The Man Who Flew Too High

Demagogue and darling of Austria's far-Right, Jörg Haider had power within his grasp. Why couldn't he seal the deal?

Hearing the story, you are tempted to believe it had something to do with his car: a Volkswagen Phaeton. Classicists will recall that Phaeton was the son of Helios who asked his father if he might drive the sun’s chariot across the heavens. Phaeton lost control of the horses and came so close to setting the world on fire that Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt.

Within days of his death, the secret life of the high-flying Austrian politician Jörg Haider began to unravel. For Haider, who was married with two daughters, it had been a day of parties. His last official engagement was at the Cabaret nightclub in Velden on Lake Wörthersee. He was in a bad mood and later it emerged that he had had a fight with his lover and right-hand man in the BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria), Stefan Petzner.

Witnesses reported that Haider left Velden sober at 10.30pm, driving the Phaeton himself. He arrived at the Stadtkrämer, a homosexual bar in Klagenfurt, the capital of the province of Carinthia where he was governor, 45 minutes later. Well-known in the bar, and a friend of its owner Hans-Peter Gasser, Haider, according to some reports, proceeded to drink a bottle of vodka, leaving wobbly at 1.05am. He declined an offer to drive him home. After exchanging phone numbers with a boy, he set off for his estate in the Bärental a few miles to the south, where he was due to celebrate his mother’s ninetieth birthday later that day.

He had 1.8 milligrams per litre alcohol in his bloodstream, nearly four times the legal limit, and it is presumed that he was also receiving calls and texts on his mobile. Overtaking at 142 kph, he swerved and veered off the road. The car must have rolled several times before colliding with a concrete post. Despite the Phaeton’s ultra-modern safety features, Haider sustained horrible injuries and was pronounced dead at 1.18am on 11 October.

Haider’s end had a whiff of Hollywood – not the glamour, but the seediness. He, too, was an actor, sometimes the impeccably dressed, photogenic politician, sometimes a seedy pop star out on the prowl, surrounded by a pack of sun-tanned cronies half his age. It was the eclipse of a brilliant career. Austria’s most famous post-war Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who was Jewish, once spoke of him as “almost like a lost son”.

He had disappointed many when he chose to pursue his career in the clapped-out Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). The party had its roots in anti-clerical liberalism but had been rapidly taken over by German nationalists who despised the multicultural Habsburg Empire. After the war, it attracted a number of former Nazis as the conservative VPÖ had inherited the mantle of the Christian Socialist “Austrofascists” who had wound up democracy and created the corporate state in 1934. The Christian Socialists’ leaders spent the war in Dachau and Mauthausen and although their politics had been dodgy beforehand, they returned smelling of roses.

The FPÖ was the natural party for Haider. His parents were proper Nazis. His father Robert was an illegitimate “cobbler” who married a schoolmistress, Dorothea. Robert joined the SA in 1929. When the Nazis were banned he fled, became an Illegale and joined the Austrian Legion encamped around Hitler’s country house at Berchtesgaden. Both parents were youth leaders under the Third Reich, and Jörg, too, would make his strongest appeal to the young. He was the Erwecker: Siegfried awakening Brünnhilde in her ring of fire.

The Haiders had the misfortune to be in the American Zone when the war ended. Denazification was taken seriously. Robert was forced to bury the dead at the grisly camp of Ebensee, while Dorothea became a cleaner and was insulted by Jews. They had put the hard times behind them by the time Jörg was born in 1950. He soared to the top of the class at school and joined the right-wing Silvania duelling society – a Schlagende Verbindung (militaristic fencing fraternity). However, he never had the “membership scar” on his cheek that might have marred his enduring good looks. Haider belonged to the protest generation of 1968. In his perverse way he even typified it: a thorn in the side of the authorities to the end. What he didn’t do was rebel against his parents, whom he always respected. After taking his doctorate in Vienna, he went on to teach law. He became secretary of the FPÖ in 1976.

He inherited an estate in the Bärental from his great-uncle, Wilhelm Webhofer, who had acquired the land from a Jew who had left in a hurry (but to be fair, Webhofer’s father fled in a hurry, too, having been driven out of the South Tyrol by Mussolini). With 1,600 hectares of land, Haider was very rich, and his party didn’t lack funds, although its donors kept their names out of the papers.

Most of his scandalous and never-forgotten utterances date from early days. Haider was the master of the half-truth: that concentration camps were punishment camps (yes, but you could be punished for your race, politics or sexual inclinations); that the SS was a normal military unit, telling a pack of former SS men they were decent people (some were no worse than the Wehrmacht, but many of them were thugs). Then there was the statement about the orderly employment policies of the Third Reich that cost him the governorship of Carinthia. He was aware that such comments added to his allure. He wrested the FPÖ from the liberal Norbert Steger – vice-chancellor in a coalition government of the socialist Franz Vranitzky. During the putsch that brought Haider to power, his supporters called Steger a Jew (he wasn’t), and threatened him with the gas chamber. Vranitzky promptly cancelled the pact with the FPÖ.

