Jörg Haider, Europe’s most telegenic Nazi-sympathizing politician, and his spin doctor, Stefan Petzner, seemed poised to return the Austrian far right to power. But after Haider died in a high-speed crash, Petzner revealed he’d been far more than his boss’s protégé. Now all the young lover wants is to be the life of the party
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ON THIS LATE-DECEMBER NIGHT, it’s minus seven degrees Celsius in the Alpine boonies of southern Austria. A warm glow issues from the windows of a tavern on a dark road, where the far-right party known as the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (Alliance for the Future of Austria), or BZÖ, is throwing a boozy holiday bash.
Inside, the festivities are getting toasty in every way. There are pink-faced factory boys smashed on schnapps. Leathery middle-aged ladies in black Westernwear, line dancing to “Sweet Caroline” sung in German. Potbellied bricklayers bowling in a back room while their Goth-haired teen kids sulk at the bar. And in the midst of it all is the BZÖ’s lovelorn and recently ousted chairman, Stefan Petzner—an icicle-thin 27-year-old whose revelations about his love affair with the party’s married leader, Jörg Haider, have gripped Austria and led to extensive scrutiny of Haider’s Nazi-flirting past.
Austria hasn’t been embroiled in such a firestorm of controversy since Haider came to national power in 2000. Haider—who praised the Third Reich’s forced-employment policies, socialized with SS veterans, and lobbed the Nazi-favored term überfremdung, “foreigner-overrun,” during his anti-immigration rants—had won an electoral victory that gave him a place in Austria’s governing coalition. Outraged that a Nazi-sympathizing extremist could hold sway in a modern state, the European Union placed sanctions on Austria—the only time it has ever done so to a member nation.
Now, after Haider’s death at age 58, the fog lights have swung back, landing on Petzner, who was his protégé and anointed successor. On the night of October 10, the two men had been at a party when Haider reportedly stormed out after a lovers’ quarrel; he died later that night in a drunken car crash. A heartbroken Petzner, who had assumed leadership of the party upon Haider’s death, effectively outed himself and Haider in a tearful interview on a national-radio breakfast show. “We had a relationship that went far beyond friendship,” Petzner said. “Jörg and I were connected by something truly special. He was the man of my life.” He added, “I only had him. Now I am alone.”
Petzner’s disclosures didn’t come as a complete shock to political insiders. Rumors about Haider’s sexuality had circulated since the early nineties, though Haider had always refused to discuss the subject. As a macho, mountaineering father of two daughters, a man who espoused an ultraconservative agenda and traditional values, he likely feared that addressing such rumors would alienate thousands of his followers. “It was an open secret that Haider was gay,” says Anton Pelinka, a noted scholar of nationalism who, as a professor at the University of Innsbruck, tracked Haider’s rise. “But no one cared. No one talked of it. Because Haider did not attack gays. With Haider, you will not find a negative word on homosexuals. You will find anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, but not a word on gays.”
The hip, charismatic Haider had always drawn young men like Petzner to his side—so many that his contingent was nicknamed Haider’s Buberlpartei, or Boys’ Party. Still, the passion of Petzner’s confessions caught the nation off guard. Party officials rushed to prevent other interviews and limit the damage to the Haider myth. They reportedly forbade Petzner from speaking out further, questioned his fitness to succeed Haider, and finally stripped him of the party leadership.
Since losing his lover and protector, Petzner has become a very frightened man. When I first contacted him, by e-mail, he replied with a terse “No interview.” When I arrive in Klagenfurt, where he lives, and call his cell phone, he is gracious but nervous. “It is very dangerous for me to talk,” he explains. “I have been told, ‘No more, any time.'”
