- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000

Europe's most provocative politician is equally comfortable in lederhosen in a south Austrian beer garden or in track shorts in the New York City marathon.

He has attacked foreigners with rhetoric straight out of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and audited Harvard Business School courses on global reform and the privatization of state-owned enterprises.

Even the biographer of Austria's Joerg Haider, whose far-right Freedom Party is to become part of Austria's government Friday, concedes that the 50-year-old politician has earned his reputation at home as a "political chameleon."

"At some point, every popular opinion finds a home with him," author Christa Zoechling writes in a recent biography of Mr. Haider.

"He likes to see himself as a victim of circumstance. At one time or another, he said he feels he has been treated like a Kurd, a Palestinian, or even a Jew."

Thursday's announcement that Mr. Haider's Freedom Party will enter Austria's next coalition government has focused even more attention on the man who has overseen a steady rise in his once-marginal party since taking over as chairman in 1986.

Mr. Haider's father, a shoemaker, and his mother, a teacher, were early converts to Austria's National Socialist movement, joining the Nazi Party in 1929.

After the fall of the Nazis in 1945, the couple found themselves social outcasts because of their Nazi past, even though insisting they knew nothing of the Holocaust or Nazi brutality.

"We were stamped as criminals just because we did our duty," his mother once said. "We had no idea of concentration camps."

Their son joined a right-wing sports organization as a boy and took up fencing in a college fraternity under the tutelage of former Nazi officials. But he first made his political mark in Austria in 1970 when he led a group of young rebels fleeing the Union of Independents, a political grouping that welcomed many former Nazis.

At the time, Mr. Haider and his allies were considered a liberal reformist force, almost the opposite of his present reputation as Europe's most successful far-right politician.

"I am no fascist. I am no Nazi. I am a pure democrat," Mr. Haider insisted in a meeting with reporters in Washington last November, one day before he ran in the New York City marathon.

But a constant string of questionable remarks praising Nazi labor policies or calling concentration camps "punishment camps" made Mr. Haider a polarizing figure in his native country, even as his party rose steadily in the polls with its challenge to the power-sharing arrangements of the country's dominant centrist parties.

In the charisma-challenged upper ranks of Austrian politics, Mr. Haider clearly has a taste for the provocative remark and the grand gesture.

His 50th birthday party last weekend turned into a political celebration, with Mr. Haider posing on skis with two giant teddy bears for newspaper photographers.

Austrians say even his personal appearance is part of what makes him hard to read: the designer suits, the deeply tanned face and the startlingly white smile.

Even in the midst of delicate coalition talks and diplomatic crises this week, Mr. Haider went out of his way to goad his detractors.

"There is a lot of excitement in the European chicken coop," Mr. Haider observed Wednesday, "even though the fox hasn't even got in."

Beyond Mr. Haider's own biography, critics say his remarks and platform are even more dangerous because of his country's troubled past. Detractors say Mr. Haider subtly plays to pro-Nazi sympathies in Austria, which never went through the de-Nazification process that its neighbor Germany did after World War II.

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