Ulrichsberg, Austria Austria's right-wing firebrand Joerg Haider joined veterans of Adolf Hitler's army on a mountaintop Sunday and called for respect and tolerance for the generation that "lost their youth" in World War II.
Haider, former chairman of the far-right Freedom Party, received a spontaneous standing ovation from a crowd of about 2,000 aging Austrians and Germans who served in the Nazi forces.
The annual gathering has been criticized by those who see it as glossing over the horrors of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Haider insisted that the gathering serves to "thank those who built the peaceful Europe we enjoy today."
"Most who come here are not old Nazis or neo-Nazis," Haider said. "They are old citizens who suffered during the war and lost their youth to the war and then began to rebuild."
The Ulrichsberg gathering, held each year on the first Sunday of October, has been harshly criticized as a festival for old Nazis that serves as a feeding ground for neo-Nazis. Three years ago, the ruin of a church that serves as a monument to Nazi soldiers who died in the war was attacked and severely damaged. It has since been restored.
Whether the criticism has sunk in or the veterans have simply mellowed with age, the theme of this year's 41st gathering centered largely on democracy for all of Europe.
During his speech to the crowd, Haider called for compensation for slave laborers, who were forced to work on farms and in factories throughout Hitler's Third Reich. He also endorsed tolerance for ethnic minorities in Europe.
Those remarks were far different from comments he made to the veterans nine years ago when he praised Hitler's employment policy. That touched off a firestorm of criticism that forced him to resign as governor of Carinthia state.
Despite those words, many plaques on the walls of the ruined church echoed Nazi-era themes that have made this gathering controversial.
At the entrance, the old SS slogan "Die Ehre Unserer Soldaten Heisst Treue" (the honor of our soldiers is patriotism) is carved in large elaborate letters on the wall.
Haider's party joined the Austrian coalition government in February, triggering diplomatic sanctions by the 14 other European Union members. They were lifted last month after an EU commission found Austria in compliance with EU standards of democracy and human rights.