The BZÖ’s leaders—who include a former defense minister, a provincial governor, and Haider’s sister, Ursula Haubner, a onetime federal minister of social security—may despise Petzner for his revelations, but they cannot eject him from the party. Not yet. Petzner ran the BZÖ’s media campaign during last September’s elections, in which the party had surprised many by capturing 11 percent of the national vote, catapulting Haider and the far right back into a position of power. Petzner, who turned 28 in January, was overseeing this month’s regional elections in the party’s stronghold of Carinthia, the southern Alpine province on the border of Slovenia where Haider had served as governor. And a portion of the party’s base clearly adored him. His apparent outing of Haider, and subsequent basking in the spotlight, may have alienated the party leadership and Haider’s widow, Claudia, but by giving voice to his sincere grief, which Haider’s followers shared, Petzner had endeared himself to many rank-and-file neo-Fascists.
At the tavern party, old women embrace him as he nestles at their tables, expertly milking the moment. Angular and orange-hued from the tanning bed, with skinny jeans, a white cotton motorcycle jacket, and a thick scarf swaddling his neck, he rubs the women’s broad backs, asks after their health, and merrily joins in their champagne toasts. No one seems to mind, or acknowledge, the greyhound-slender fortysomething man shadowing Petzner. He tells me his name is Christian and that he is Italian, from Trieste, just over the border. He calls himself Petzner’s “traveling companion” and says that he too knew Haider well, for 20 years. When I ask if he and Petzner are an item, he smiles tightly. “Everyone asks us this all the time, if we are a couple,” he says, holding a drink in one hand, resting the other on an oversize rhinestone belt buckle in the shape of a dollar sign. “Why should I tell you?”
This event is a morale-booster for BZÖ supporters and a chance for them to greet a local candidate as he unveils the party’s new anthem for Klagenfurt. Petzner claps along to the synth-heavy club beat and lip-synchs while his candidate belts into the mike, “Then I see Wörthersee in its most beautiful blue. Then I feel it in me: Oh, my Klagenfurt!”
Petzner looks elated. Afterward, when the CD of the song, with the candidate’s smiling face on the cover, is handed out, it is Petzner’s autograph everyone wants scrawled across it. Maybe he’s feeling the love, or maybe it’s the successive glasses of champagne, beer, and a coffee-liqueur concoction—a tray of which he delivered to a darts team in the back room, just before the men hoisted him, legs splayed, into their air—but something makes Petzner want to brag. “I am the spin doctor,” he says brazenly as he flops onto a leather banquette. “I make the slogans, I make pictures. I have no advertising agency here that helps me.” When I tell Petzner that his father, a modest farmer, must be proud, he snaps, “Proud is not important to me. Not at all.”
A shy, unkempt woman in her forties approaches and, smiling, slips Petzner a handwritten poem—an ode to Haider. Petzner looks uneasy. While the ghost of Haider haunts the proceedings, most of the revelers have had the good taste not to talk to Petzner directly about him. In fact, every person here seems to dismiss the affair as a media misunderstanding. This is the fiction by which the far right’s faithful live, with which they are able to canonize Haider and embrace Petzner. But the poem is troubling, a hit to the solar plexus. It begins, “He fell from the sky. It is dark as night because he is not here.” Petzner nods, head bowed, as he reads, and mumbles, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Stefan Petzner grew up one of five children of a livestock farmer in rural Styria, the province north of Carinthia. In 1987, when Petzner was 7, there was a party in his village. A limo stopped by and out stepped Jörg Haider, who had recently risen to national prominence. In those days, while in his mid-thirties, Haider projected a virile, gregarious Everyman image, and Petzner was instantly taken with him. “Even today, I can still remember that big car,” Petzner recalled wistfully in a TV appearance after Haider’s death. “Then I shook his hand.”
Petzner eventually left his village of around 1,000 people for the University of Klagenfurt, some 70 miles to the south, where he studied communications. “He was very engaged, a very intense debater,” says Rainer Winter, director of the communications program.
But Petzner cut an odd, sometimes out-of-place figure among the school’s 8,000 students with his suits, bristle of blond hair, and coterie of doting female friends. Petzner has a wispy, halting voice. He does not possess a quick intelligence or a politician’s knack for fellowship. It’s easy to see how extreme-right politics, which his father had espoused and which was having a resurgence in Austria thanks to Haider, offered a safe haven for Petzner. He joined a campus chapter of Haider’s party and eventually became its general secretary.
