"I am Kurt Waldheim. During the Second World War, I was a young man, ambitious, somewhat callow. I served as a junior officer to a war criminal. I knew of atrocities, most of Europe did, but I could do nothing to stop them. I am sorry now for what happened. I realize that in a minor way I bear some of the responsibility for the Holocaust. The shark of Nazism swam in the sea of collective indifference. I dedicate my life to seeing that there will never be a repetition. Never again."
Of course, no such words have come from the mouth of Waldheim. Instead, the former U.N. secretary general maintains that he was serenely ignorant of the deportation or murder of thousands in places where he was an intelligence officer. The Nazis turned Europe into an abattoir, but Waldheim, nose buried in his work, never noticed. There was nothing about any of that in the reports he read.
Now, the bureaucrat out of Kafka has the world playing his game. The president of Austria, a former jurist, has seen some of the evidence against Waldheim and said he finds it insufficient for prosecution. Others say the same thing. Even Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter of both fact and legend, waits for evidence. Both he and the Austrian president say they find Waldheim's explanations unbelievable, but they are trained to deal in proof, and thus miss the point. A senior Justice Department official has his finger on it, though. He wants Waldheim barred from the United States, but it will never happen. The evidence will surely be lacking, and, besides, the administration showed at Bitburg that on these matters it can be morally obtuse.
Legally, there will never be a case against Waldheim. He is what he appears to be -- n obscene opportunist. Now, running for the presidency of Austria, he sees yet another opportunity. By admitting nothing, he rejects the past. By not even acknowledging that he knew of atrocities, he denies responsibility. By stating that he did not even learn of the atrocities until accused of them, he displays his indifference. If his standing in the polls proves anything, it is that this pose is popular with his countrymen.
Of course, it is easy to condemn from America events that occurred years ago in Europe. Readers reminded me of that when last I wrote about Waldheim. They said you had to be there. They told of the terror, the horror -- the inability of a single person to stop it, to even make a difference. A letter told of the good people who did nothing -- how Jewish families disappeared and everyone pretended that nothing had happened.
But Waldheim is a world leader. His dossier proclaims it. He is running now for the presidency of a European country -- a mostly empty office, ceremonial at best, but an elected post nonetheless. It is a country, though, with a Nazi past. A German-speaking cousin, it rejoined the family with the Anschluss. Austrians greeted German tanks with flowers, and such Austrians as Waldheim served in the German army. To many, Germany did not conquer Austria; it liberated it. Hitler, after all, was an Austrian himself.
The Austrians who will vote in the presidential elections know that the issue is not whether Waldheim can legally be prosecuted. The question is not whether there is a hard-and-fast legal case against him: witnesses, documents and the awful tales of survivors. No. The issue is Waldheim's refusal to acknowledge any role in history's greatest crime -- to say that he was there and is sorry.
Probably Austria, like Germany, is tired of guilt. That's understandable. Probably Austria, like Germany, is tired of being told it was a criminal, a beast, cruel, awful and collectively responsible for atrocities. Probably many Germans and Austrians think it is time the world acknowledged that Germans and Austrians are no different from other people: What would you have done? How would you have been different? Would you risk your life for someone else, and can a nation that fears a European vacation because of terrorism fault others for a lack of courage?
These are all good questions, but Waldheim does not pose them. Instead, he ducks them. With repellent agility, he leaps from lie to lie, knowing that a legal case cannot be brought for the moral crime of omission. With every exoneration, the case against him grows harder, but Waldheim knows only the voters of Austria can convict. With confidence, he awaits the election. With dread, so do we.