MELK, Austria -- The event was supposed to be a sign of Austria's new way of dealing with its Nazi past. Nearly 50 years after the last slave laborers left the vast underground munitions works in the caverns near this small town, the federal government decided to turn the area into a memorial.

Only 24 hours after the opening ceremony in mid-May, however, visitors found the cave walls were covered with neo-Nazi graffiti. Embarrassed officials closed the memorial and cleaned the walls.

It turned out that a paramilitary fascist organization had used the caverns for years with local officials' tacit approval. In addition to holding commando exercises there, the gang had smeared the walls with racist and pro-Nazi graffiti that was not removed when the memorial was prepared.

The botched attempt to honor the 5,000 people who died in the Melk caves is one in a string of recent events illustrating Austria's seesaw battle to grapple with its Nazi past and combat the current upswing in neo-Nazi tendencies.

Although the government has responded to the new far-right with tougher anti-Nazi laws and a string of spectacular arrests, other incidents suggest that extremism has a strong foothold in this country of 7.5 million, which was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938 with little opposition.

Among the signs are:

* A popular columnist in Austria's most widely read newspaper who maintains that relatively few Jews were gassed in Nazi concentration camps;

* Local residents who turned a site where Nazi opponents were executed into a cemetery for the Nazi executioners;

* The rise of the far-right Freedom Party, which, under its 40-year-old charismatic leader Joerg Haider, has become the country's third-largest political party;

* The trial of a well-known neo-Nazi activist, who published articles and books trying to refute the Holocaust's existence.

The last incident created the almost absurd situation of an Austrian court having to hire an expert to investigate Auschwitz and other concentration camps to prove that the Holocaust really happened and that defendant Gerd Honsik was indeed misrepresenting the truth in his pamphlets and books.

The expert witness, Vienna historian Gerhard Jagschitz, said the data incontrovertibly prove that up to 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis in what was an industrialized, mechanized murder.

"By denying the truth, they are trying to relativize the Jews' fate to say, 'Well, a lot of Germans died in camps too, so what's the difference?' " Mr. Jagschitz said.

As Mr. Honsik's trial shows, the government is taking the threat of pro-Nazi revisionism seriously. It has passed a law making it easier to convict such propagandists, and police are moving against neo-Nazi gangs.

More worrying to many Austrians are the completely legal efforts of Mr. Haider's Freedom Party, which has found support among young voters. Some of the graffiti in the Melk caves, for example, parroted Mr. Haider's statement last year that the Nazis at least had good employment policies.

Arguing against Freedom Party rhetoric became more difficult in the late 1980s after former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim took office. Mr. Waldheim, who was an officer in a Nazi army unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans, helped make membership in Nazi organizations respectable again. Mr. Waldheim's history, which now embarrasses him, made Mr. Haider's brand of populism seem mainstream.

Even more significant, Mr. Haider's Freedom Party is not one of the fringe groupings found in many European countries. It regularly polls more than 20 percent of the vote, is represented in Parliament and could help form the next coalition government.

Originally called the League of Independents, the party was formed by former Nazi party members after World War II. In 1956 they changed the name to the Freedom Party.

The umbrella group of classic liberal parties in Europe, the Liberal International, has threatened Mr. Haider's party with expulsion and suspended its voting rights because of its right-wing tendencies. The European Parliament has attacked Mr. Haider and in a resolution called him a "yuppie fascist" with no democratic principles.

"He shouldn't be underestimated. His rhetoric isn't blown out of proportion. He really believes what he says," said Fritz Plasser, a leading Austrian political analyst.

Mr. Haider is hoping that, by the next parliamentary election in 1994, his party will be acceptable enough to form a coalition with the main conservative party, the Austrian People's Party.

In last month's presidential runoff, his support helped tip the scales for People's Party candidate Thomas Klestil, who said he would have no qualms about asking the conservatives to form a coalition government with Mr. Haider.

In what amounted to a coded message to the Freedom Party, which supports an amnesty for war criminals, Mr. Klestil said, "I don't think that everyone who is over 70 is a war criminal. We cannot view everything as negative."

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