At the time, Haider had been causing a stir with a series of visits to Arab nations, including Libya, where he met with Muammar el-Qaddafi. In late 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq war, Haider flew to Baghdad to meet Saddam Hussein and, reportedly, discuss the “Zionist and U.S. conspiracy” against Iraq.
During his junior year, Petzner met his idol again, at an event for the party’s grassroots organizers. “We often talked about that moment and saw it, in great gratitude, as a wink of fate,” he said. The attraction, as Petzner has recalled it, seems to have been visceral: “I remember what clothes he wore, which umbrella he had, how the weather was, how it smelled in that place, the temperature. It was winter but quite mild, and it rained—I have it all exactly in my head. Then our eyes met, and this looking in each other’s eyes was the great beginning.”
In early 2003, Petzner invited Haider to speak on campus about his tour of Iraq, and Haider accepted. Shortly afterward, Petzner abandoned his studies (“I could not wait to get out of there,” he says) and took a job writing press releases for Haider. Within a year, he was Haider’s personal assistant and, for the next five years, rarely left his side.
Jörg Haider had always exuded flash and glamour. Perma-tanned, with rugged Aryan good looks, he wore designer suits, chic ski jackets, loden coats, and, at some fancy balls, Robin Hood outfits. He loved to go to nightclubs, recruiting young men to his party over martinis, and to push his Porsches well past the speed limit.
He had come to political prominence in 1986, when, as a 36-year-old attorney, he took over the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), a far-right group that traced its roots to a social club started in the aftermath of World War II by unreconstructed former Nazis. Haider’s parents, early and fervent supporters of National Socialism, had been members: His father, Robert, joined the Hitler Youth in 1929; his mother, Dorothea, was a member of the Nazi League of German Maidens.
Haider soon became Austria’s most polarizing figure. He wasn’t the first to appeal to his parents’ generation’s nostalgia for Nazism, but he was the first to make it mainstream—tailoring neo-Fascist ideology to fit a growing resentment about globalization and immigration, and selling it with charisma and political theatrics. He was a shrewd populist who championed free kindergarten and handed out 5,000 ski passes to celebrate his 50th birthday. He lived on a $13 million baronial estate, which an uncle of his had bought cheap in 1941 from a Jew fleeing after the Anschluss.
“Haider set himself up as our savior,” says Klaus Ottomeyer, a social-psychology professor at the University of Klagenfurt and author of the 2000 book The Haider Show. “He minimized the guilt of the war generation but also promised to bring self-esteem to whole groups of people who feel threatened by globalization.”
While researching his book, Ottomeyer noted the number of young male advisers who orbited Haider and whose homosexuality seemed—to Ottomeyer and to others—obvious. “Petzner, unlike the others, lost his sense of self in all this,” Ottomeyer says. “He was merely the instrument of a narcissistic, larger personality. His tragedy is that Haider died and he is now an empty person, a lost lover.”
In the estimation of many media observers as well as fellow politicians, Petzner was little more than a suitcase carrier, an eager aide who popped up in photo ops or handed Haider his overcoat or a sheaf of papers at a press conference. Petzner was that—but as Haider’s daily companion and press secretary, he was also his mouthpiece.
Although Petzner didn’t have Haider’s intellect or charisma, he developed a fierce loyalty—and a protectiveness that went far beyond professionalism. Three years into the job, he was lashing out like a character on Gossip Girl. When a newspaper columnist wrote something critical of the BZÖ in 2007, Petzner struck back in a personal manner, calling her a “tragic figure,” her writing “a thin soup made by an aging pseudo-journalist.” The two men had by then settled into an intimate relationship, with a strange role reversal: Petzner later confided that it was Haider, 30 years his senior, who they agreed possessed the “inner child,” while Petzner was “the mature soul.” As Petzner’s visibility rose and he began appearing with Haider in parliament wearing his own couture suits or striding alongside him on the evening news, he grew bolder and more reckless in his statements, displaying a clumsy knack for Nazi allusion. This past summer, after Haider ordered that a group of Central Asian and African refugees be detained at an out-of-use youth center, Petzner joked that it was merely a “temporary solution,” not a final one. “It was tasteless and childish, but Petzner thought himself pretty witty,” says Wolfgang Rossler, a political columnist at Kleine Zeitung, Carinthia’s largest newspaper.
