Published October 15, 2012
VIENNA – In tiny Austria, where souvenir shops do brisk business in T-shirts bearing the crossed-out image of a kangaroo, some hope skydiver Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking jump will mean that — for a while at least — people will stop confusing their country with Australia.
The daredevil Austrian not only became the first man to shatter the sound barrier without traveling in a jet or spacecraft, he also made the highest jump ever — a tumbling, death-defying plunge from a gossamer balloon floating in the stratosphere — before landing safely Sunday in the New Mexico desert.
But the pride felt here in the man known as "Fearless Felix" goes beyond reminding the world that Austria is not Australia. It also resonates on a deeper level in a country whose positive achievements have often been overshadowed by its association with Adolf Hitler.
This nation of less than 9 million people gave birth to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud as well as scores of other Austrians who have left huge footprints across the centuries in music, politics, art and science. Its Alpine lakes and mountain peaks are immortalized in "The Sound of Music," and its famed contemporary human exports include Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hollywood chef Wolfgang Puck.
But Austria is also frequently invoked as the birthplace of the Nazi dictator — and more recently as the home of Josef Fritzl, the man sentenced three years ago to life in prison for locking his daughter in a basement dungeon for 25 years and fathering her seven children.
Foreign media commentaries back then argued that there must be something inherently evil in a nation that can produce both Hitler and Fritzl, prompting the government to declare that Fritzl's crimes were an "isolated case" that the country could not be held hostage to.
With such associations weighing heavily on their minds, many Austrians were happy Monday for a new local hero swelling the ranks of the nation's good guys.
Vienna resident Mahir Dizdarevic described Baumgartner's stratospheric stunt as "good PR for Austria," adding with a laugh: "Let's hope we won't get mistaken for Australia anymore."
Peter Portugal, a fellow Viennese, also expressed his nation's pride. "He's Austrian, and I'm insanely happy that an Austrian did that," he said. "After all, he broke some records - and they will last for his entire life, my life and Austria's life."
Austria's president and chancellor sent their congratulations and Schwarzenegger tweeted his. Facebook users gleefully suggested that the stratosphere be renamed Baumgartner Heights — now the name of a Vienna street.
Almost 3 million people — more than a third of all Austrians — watched the jump live on TV. It was front-page news on all the dailies, and even hard-bitten newspaper columnists broke with days of questioning the sense of the endeavor, especially whether the reported 50 million euros (nearly $65 million) spent on it could have been better used.
"We need people like Felix Baumgartner, who dare to transcend our boundaries so that we all can look over our own tiny horizons," wrote Wolfgang Fellner, publisher of the mass-circulation daily "Oesterreich."
AP video journalist Philipp Jenne contributed.