The death of far-right Austrian politician Jörg Haider took an interesting twist today. The huge outpouring of mourning and sympathy which Haider's death inspired has received much press coverage in Europe over the past two weeks, but the biggest open secret about Haider has not - the fact that he was gay. That is until yesterday, when his lover of five years Stefan Petzner publicly acknowledged their relationship in a tearful confession.
What has followed has been some hesitation from European media about whether it is appropriate to cover the sexuality of Haider, who is married with two children, as a news story. The issue has been further complicated by the fact that his sexuality was hardly inconsequential in the details of his death. He died in a car crash driving home drunk from a gay bar he had been at with his lover. But before Petzner's televised admission, that detail was left out of all press reports in Austria. It's not hard to see why, when the reality of Haider's personal life are so inconsistent with the public image of the party he led - the far-right Alliance for Austria's Future (BZÖ). After his admission, Petzner was fired from his position as leader of the BZÖ. He had already attracted attention at Haider's funeral after television cameras caught him loudly weeping more than Haider's wife and two daughters combined. Petzner said in his interview that Haider's family was aware of their relationship.
The revelation has put the party into full damage-control mode, fearing that the news will scare off the core conservative voters in Southern Austria that make up the group's voters. The hugely popular Haider had recently led the party to great success, ushering in a victory scoring 8 percent in last month's general election. Now that this news might throw the party into disarray, there has been speculation it may merge with the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). That merger would create the second-strongest political party in Austria.
So, the revelation about Haider's sexuality is hardly inconsequential. But still, Austrian media outlets have remained extremely hesitant to cover it. In fact, it was Germany's Bild newspaper that forced the details surrounding the circumstances of Haider's death into some of the Austrian press. Austria is one of the most conservative countries in Western Europe (many would say the most conservative) and has a particularly bad reputation for gay rights (though it does not have a form of civil partnership). The rest of the European media is full of criticism today for Austria's press, questioning why the country's media seemed to show such deference to the far-right leader in not reporting his homosexuality, which seemed to blatantly contradict the policy goals of his party. However the Austrian media has defended itself by pointing out that though the party's official platform demonized gays, Haider himself was never heard to utter any criticism of homosexuality amidst his attacks on foreigners and his praise for Nazis.
I can't help but wonder what effect all of this will have on the public perception of Austria in the rest of Europe, already badly damaged by the recent string of bizarre imprisonment cases, most notably the horrific tale of Josef Fritzel. That last case was also notable for the shocking way in which people 'looked the other way.'
Fascist leaders who lived secret gay lives while publicly condemning gay people to death is a familiar theme in Europe's history. As Austria slides further and further to the right, revelations such as these are bound to make people pretty uncomfortable, especially due to its almost creepy historical parallels.