Former U.N. Chief Waldheim Dies at 88
Thursday, June 14, 2007; 12:20 PM
Kurt Waldheim, 88, a seemingly colorless diplomat who became secretary general of the United Nations and president of his native Austria only to be barred from the United States for suspected involvement in Nazi war crimes, died today at a Vienna hospital. He had been treated for an infection since last month.
When Waldheim was put on the Justice Department's "watch list" of prohibited persons in 1987, it was the first time in U.S. history that the head of a friendly country had been branded an undesirable alien suspected of war crimes with the German army in World War II.
He would remain on the "watch list" for the rest of his life -- which made him an international pariah despite his denials of Nazi sympathies and the high positions he had held in Austria and at the United Nations. For most of his six years in the largely ceremonial Austrian presidency, Waldheim was a virtual prisoner within his country, shunned by all but a handful of other countries.
The facts about what Waldheim did during the war years were never clearly established, and there was no clear-cut proof that he participated personally in murder or other war crimes. But there was strong evidence that he had concealed his role as a lieutenant between 1942 and 1945 with Nazi Army units involved in atrocities against Yugoslav partisans and had lied about his whereabouts during that period.
Although he was never tried, public disclosures in the mid-1980s included a secret 1948 finding by the U.N. War Crimes Commission that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Waldheim for "murder" and "putting hostages to death."
In a corollary development, whose validity was never established, a former Yugoslav intelligence officer charged that the Soviet Union may have used the information to enlist Waldheim as a Soviet agent after the war when he was serving in Austria's diplomatic service. There also was speculation that Waldheim had forged postwar ties with the Central Intelligence Agency and had worked secretly for the United States in exchange for the CIA concealing his background.
Except for a few halting and ill-documented attempts to argue that he was absent from the Balkans during some noted atrocity campaigns, Waldheim never made any sustained efforts to defend himself. He said he was unaware of Nazi campaigns to deport the Jews of Austria and later of Salonika, Greece, when he was stationed there. He also noted that as a citizen of Austria, forced into union with Germany in 1938, he had no choice other than to serve in the German army. He insisted that his service was entirely honorable. Waldheim's most sustained tactic always was to denounce the charges against him as an attempt to defame the people of Austria. That had great resonance in a country that has sought to portray itself as a captive of Germany forced to aid the Nazi cause. When the charges against Waldheim first surfaced during Austria's 1986 presidential campaign, public opinion rallied strongly to his side, and he easily won election as Austria's first non-Socialist postwar president.
Waldheim was born Dec. 21, 1918, in St. Andrae, a small town near Vienna. He was one of 11 children in the Catholic and politically conservative family of a school official in an Austria shorn of its empire after World War I.
In the late 1930s, as Hitler was moving toward the annexation of Austria, Waldheim did some military training, enrolled in Austria's Consular Academy and then in law school at the University of Vienna. He also became a voluntary member of a Nazi youth group, saying later he did so not from any innate Nazi sympathies but because he realized it would help advance his career.
When the war began in September 1939, Waldheim was called to active service as an officer in the Germany army. He was awarded the Iron Cross for his service in the invasion of Russia, wounded on the Russian front and returned to Vienna for recuperation in late 1941. It was what happened later in the war that would cast such a huge shadow over the latter years of his life.
But for more than 40 years, that part of Waldheim's career would remain in the shadows. The public part of his story picked up again when the war ended in 1945, and Waldheim was recruited into the foreign ministry of the newly independent Austria. He rose to become Austria's foreign minister and, after an unsuccessful try at elective politics, set his sights on the wider world stage.
At the height of the Cold War, the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union dictated that the secretary general of the United Nations should be someone both governments could trust. Waldheim, representing a country with an officially neutral foreign policy and noted for a finger-to-the-wind approach to decision-making, fit that job description well and was seen as the best available compromise candidate. In 1972 he began the first of two five-year terms as U.N. secretary general.