In Carinthia, where Haider’s ultranationalist, xenophobic message has the most resonance—thanks to resentment toward generations of relocated Slovenes—Haider would rail against the region’s bilingual road signs, and he ordered they be torn down, in defiance of Austria’s constitution. But it was Petzner who dreamed up the slogan “Do you want a final solution for bilingual road signs?” “He was very proud of this,” says Rudy Voulk, a Klagenfurt civil-rights lawyer and ethnic Slovene who often clashed with Haider and Petzner. “He thought of himself as a kind of propaganda minister. Selling Haider was like selling water in the desert. Haider sold himself—he never needed Petzner. Haider liked to tell people that Petzner had a great politician inside him. But I don’t think Petzner was bright enough to get the joke.”
In the years following the EU’s sanctions against Austria, the FPÖ’s allure and popular support had begun to erode. Infighting eventually caused Haider to split from the party he had built and, in 2005, form the BZÖ with several loyalists, including his sister, Ursula. At best it was a risky ploy, and in the eyes of most political pundits Haider had become a marginal figure in Austrian politics.
In the run-up to last September’s national elections, Haider stopped playing the radical gadfly and, with Petzner at his side, recast himself as an elder statesman. For one series of iconic campaign posters, Petzner had Haider photographed in rolled-up shirtsleeves, against various patriotic backdrops, and ran the images with strong, not-so-subtly xenophobic slogans like “Austria for Austrians! For your sake—Jörg Haider’s list—The Original!”
On September 28, Haider and the BZÖ won a stunning electoral victory, scoring 11 percent of the national vote and tripling the party’s seats in parliament. His old friends at the FPÖ also fared well, pulling in 18 percent of the vote, giving Haider-affiliated far-righters nearly a third of parliament. An ebullient Haider told the BBC, “I think we will have the opportunity to negotiate the new government.” Political analysts saw the victory as a protest vote against the ineffectual centrist governing coalition rather than as an embrace of radical right-wing views. Regardless, Jörg Haider had pulled off a remarkable comeback.
On October 10, he and Petzner attended a magazine launch party together. The Austrian press has reported that the two men began to argue bitterly. According to some tabloids, their dispute was over an affair Petzner was having with another man, although he has never commented on these allegations. (He has, however, curiously denied being gay.) Whatever the cause of the fight, it became increasingly heated, and Haider departed in a huff and drove to a gay bar, where he was seen drinking vodka with a male companion. Witnesses told police that Haider could barely walk when he finally got behind the wheel of his VW Phaeton. Just before 1 A.M., Haider, who was driving home alone, tried to pass another car at 88 miles per hour, twice the speed limit, on a steep and narrow turn. He lost control of the car, which slammed into a concrete pillar, then flipped several times. Despite wearing a seat belt, Haider suffered massive internal injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. An autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit.
Haider’s driver, who had not been on duty that night, called Petzner as soon as he heard about the accident. Petzner rushed to the hospital and insisted on seeing Haider’s body. “I had to go to him. I had to go to him,” Petzner tearfully told one interviewer soon after the crash. The news media was turning to Petzner, the party flack, for official comment, but what it got was a torrent of raw emotions—and intimate detail. “About Jörg and me, there was more—it was broad on all levels,” he said. Over the next several days, he went on to call Haider his Lebensmench, “the man of my life” (a term that’s since been adopted ironically by Austria’s gay community), and to entangle Haider’s grieving widow, Claudia—who had taken him in for several nights after the crash because he was afraid to be alone. “She loved him as a woman, he loved her as a man,” he said. “I loved him in another, totally different way, and she understood that.” But Petzner’s sister, Christiane, painted a more contentious picture, telling an Austrian women’s magazine, “Sometimes Claudia was jealous because Stefan would spend more time with her husband than she did.”