Nazis were crawling out of the woodwork at the time. Questions were being asked about Kurt Waldheim’s past and the FPÖ’s Minister of Defence Friedhelm Frischenschlager had shaken the hand of Nazi war criminal Walter Reder, a former SS major who had served 40 years in Italian prisons for a massacre of 600 civilians in Marzabotto, when he returned from Italy. Haider spoke up for the underdogs, listened to their complaints, dished out the free drinks and later 100-euro bills. He presented himself as the saviour of the common man. He railed against political corruption and crime. Austria was politically congealed and ruled by the Parteibuch (party membership and the “protection” that it afforded). With its inevitable “grand coalitions” and increasingly faceless leaders, it was a paradise for an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude.

Haider had no faith in ideas. In the left-wing socialist SPÖ or the VPÖ he would have been rapidly drowned in the machinery of mediocrity. His style bore a passing resemblance to that of Ken Livingstone: both were irresponsible demagogues who promised much, and occasionally delivered. Within Carinthia, Haider imported industry and looked after his people. There were grants to school starters, increased child benefits for all mothers. He picked fights with the Slovenian minority, but it seems he enjoyed the occasional excursion to the other side of the border where he would descend on nightclubs with a posse of suntanned boys. Some Carinthians criticised his “village Kaiser” approach, but it was clear people thought him a good man and did not question how much he cost, or what he did for their reputation abroad.

He loved to push the opposite line. They called it Haiderising – making small-minded prejudice acceptable, whipping up the people against immigrants and the EU, but backing Turkish entry. He visited Saddam twice as the West prepared to go to war in Iraq and made friends with the Gaddafis. In 1999, his tub-thumping paid off. With 27 per cent of the vote, VPÖ chief Wolfgang Schüssel formed a government with the FPÖ. President Thomas Klestil refused to accept Haider but FPÖ member Susanne Riess-Passer became Foreign Minister. He could smell power, but it was whisked away from under his nose.

Everywhere the heat was turned up against the FPÖ. Some Austrian papers imposed a ban on pictures of Haider, wounding his sense of vanity. He told the world that he was fitter and better- looking than his detractors. The EU briefly imposed sanctions on Austria to no obvious avail: within Austria, supporting the EU sanctions was tantamount to disloyalty. On 17 February 2000, he was “outed” by the novelist Elfriede Jelinek in the Berliner Morgenpost. The story was taken up elsewhere, particularly by the homosexual pressure group Hosi, which confirmed the politician’s sexual inclinations. Hosi had not seen fit to mention his sexuality before, because he was a bad advertisement for the cause. Besides, Haider had never opposed measures aimed at normalising homosexuality.

It was all part of the process of nobbling Haider. Asked whether his party was a descendant of the Nazi Party, he replied candidly that it was not, but had it been so, he would have won the election. More damaging was his outburst against the head of the Austrian Jewish community, Ariel Muzicant. Addressing the party’s Ash Wednesday meeting in 2001, he said: “I can’t understand that someone called ‘Ariel’ (ie the soap powder) should have so much dirty linen hanging on the line.” It might not have been anything more than a witty put-down (he referred to the socialist leader Gusenbauer as Gruselbauer — “creepy peasant” — throughout), but he was certainly aware that his supporters would think “dirty Jew”. The outcry was deafening. On the advice of his lawyer, he apologised to Muzicant. Whether it was because he had been “outed” as a homosexual, a Nazi or an anti-Semite, Haider resigned and headed back to Carinthia — down, but not out. Perhaps he understood that a protest party could never be a party of government. To offer the FPÖ portfolios was to remove its sting.

In 2005, he created a new party, the BZÖ, but only assumed the leadership just before the September 2008 elections. In those elections, Haider’s party and its rival far-right Freedom Party, headed by Heinz-Christian Strache, between them surpassed even their 1999 performance-winning 29 per cent of the vote. Much to the despair of the Left, Haider had bounced back yet again. He compared himself to Lazarus: risen from the dead. Youth had flocked to him. The over-16s had been enfranchised. It is estimated that just under half the under-30s voted for the Right. It is interesting to note that Hitler, too, had lowered the voting age in 1938; pre-war Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg had increased it in an effort to keep the Nazis out. In Austria, certain observers described Haider as an Alltagsfaschist (small-town fascist), an insidious rabble-rouser who incited provincial Austrians to hate strangers. Was he a fascist at all? Most of his utterances would have found echoes in the right wing of the British Conservative party.

Austrian Haiderphobia was in part a reflection of their own problems in confronting the past. Many Austrians still cling to their status as Hitler’s “first victims”. Haider personified everything the bien-pensant Austrians wanted to forget — chiefly their flirtation with Hitler. That his sexual inclinations were utterly reasonable was the very reason they were never mentioned: he was not allowed to be reasonable. Haider’s historical importance was that he was occasionally able to unbalance the soporific seesaw of Austrian post-war governments. He was the most successful Austrian politician since Kreisky, but unlike Kreisky, he burned his wings.

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