Public criticism of the release of a Nazi war criminal and of his welcome home by an Austrian official has increased amid growing fears that racism and fascism are on the rise in Western Europe. ``We're totally opposed to his early release and to the treatment he received in Austria,'' said Glyn Ford, a British member of the European Parliament who chaired a two-day public hearing on racism and fascism here this week.
Last week, the Italian authorities set free former SS Maj. Walter Reder after he had served more than 30 years in jail for his role in the massacre of nearly 2,000 people in an Italian village 41 years ago. The Italians sentenced him to life imprisonment. But an Italian military tribunal -- reportedly under pressure from certain Austrian politicians -- ruled in 1980 that he could be released this year.
Austrian Defense Minister Friedhelm Frischenschlager met Mr. Reder at the airport on his return to Austria. A public outcry forced Mr. Frischenschlager to offer an official apology.
News media criticism throughout Western Europe, of both the Austrian minister and the Italians, has been severe. The British newspaper the Guardian, for example, said in a stinging editorial that it is ``disgraceful'' that Frischenschlager's own party threatened to bring down the ruling coalition government ``if he got his deserts.'' His belated apology was ``about the least he could have done.''
The European Parliament's special committee on racism and fascism was formed last year under mounting public pressure. Two more sessions -- the next on Feb. 26 and 27 -- will be held before the committee draws up a report in June.
Speaking at this week's hearing, Brigitte Galanda of the Austrian Resistance Documentation Center in Vienna said it was ``pleasantly encouraging'' that Reder's release and welcome had met with such opposition in Austria itself. But opinion polls there, she said, have highlighted something found elsewhere in Western Europe: that racism exists even in countries where ``the real object of that hatred'' is no longer present in large numbers.
Only 0.1 percent of the Austrian population is Jewish, she said. Most immigrant workers, moreover, have gone home. Yet recent polls show that more than half of the Austrian people harbor anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant feelings.
In Britain, racism and fascism have taken more visible forms, said Prof. Bhiku Parekh of the University of Hull, who cited the National Front and the British National Party. Both are fascist parties, though their popularity has waned. But, Mr. Parekh said, ``many young people on the extreme right have instead instigated a massive wave of racist attacks in recent months.''
The French thinker Jean Franois Revel painted a rosier picture, pointing out that for the first time since 1922, no dictatorship is in power in West Europe.
``The situation in Western Europe is not nearly as bad as just a few years ago,'' he said. Franco of Spain died in 1975.
Other speakers warned that certain extreme right-wing politicians, like Jean-Marie Le Pen of France, were creating an environment in which racism and fascism could take root and grow.