Austria's choice in its presidential election can only diminish its international reputation. The outcome is, in a sense, understandable. The winning candidate, Kurt Waldheim, was under attack from abroad. Most of the revelations of his service in the German army during World War II came from his side of the Atlantic and the World Jewish Congress. In Austria's defense it can be argued that the vote was not quite an endorsement of Mr. Waldheim and the moral qualities that he represents, but rather an expression of resentment of foreign criticism. Many voters apparently took the affair to be an attack on Austria and its historical record. National pride, of a certain sort, helped elect Mr. Waldheim.
But there is another kind of pride that would have insisted on having the truth out, and confronting it directly. The original crucial disclosure that Mr. Waldheim had served in the Balkans was published by an Austrian magazine. It should not have been left to a Jewish organization in New York to pursue the implications. The World Jewish Congress certainly had a legitimate interest in uncovering the facts of the case -- but not so urgent an interest, you might think, as Austrian citizens and voters. The election returns say that a majority of Austrians do not want to hear about the past, and do not care to go into the dark questions of responsibility for the terrible events of the war years.
For Mr. Waldheim is, unfortunately, a liar. During his years as secretary general of the United Nations, he led the world to understand that, after being wounded in action, he had left the army and spent the rest of the war quietly studying law in Vienna. Faced last March with evidence to the contrary, he reluctantly acknowledged that he had remained in the German army until 1945. But, he said, he had been merely a clerk and interpreter who knew nothing of atrocities or deportations of Jews. Since then further evidence has appeared from various files and archives to place Mr. Waldheim in the midst of several extremely bloody operations in Yugoslavia, where the war was conducted with unspeakable savagery. As for the deportations, it is difficult to believe that a German officer could have served nearly two years in Salonika without any knowledge of the arrests and removals of Greek Jews.
Austria would be well advised to keep Mr. Waldheim at home. The duties of an Austrian president are largely ceremonial, and there is nothing for him to do abroad but undertake occasional trips to generate good will for his country. That would be difficult for Mr. Waldheim to accomplish. Austria has many good friends in this country. But President Waldheim will remain an unwelcome symbol of Austria's least attractive side -- a refusal to look back into the recent past, out of fear of the truths that may be found there.