By John M. Goshko
Special to The Washington Post
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.
During those 10 years, he was known largely as someone who did his best to avoid controversy -- so much so that American diplomats privately considered him uncooperative. At the U.N., he was widely disliked for showing more interest in the trappings of his office than its responsibilities.
His most noticeable moment in the public eye came in 1979, when Muslim militants in Iran seized the U.S. Embassy and took the Americans stationed there hostage. Waldheim led a U.N. delegation to Tehran in an effort to secure their release. But, when he and his retinue were menaced by a mob of angry Iranians, he hastily fled the country.
After leaving the United Nations, Waldheim returned to Austria to begin his campaign for the presidency under the slogan "a man that the world trusts." But he made the mistake of publishing German and English versions of his memoirs. In the English edition, "In the Eye of the Storm," Waldheim wrote that after being wounded on the Russian front, he had spent the remainder of the war years working toward his doctorate at the University of Vienna.
However, in 1986, representatives of the World Jewish Congress ascertained that beginning in March 1942 he was posted to the German high command in Belgrade and spent much of the war as an intelligence and administrative officer in the Balkans. For much of that time, it became clear, he was attached to units involved in ruthless attempts to stamp out partisan resistance through so-called "cleansing operations" that ultimately took hundreds of thousands of lives through massacres and large-scale deportations.
Waldheim's response to his failure to mention these facts in his autobiography was that it would have been "too boring" to repeat every detail of his wartime service. There is no evidence that Waldheim participated directly in these campaigns or that he even sympathized with them.
But it was impossible to escape the conclusion that Waldheim was well aware of what was going on. At least one of the commanders he served under was executed as a war criminal, and Waldheim was listed as the recipient of a high award by the virulently anti-Semitic Nazi puppet regime in Croatia for service in a "cleansing" campaign in which an estimated 90,000 Yugoslavs, including women and children, died.
The uproar caused by these revelations forced the U.S. Justice Department to initiate a year-long investigation of whether Waldheim's wartime activities conflicted with American law. On April 28, 1987, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III, prodded by strong recommendations from within the department, concluded that evidence existed for placing Waldheim on the "watch list" because of provisions in the immigration law "prohibiting entry to any foreign national who assisted or otherwise participated in activities amounting to persecution during World War II."
Throughout his presidency, about the only places where Waldheim found himself welcome were neighboring Germany, a scattering of Arab countries and, somewhat surprisingly, the Vatican. In 1987, Pope John Paul II, a long-time friend, turned aside widespread criticism to host the Austrian president on an official state visit. The pope defended his action on the grounds that he could not refuse an audience to a head of state from a country with a strong Catholic tradition unless he had clear-cut proof of the allegations against him.
Even in Austria, where majority public opinion continued to rally around him, Waldheim's record continued to be a matter of unending controversy. When his six-year term ended on July 8, 1992, Waldheim repeated his frequent assertion that it was unfair to equate members of his generation with the Nazi regime.
"The majority of them were sent into a war that they did not want," he said. "They had to wear a uniform that for many people, particularly the Jewish people became a symbol for persecution, misery and death. I have learned how difficult it was for me as a member of this generation to make clear a contradiction that is hardly understandable for the generation born later--namely the contradiction to have rejected this regime from the first hour on, even though I lived under this regime and wore its uniform."
Waldheim is survived by his wife, Elisabeth, whom he married in 1944, and their three children, the Associated Press reported from Vienna.
Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this article.