEN POSE FOR PHOTOS WITH HIM
Despite the letter, U.S. Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the powerful chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Frank McCloskey (D-Ind.) met with Haider and posed for photos with the Austrian party leader.
This prompted an angry response from Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In a letter to Hamilton and McCloskey, Cooper expressed the center’s “deep disappointment” over the decision to meet with Haider.
“Armed with photos, (Haider’s) going to go back home with new political capital and legitimacy,” Cooper said.
The letter urged the congressmen to “find appropriate ways to communicate your true feelings about Jorg Haider to the people of Austria.”
According to an aide to McCloskey, the congressman received Torricelli’s letter just as Haider was walking in the door. The aide said McCloskey plans to send a letter to Haider this week expressing his concerns about Haider’s embrace of Hitler’s labor polices and his opposition to membership in the European Union.
An aide to Hamilton would say only that the meeting was in line with the congressman’s practice to meet with democratically elected officials.
Haider, clearly upset by Torricelli’s letter, said in an interview that it was “surprising because it is widely known that Americans are fair and before they make a judgment they want to hear out the other party. Apparently here the judgment was made without doing that.”
Cooper, also upset by Haider’s visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, said, “I don’t understand how anyone in the Austrian or Jewish community can categorize this as anything but cynical.
“Someone who just completed a campaign to keep Austria out of the European Union is xenophobic, anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic,” he said, adding, “Haider came to Washington looking for more respectability and visibility.”
In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after a speech at the National Press Club on June 22, Haider defended his record and derided his critics as “erroneous” and “unfair.”
Despite widespread news accounts that Haider has met with German neo-Nazi leaders, Haider categorically denied any contacts with “these types of people.”
He said stories about his contact with neo-Nazis are “invented to create a mood against me,”
Reacting to his two-hour visit to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Haider said, “I think that even those individuals who don’t know much about history will realize that we must do everything to enforce tolerance, everything to enforce human rights and everything to strengthen democracy.”
Haider’s father reportedly travelled to Munich in 1933 with Adolf Eichmann and Alois Brunner as part of the so-called Austrian legions.
When asked about the impact his family history has had on his political and personal life, Haider said that his political activity has been shaped by his belief that “we must do everything to prevent from ever happening again a similar racist regime, a totalitarian regime as the Nazi regime was.”
Haider denied he is a Holocaust denier, saying “we had a regime that committed murder on an industrial scale, five, six, seven, eight million people. The numbers are not important, it is awful enough if it happens to one person.”