By John M. Goshko
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 15, 2007
Kurt Waldheim, 88, a seemingly low-key diplomat who became secretary general of the United Nations and president of his native Austria only to be barred from the United States on suspicion of involvement in Nazi war crimes, died June 14 at a Vienna hospital. He had been receiving treatment for an infection since last month.
When Mr. Waldheim was put on the Justice Department's "watch list" of prohibited people 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 remained on the list for the rest of his life -- which made him an international pariah despite his denials of Nazi sympathies and the high positions he held in Austria and at the United Nations. For most of his six years in the largely ceremonial Austrian presidency, he was a virtual prisoner in his country, shunned by all but a handful of nations.
The facts about what he did during the war years were never clearly established, and there was no clear-cut proof that he participated in killings or other war crimes. But there was strong evidence that he concealed his role as a lieutenant between 1942 and 1945 with Nazi Army units involved in atrocities against Yugoslav partisans and lied about his whereabouts during that period.
Although Mr. Waldheim 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 him on charges of "murder" and "putting hostages to death."
In a corollary development, the validity of which was never established, a former Yugoslav intelligence officer said that the Soviet Union might have used the information to enlist Mr. Waldheim as a Soviet agent after the war when he was serving in Austria's diplomatic service. There also was speculation that he 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 say that he was absent from the Balkans during some noted campaigns of atrocities, Mr. Waldheim never made any sustained efforts to defend himself. He said that 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, which was forced to unite with Germany in 1938, he had no choice but to serve in the German army. He insisted that his service was honorable.
Mr. Waldheim consistently denounced the charges against him as an attempt to defame the Austrian people. 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 him first surfaced during Austria's 1986 presidential campaign, the public rallied to his side, and he was easily elected Austria's first non-Socialist postwar president.
Kurt Josef Waldheim was born Dec. 21, 1918, in St. Andrae, a small town near Vienna. He was one of 11 children in a politically conservative Catholic family in a country shorn of its empire after World War I.
In the late 1930s, as Hitler was moving toward annexing Austria, Mr. Waldheim received military training, and he enrolled in Austria's Consular Academy and then law school at the University of Vienna. He also became a voluntary member of a Nazi youth group, saying later that he did so not because of any innate Nazi sympathies but because he realized that it would help his career.
When the war began in September 1939, he was called to active service as an officer in the German army. He was awarded the Iron Cross for his service in the invasion of Russia; he was wounded on the Russian front and returned to Vienna to recuperate in 1941. It was what happened later in the war that cast such a huge shadow over the latter years of his life.
But for more than 40 years, that part of his life remained hidden. The public part of his story picked up again when the war ended in 1945, and he was recruited into the foreign ministry of the newly independent Austria. He became Austria's foreign minister and, after an unsuccessful attempt at elective politics, set his sights on the world stage.
At the height of the Cold War, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union dictated that the secretary general of the United Nations should be someone whom both governments could trust. Mr. Waldheim, representing a country with an officially neutral foreign policy and being noted for a finger-to-the-wind approach to decision-making, was seen as the best available 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 tried to avoid controversy -- so much so that American diplomats privately considered him uncooperative. At the United Nations, he was disliked for showing more interest in the trappings of his job than its responsibilities.
His most high-profile public moment came in late 1979, when Muslim militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran and took the Americans stationed there hostage. Mr. Waldheim led a U.N. delegation to Tehran to try to secure their release, but when he and his retinue were menaced by a mob of angry Iranians, he fled the country.
After leaving the United Nations, he returned to Austria to begin campaigning 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," he wrote that after being wounded on the Russian front, he spent the remainder of the war working on his doctorate at the University of Vienna.
However, in 1986, representatives of the World Jewish Congress ascertained that beginning in March 1942, Mr. Waldheim 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 "cleansing operations" that ultimately took hundreds of thousands of lives through massacres and large-scale deportations.
His 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 he participated directly in the campaigns or sympathized with them.
But it was impossible to escape the conclusion that Mr. 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 Mr. Waldheim was listed as the recipient of an award by the 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 the revelations forced the U.S. Justice Department to initiate a year-long investigation into whether Mr. Waldheim's wartime activities conflicted with U.S. law. On April 28, 1987, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III, prodded by recommendations within the department, concluded that there was evidence to place him on the watch list because of provisions in 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 he was welcome were neighboring Germany, a scattering of Arab countries and, somewhat surprisingly, the Vatican. In 1987, Pope John Paul II, a longtime 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 proof of the allegations against him.
Even in Austria, where the public continued to rally around Mr. Waldheim, his record was a matter of unending controversy. When his six-year term ended July 8, 1992, he 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."
Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Elisabeth Waldheim, and three children.