Thousands of Austrians packed the southern city of Klagenfurt today to mourn Joerg Haider, a politician who was denounced as a Nazi sympathiser in the 1990s but had remained hugely popular as a provincial governor.
Mr Haider, 58, had been on the crest of a far-right resurgence in Austrian national politics when he was killed on October 11 in a high-speed car crash while drunk at the wheel.
In the days that followed, thousands of people had waited for hours to file past Mr Haider’s coffin and sign a condolence book in Klagenfurt, capital of Carinthia province, where he was governor.
About 25,000 turned out in the capital for Mr Haider’s funeral. To accommodate the crowds, screens were set up around the city to show the series of ceremonies, and it was broadcast live on national television.
Austrian President Heinz Fischer, Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, and other local and federal government officials attended the service. Mr Haider’s friend Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, also was there.
After an initial private ceremony, the coffin covered in red roses was carried into a jammed city square. There, under dazzling sunshine, a series of speakers commemorated Mr Haider, whose often controversial comments had polarised Austria over decades.
In the 1990s, as leader of the far-right Freedom Party, Mr Haider made comments seen as sympathetic to the Nazis, and his party’s inclusion in government in 2000 led to months of international isolation for Austria.
Mr Haider had since significantly toned down his rhetoric and in 2005 broke away from the Freedom Party to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria, meant to reflect a turn toward relative moderation.
Mr Haider tried to distance himself from his rightist past, which included a comment in 1991 that the Third Reich had an “orderly employment policy” and a 1995 reference to concentration camps as “the punishment camps of National Socialism”.
He staged a comeback in national politics and helped the far-right soar to almost 30% of the vote in last month’s national elections. His party won 10.7%, up from just over 4% in the previous elections. The Freedom Party won 17.5%.
Mr Haider was tremendously popular in Carinthia.
“Many will cherish their encounters with him as a special treasure,” Klagenfurt Mayor Harald Scheucher said in a speech at the ceremony on the city’s square Saturday.
Chancellor Gusenbauer, a Social Democrat who often openly opposed Mr Haider’s views, also spoke of former political opponent’s ability to reach out to people.
“The large turnout today and in the past days shows that Haider didn’t just mean a great deal to his family but also that he was able to move people,” Mr Gusenbauer said. “He was someone who didn’t leave anyone cold – both positively and negatively.”
Mr Haider’s casket was later taken to Klagenfurt’s cathedral for an invitation-only memorial mass and his body will be cremated and the ashes later buried in private.