VIENNA, Austria – Austria began four days of mourning on Wednesday for former President Thomas Klestil (search), who helped distance Austria from its Nazi past and strengthened the country's ties with emerging Eastern European democracies
Klestil, 71, died Tuesday of multiple organ failure, just two days before the end of his second six-year term.
His casket lay in state Wednesday at the presidential office in Vienna. Thousands of people were expected to file past the casket, which was draped with the Austrian flag and flanked by military honor guards, to pay their final respects.
A public memorial service was to be held Friday in a chapel in the Hofburg, the imperial palace in central Vienna where the presidency is based. Klestil was to be buried at Vienna's Central Cemetery after a requiem Mass at St. Stephen's Cathedral (search), the Austria Press Agency said.
While the post is mostly ceremonial, Austria's president is commander in chief of the country's military, and the constitution gives the head of state the power to reject nominations for Cabinet ministers or even to remove them from office — something that has rarely been done.
Politicians and foreign leaders joined in offering their condolences.
"Austria lost a great personality, a committed Austrian and European, who had dedicated his life to serve his country and its people," said Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who took over the presidency earlier this week when Klestil fell ill.
Klestil also was credited with helping to distance Austria from its Nazi history after years of controversy over his predecessor Kurt Waldheim's World War II service in the German army. Klestil's first term included a visit to Israel, where he expressed sympathy for Holocaust victims.
"President Klestil was a man of honor and a man of word whose personal integrity and openness helped rebuild relations with the United States and the Jewish world following the controversy surrounding the WWII record of his predecessor Kurt Waldheim," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the U.S.-based Wiesenthal Center (search).
When the European Union punished Austria for allowing the rightist Freedom Party to join the government, Klestil put his diplomatic skills to work and lobbied heads of states to lift sanctions seven months after they were slapped on the nation.
The Viennese-born Klestil studied economics and business and earned a doctorate in 1957. He worked for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development before becoming a diplomat.
In 1969, he established the Austrian General Consulate in Los Angeles, where he befriended Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder who went on to become a movie star and is now the governor of California.
In 1978, he was appointed Austria's ambassador to the United Nations. Four years later, he moved to Washington, where he became the nation's ambassador to the United States.
Klestil moved back to Austria in 1987 to serve as secretary-general for foreign affairs, becoming the highest-ranking career diplomat in the Foreign Ministry.
He was elected president in 1992, succeeding Waldheim, and was re-elected in 1998.