Among the causes to which Kurt Waldheim has devoted his life, ignorance is surely one. Asked to account for his years as a Nazi soldier, he said he never knew about the atrocities being committed around him. Asked how he could not, he answers that he still does not know. For almost 45 years, the former U.N. secretary general has pursued ignorance as if it were truth. He thinks it will set him free.
The charges against Waldheim are several. The first is that he was an early and eager Nazi recruit. Not true, Waldheim says. The second is that he served in Yugoslavia and Greece under Gen. Alexander Lohr, who was later executed as a war criminal. In Yugoslavia, Lohr's forces committed atrocities. In Greece, they were responsible for, among other things, the deportation of 42,000 Jews from the city of Salonika to extermination camps in Poland.
To the last charge, Waldheim says not guilty. He was merely a staff officer to Lohr, an occasional translator, and not only did he have nothing to do with the expulsion of Jews, but he did not even know about it. Confronted by The New York Times, Walheim confessed not just innocence, but ignorance as well.
"I regret these things deeply," he said, referring to the deportation of the Salonika Jews while he was there. "But I have to repeat that it is really the first time I hear that such things have happened. I never heard or learned anything of this while I was there. I hear for the first time that there were deportations of Jews from there."
It could be that Kurt Waldheim worked for the very Nazi general who organized the expulsion of the Jews of Salonika and never heard a thing to make him suspicious. It could be that almost half of Salonika's residents vanished -- much of the merchant class -- and Waldheim did not notice. It could be that the butcher went, the shoemaker, too -- the lawyer in his office, the doctor in his clinic, the haberdasher in his store -- and still Waldheim took no notice. The children were gone from the street, the old men from the park, and the wind banged the shutters of empty homes, but Kurt Waldheim walked by, noticing nothing. It could be. But it could not be.
Or it could be that he did notice. But what could he do? He was a mere cog in a huge killing machine -- a soldier in the army, not a race-hater in the SS, not a sadist for the Gestapo torture chambers. Europe was a vast charnel house, and everywhere the innocent were being murdered. To admit casual complicity for what happened during the war is almost to earn moral immunity now. What could one person do? What would you have done?
But the measure of the man can be taken in his proclamation of ignorance. Here is the self-confessed dumbbell in all his glory -- a man who essentially boasts no knowledge of history, as if that frees him from its consequences. In Waldheim's case, a great crime took place under his nose, and he smelled nothing. He was, he insists, the three monkeys rolled into one. Stop picking on him.
Even in the awful annals of the Holocaust, the saga of the Jews of Greece is a special horror. It was a very long way from Salonika to the killing camps of Poland. The Jews of Salonika -- men and women, children and the aged, the pious and the cynical, the jaded and the romantic -- were put into trains and shipped across Europe. The journey took days, and all this time the Jews of Salonika went without water or food, without toilets or baths -- in some case without air to breathe. By the time the trains reached the camps, many of the Jews were already dead. They suffered terribly, and a Jewish community, 500 years old and renowned throughout Europe, was no more.
After the war, Kurt Waldheim become a world leader. He is now running for president of Austria. It is barely acceptable for him to say he was oblivious to mass murder when he was a junior officer; it is not acceptable for him to say he spent a life that way. As a man and as a political leader, it was his obligation to find out what happened during the war, to see what, in his modest way, he made possible -- to know and, in the telling phrase of Arthur Koestler, "to be haunted by his knowledge."
But Waldheim says nothing haunted him. He proclaims his innocence by confessing ignorance. But what it really comes down to is indifference -- an inadvertent confession of guilt. It is what made the Holocaust possible.