It’s clear from Petzner’s later remarks that he and Haider had issues in their May-December relationship. Petzner told one interviewer, “[Haider] worried, and said so, because there is this age gap between 58 and 27. And he often said, ‘You still have your whole life in front of you, also your political life.’ He already had walked a long political road, while mine was just beginning. And so . . . knowing that my road would be longer than his, which meant someday I would have to walk my personal, my human and political road alone, this worried him a lot.”
Petzner’s string of confessionals culminated in the now-infamous national-radio interview, broadcast on October 19, in which he seemed to cross the line between sincere mourner and self-aggrandizing martyr. Party leaders and Claudia Haider tried to stop the interview from being rebroadcast, begging the show’s host to pull it from the schedule. Even Petzner seemed to realize that he was going too far, at one point telling the host, “I must protect myself from myself.” The BZÖ higher-ups moved quickly to strip him of his leadership, and have maintained strict media silence on the matter. “Stefan Petzner destroyed himself,” says Bernhard Torsch, a Carinthian political blogger. “The first time it captured the mood of the population. After that, he was just playing the May widow.”
But Petzner’s weepy performance was not the only revisionist myth-making at work. In death, Haider was being transformed into a national hero. More than 25,000 people attended his memorial, a lavish Carinthian event with a military honor guard escorting his coffin. Grandees referred to him as “the father of our province.” Many Austrians began calling him “our Lady Di.”
Once a fixture on the Vienna scene, Stefan Petzner is a cautious, reticent man these days. Whether out of fear, grief, or a sense of decorum, he lives alone in Klagenfurt and is rarely seen in public. He spends most days writing campaign briefings and tending Haider’s legacy—compiling books, CDs, and DVDs of his speeches. Petzner’s proclamations of love have made him what his hate speech couldn’t: a pariah. He has no clear prospects beyond the March elections, after which the party’s leadership is expected to kick him to the curb. So it’s surprising to find him at the party’s holiday bacchanal, but it’s not hard to understand why he’s getting drunk and clinging to old ladies.
“We see that on his own, Stefan Petzner has no power,” says Rudy Voulk, the civil-rights lawyer. Were Petzner’s tears a calculated ploy? “It was this feeling that he wanted that everyone should know in what context he was with Haider,” Voulk says. “He was proud. Without Haider he is invisible.”
Here within the bubble of the BZÖ celebration, surrounded by his adoring, oblivious party members, Petzner looks like a man who could possibly run for office himself. “That takes charisma,” he says blithely as he signs autographs for the elderly eagerly waiting in line. “You either have charisma or not. I have some amount.”
But outside the tavern, he is systematically being written out of the Haider story. After the crash, Claudia Haider asked police for new toxicology tests, and she continues to press for further investigation, saying Haider was not drunk. Several BZÖ officials have reportedly suggested he may have been drugged. Far-right websites, too, are fueling speculation. Perhaps he was assassinated by political rivals fearful and jealous of his resurgence. Possibly it was the Slovenes. Or maybe the Mossad engineered the crash; the Israeli government had long vilified Haider for his anti-Zionist rhetoric and his ties to Arab dictators.
Petzner is the only one who knows what he and Haider said to each other the night of the crash. His candor might help dispel any talk of assassination, but then again it might be met with denial (as his earlier comments were), alienate the last people willing to embrace him, or put him in grave danger.
Despite Petzner’s fears, he dismisses the Fascist faithful’s need to chase each new conspiracy theory, and responds to Claudia Haider’s request for new blood tests with cold, knowing disdain. “That is a story for old ladies,” he says, “not for me.”