Reich mother on the march in Hitler's homeland

Barbara Rosenkranz sings SS songs, is married to a neo-Nazi – and is bidding for power in Austria. Tony Paterson reports
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The Independent Online

Barbara Rosenkranz has been dubbed the "Reich Mother" not least because the Germanic Christian names she has chosen for all of her ten children and her Alsatian dog are ones that Adolf Hitler would have firmly approved of. And the evidence which prompts charges that Austria's lone woman presidential candidate is an unreconstructed Nazi does not end there.

The 51-year-old candidate for Austria's far-right Freedom Party in tomorrow's presidential election is married to a prominent neo-Nazi. She has criticised laws that make denying the Holocaust illegal; she thinks immigration is "wrong and dangerous"; and she is alleged to have joined in the public singing of an SS hymn during a summer solstice bonfire party.

With a record like that, it is hardly surprising that Mrs Rosenkranz has run foul of Austria's liberals, left wingers and mainstream conservatives. The country's small but vocal Jewish community has called her candidacy an "embarrassment" to the nation and "an insult to the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered during the Holocaust". Vienna's Archbishop Christoph Schönborn has said bluntly: "For Christians she is simply not eligible."

Virtually every public appearance made by Mrs Rosenkranz during the election campaign has been accompanied by protests. She is barracked and has objects thrown at her when she speaks. Last month around 3,000 people, backed by an 88,000-strong Facebook campaign, turned out in front of Vienna's Hofburg presidential palace to denounce her candidacy with a candlelight demonstration.

While no one expects her to beat Austria's current Social Democrat President Heinz Fischer, predicted to win up to 80 per cent of ballots, Mrs Rosenkranz has nonetheless dominated the campaign and is expected to get the backing of a staggering one in five voters.

In a country which has an unenviable post-war record of producing damaging figures – like Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian President with a Nazi history or one-time Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider – the appearance of another popular far-right politician whose eyes are set on the presidency has done little to enhance Austria's reputation within Europe and beyond.

Barbara Rosenkranz lives in Sankt Pölten, the town that hosted the trial of the "incest monster" Josef Fritzl. Initially, she comes across as a perfectly respectable provincial housewife, with carefully-coiffed hair and a large healthy brood. She is often to be found wearing traditional peasant costumes, such as the bodice, blouse, skirt and apron ensemble known as the Dirndl, or the thick, green Loden skirts and jackets.

Her 67-year-old husband, Horst Rosenkranz, was a key member of Austria's now banned neo-Nazi party, the NDP. He is well known in Austria as a publisher of far-right books with titles such as A Waffen SS Soldier Reports and he runs an organisation which collects funds to help imprisoned neo-Nazi activists. Mrs Rosenkranz says she cannot detect anything "dishonourable" in her husband's activities.

The Rosenkranzes have 10 children and an Alsatian dog. All of them, including the dog, have been given pure Germanic "Aryan" names – such as Mechthild and Horst – of the kind strongly encouraged by Hitler's Nazi party. Her explanation? "They can't all be called Kevin."

For recreation, the family upholds another Nazi tradition, giving annual summer solstice bonfire parties in their back garden where guest speakers wax lyrical about "the preservation of the Austrian Volk". More light was thrown on the nature of these parties yesterday when Austria's oe24 news site published a report alleging that Mrs Rosenkranz had joined in the singing of a Nazi SS hymn during a solstice party she addressed in 2008.

For Austria's Freedom Party, her candidacy is an attempt to attract the votes of older, dyed-in-the-wool far-right Austrians. Many are still at odds with the official post-war ideology which holds that the country was liberated from fascist tyranny at the end of the Second World War.

She is considered far-right even by her own political peers, but an ideal counterweight to Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party's youthful 40-year-old leader, who likes to campaign in discos.

Mrs Rosenkranz is backed by Hans Dichand, the elderly publisher of Austria's mass circulation Kronen Zeitung who has described her as a "courageous mother who would make a good president for Austria". He has encouraged her anti-immigrant, anti-Europe campaign, which calls for the closure of Austria's borders with its eastern EU neighbours.

But when his favoured candidate started to make her views about the Holocaust public, even Mr Dichand found it necessary to slam on the brakes. In interviews, Mrs Rosenkranz criticised as "restrictive" Austrian laws that make denying the Holocaust illegal.

And when asked whether she believed that the Nazis had killed millions in the death camps, she replied that she only knew what "an Austrian who had been at school in Austria between 1964 and 1976" would know. During this time, the history curriculum usually shuddered to an abrupt halt at the end of the First World War.

Her evasive response provoked an outcry from Mr Dichan's newspaper and Mrs Rosenkranz felt obliged to publicly sign a statement pledging never to contest the country's anti-Nazi legislation. "Democracy, freedom and human dignity have always been the foundation of my views. I distinctively dissociate myself from Nazi ideology," she said.

Her apparent U-turn was dismissed as meaningless by her opponents, but not by German-speaking neo-Nazis. "It's sad to see how quickly Mrs Rosenkranz has capitulated," wrote one neo-Nazi blogger on a German forum. "We always thought of her as a brave wife, mother and politician. One hope less."

However a "comrade" was able to reassure him. "She has to address the voting masses," he insisted, "Adolf Hitler knew that and pledged to uphold democracy. Did it do him any harm?"

Freedom Party: The Facts

*1956: Austria's Freedom Party (FPÖ) established. Many founding members were former Nazis.

*1999: Under Jörg Haider, the party won a record 27 per cent in a general election and formed a coalition government with the Conservatives.

*2000: The rest of the EU formally ceased co-operation with Austria because of the FPÖ's government role. To appease critics, Haider stood down as leader and returned to his post as governor of Carinthia province but continued to exert influence.

*2002: FPÖ trounced by conservatives in general election; FPÖ support fell to 10 per cent. Haider formed the breakaway Alliance For The Future of Austria.

*2008: Heinz-Christian Strache, the new FPÖ leader won 17.5 per cent in a general election. Haider's party won around 10 per cent. In October, Haider died in a high-speed car crash – he was drunk at the wheel.

*2010: The FPÖ decides to field Barbara Rosenkranz as its presidential candidate.