THE ENIGMATIC WALDHEIM:
VENICE, June 17, 2007 – The mortal remains of Kurt Waldheim were buried this month while the verdict is still out for many whether the former U.N. Secretary General and Austrian president was a war criminal or just one more ostrich of the Nazi regime who buried his head in the sand and bleated: ‘I didn’t know.’
I know Waldheim knew because he told me so in an exclusive interview in Vienna in 1986, an interview not easy to forget because he came into the room and began: “Your name is wery German but your passport zays you are Australian?”
“Well, yes,” I said: “My parents were German but migrated to Australia.”
At that point Waldheim leaned forward and fixed me with his penetrating little pin eyes: Emigrated? Before or after zhe war?”
“After the war,” I said.
“Ah,” Waldheim said, leaning back in his presidential chair: “Zen we understand each other.”
At the time I didn’t enlighten the Austrian president both my parents had loathed Hitler and refused to join the Nazi party. Like a good reporter I had no wish to break the bond his preamble to our interview had created. Let him believe my parents had found a safe haven Down Under in 1954, a country which had become a refuge for many former Nazis. Maybe then he would be more frank.
And he was. In fact Waldheim admitted for the first time he had been aware of reprisal killings in Yugoslavia while he served as ordnance lieutenant under General Alexander Loehr an Austrian Nazi general who was executed in 1946 for atrocities against civilians and Tito’s partisans. Loehr also ordered civilian hostages hung on wooden gallows along the road from Kostajnica to Banja Luka during the infamous Operation Kozara in the summer of 1942 and organized the deportation to Auschwitz of 40,000 Jews from Thessaloniki.
What Waldheim denied then and to the very end was that he played any part in these atrocities though he later admitted again he did have knowledge of them, not a crime in itself.
Sitting there in his chair at the presidential palace Waldheim didn’t look like someone guilty but rather as someone who knew he had made tactical mistakes, his biggest a just published autobiography that prompted the weekly Austrian news magazine Profil to investigate the veracity of his war record. The magazine found a number of discrepancies.
“I knew bad things were happening but I was a young lieutenant. If I protested I would have been shot,” Waldheim told me, a common excuse by military men who were either ‘just following orders’ or ignoring reality.
The “Waldheim Affair” exploded in 1986 after he published his autobiography. He instantly became a prime target for persecution by the World Jewish Congress. The Congress, a kind of pro-Israel Jewish watch dog organization with enormous clout in the U.S. realized that bringing to justice ‘a war criminal’ of Waldheim’s stature was a major victory in their battle against anti-Semitism and in keeping alive the memory of the holocaust.
After all by the 1980s old Nazis plucked from South America hardly stirred public opinion anymore. But a former U.N. Secretary General and now Austrian President was someone people knew and had frequently seen on their television screens in prominent places. Remember he and Jimmy Carter jointly sent a declaration of peace into space? Now he was a suspected war criminal! What a story.
In fact Waldheim, a young Austrian lieutenant decorated for carrying out his duty, dug his own pit when he desperately tried to erase those parts of his wartime record that brought him close to the scenes of massacres and reprisal killings. Politically ambitious he wanted obstacles removed standing in his way to a prominence he always envisaged, even as a young man.
Fueled by the World Jewish Congress the Waldheim Affair became bitterer by the year. Though no evidence of Waldheim’s involvement in war crimes was produced the U.S. in 1987 placed him and his wife Sissy on a watch list of persons banned from entering the United States.
Taking its cue as usual from Washington and the Jewish lobby other western nations labeled the Austrian president persona non grata. In fact during his six year term as president of Austria he visited only Arab countries and the Vatican where Pope John Paul II awarded him a knighthood in the Order of Pius IX, an award that enraged Jews.
With his Nazi past Waldheim was a bad choice for U.N. general secretary even though no one yet has produced evidence he was a war criminal.
Even the world’s most famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal confirmed Waldheim was not a war criminal, so did a committee of historians who examined Waldheim’s life (under the supervision of Wiesenthal) as well as a panel of jurists gathered by Britain’s Thames Television network.
These findings enraged the World Jewish Council which had backed author Eli Rosenbaum. He wrote the investigation had been a white-wash by the Austrian government and historians. He angrily criticized Wiesenthal, a fellow Jew and until then a near sacrosanct figure.
Indignantly Wiesenthal responded in 1992: “The people from the World Jewish Council who were so committed to the Waldheim case find it difficult to accept the results of the international commission of historians. The commission which was formed at my instigation in Vienna, had come to the conclusion that Mr Waldheim knew about the wartime crimes in the Balkans but he was not personally involved in these…..”
It is always difficult for people, governments or organizations to admit they were wrong.
This month Kurt Waldheim died of a heart attack, aged 88. Some people might argue he was just another victim of over-zealous persecutors who often hobble together the guilty, the innocent and those, like Waldheim, who are neither one nor the other.