The travel brochures convey an image of pristine tradition: old ladies sipping mocha and eating chocolate torte in stately coffeehouses, elegant couples waltzing in baroque palaces or attending a Mozart opera, cherubic youths hiking in the Alps.

But in the last two months, Austrians have been forced to confront another side of their country that has long been suppressed. The controversy over allegations of war crimes by former U.N. secretary general Kurt Waldheim, who hopes to be elected Austria's president on Sunday, has grown beyond one man's concealed past to expose a whole nation's tortured conscience about Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitism.

Both Waldheim and his Socialist rival, Kurt Steyrer, have declared that one of their first priorities if elected head of state May 4 will be to reconcile Austria's relations with Jews as well as with its own dark past. But the passions stirred by Austria's most bitter political campaign in memory are not likely to die quickly.

When the World Jewish Congress accused Waldheim in March of covering up his role in a German Army command that engaged in mass deportations of Greek Jews and wartime atrocities against Yugoslav partisans, many Austrians empathized with him, identifying themselves with his claims that he knew nothing and only carried out his military duties to avoid punishment.

Waldheim's support in the polls temporarily surged, and campaign posters captured the tide of the xenophobic backlash in proclaiming "We Austrians Will Vote for Whom We Want." A torrent of hate mail descended on the country's 7,000 Jews, denouncing them with such Nazi-like epithets as "Jewish swine" and warning they would be liquidated after the election.

Ivan Hacker, the leader of Vienna's Jewish community, said the Waldheim affair had awakened "ghosts from the past we thought were banished forever." He said latent anti-Semitic feelings rose to the surface with such vehemence largely because of the perception that foreign Jewish organizations were hounding a well-known Austrian politician.

Waldheim's evasive responses about his past and widespread assumptions that in spite of his claims of ignorance he must have known about the Balkan atrocities during his service there, have raised questions about his credibility and reduced his lead in opinion polls over Steyrer, a former health and environment minister who first entered parliament in 1975.

But the election campaign's focus on Waldheim's wartime activities and the subsequent wave of anti-Semitic reaction have crystallized interest throughout the country in studying the legacy of what historian Martin Pollack calls "the lovingly caressed lie that Austria was one of Hitler Germany's first victims."

With the blessing of the western Allied powers, Austria was encouraged to perceive itself as an unwilling hostage of the Nazi regime. Yet nearly half a million Austrians avidly cheered their native son Hitler during his triumphant entry into Vienna in March 1938 to mark the annexation of the country by Nazi Germany. In a national plebiscite one month later, 99 percent of Austrian voters approved the incorporation.

At the end of the war, about one-quarter of all convicted Nazi war criminals were of Austrian origin, and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal estimated they were directly responsible for the deaths of 3 million Jews. In 1945, more than 500,000 Austrians were members of the Nazi party, a higher proportion of the country's population than that in Germany.

The large number of Nazis contributed to the desire of the Allies to exonerate Austria from any link with the Hitler regime rather than engage in a mammoth program of de-Nazification that would have paralyzed the country.

Historian Oliver Rathkolb has said a complete elimination of the Nazi bureaucracy would have proved impossible anyway, since "one-quarter of the entire population would have been affected" and left the country with a grave shortage of working teachers, judges and civil servants.

Other historians contend that the western Allies quickly lost interest in certifying the elimination of Nazi culture in Austria because of the need to galvanize an anti-Soviet front after the end of the war.

In 1955, when Austria's military neutrality was established in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of troops from its territory, any reference to joint responsibility with the Germans for wartime aggression was dropped from the state treaty.

The half million Austrian Nazis were deprived of suffrage in 1945 elections, but four years later they were courted avidly by all political parties. Since then, they have been gradually assimilated into the professions and government. Former chancellor Bruno Kreisky, a Social Democrat and a Jew who held power for 13 years, appointed half a dozen former Nazi party members as ministers in his various governments.

The desire to forget Austrian complicity in Hitler's crimes and to absorb Nazi sympathizers into the mainstream of postwar society has, in retrospect, encouraged the persistence of anti-Semitic sentiment, according to many historians.

Last year, Vienna University sociologist Hilde Weiss determined in a major survey that one in four Austrians was still "strongly anti-Semitic," even violently so.

Waldheim, in the wake of charges brought by the World Jewish Congress, struck a familiar chord among his compatriots by stressing that he served in Hitler's Army "just as hundreds of thousands of other Austrians did their duty."

Whoever wins the presidential election, some Austrians are concerned that the campaign, with its painful reminders of national obeisance to the Nazi cause, will only engender more serious problems for the nation in learning lessons from its ambiguous history.

"For Kurt Waldheim to have won the election despite a Nazi past would have worried me," wrote Peter Michael Lingens, publisher of the weekly magazine Profil that broke the story about Waldheim's hidden wartime service. The thought that he could "now be elected president because he has a Nazi past makes me tremble."