VIENNA — Spectators joined police Saturday in stopping a peaceful protest at a rally for presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim that sparked a rare public confrontation over an issue that had been a virtual national taboo--Austria's ties to Nazism.
The police and Waldheim supporters tore banners from protesters' hands as they tried to move into a crowd of about 700 people addressed by the former U.N. secretary general in a Vienna square.
The protesters were led by Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld, who came to Vienna on Friday to campaign against Waldheim.
Waldheim, 67, has been accused by the World Jewish Congress and others of links with atrocities and deportation of Jews in the Balkans during World War II. Waldheim, who was in his early twenties during the war, denies the charges and says he served in the German army as a liaison officer and interpreter.
It was the most bitter confrontation yet in campaigning for the June 8 runoff for the largely ceremonial presidency. Waldheim, who is supported by the conservative People's Party, is favored over Socialist candidate Kurt Steyrer.
At the end of Waldheim's speech a 29-year-old student, Andreas Forst, called out a question to him from the crowd, asking whether he would take part in a television duel with Steyrer.
Forst was set on by about 20 mainly middle-aged and old people, who ripped his shirt and punched and spat at him. "An old man hit me on the head with his walking stick," he said. "You saw the way they reacted. That was Austrian fascism 1986."
Members of Austria's 10,000-member Jewish community have spoken of a new wave of anti-Semitism after the speeches of Waldheim's supporters, who accuse the World Jewish Congress of a hate campaign against Waldheim and Austria.
The confrontation sparked an unprecedented political forum in the church square as groups of old and young argued heatedly, without violence, after the rally.
"I can't understand how people like Waldheim kept silent, said a young man who was distributing anti-Waldheim leaflets. "He isn't a credible presidential candidate. He had to know that people were disappearing into the camps and didn't do anything about it. He may have even been involved himself."
"You don't understand anything," retorted an elderly woman. "You have no idea what war is like in a totalitarian state. Nowadays, you can refuse to go into the Army. Then, you would have been shot."
"Waldheim was never a Nazi," said a middle-aged man said. "All this has been provoked by the Socialists who are afraid of the election. It's nonsense. Waldheim was a soldier, like everybody else."
"All these demonstrators--they are just friends of Israel," said another woman.
The outspokenness of some of the Waldheim supporters surprised bystanders unaccustomed to hearing such things said in public.
"Until today, I did not know what anti-Semitism meant in Austria," said Andreas Forsi, 29, a postgraduate student who had been kicked and punched when he tried to interrupt Waldheim.