Occasionally, you get a man who is perfectly matched to the office he holds. That will be the case when Kurt Waldheim, allegedly a war criminal and indisputably a liar, officially becomes the president of Austria. It is an empty office for an empty man -- a ceremonial post that is supposed to represent Austria. Never has the country been better represented.
The temptation, even the duty, is to lambaste Austria for what it has done and to wonder about a country that could elect as head of state a man whose morality, like his clothes, is trimmed to reflect his times. He was a Nazi when it was popular, not a Nazi when it wasn't, and now sort of is and sort of isn't -- reflecting the moral ambiguity of the people who elected him.
sk,3 But something within me cheers the election of Waldheim. As president of Austria, he will travel the world as an object lesson -- a reminder that the horrors of the Nazi era were not perpetrated solely by a clique of mad Germans, but by ordinary people doing what they thought were ordinary things. Like some clerk out of Kafka, Waldheim may have done nothing more than sign papers. The point, always, was to have a clean desk. From there, a clean conscience somehow followed.
sk,2 The tendency in recent years has been to see the Holocaust as something that transpired between Germans and Jews. Germans had their grievances and Jews their peculiar ways. The Holocaust belongs to these two peoples -- one as perpetrators, the other as victims. And in this formulation it has almost nothing to do with anyone else. Jonathan Yardley, the astute book critic for The Washington Post, inadvertently put it this way when reviewing a book about China's Great Cultural Revolution: ". . . Its effect was to plunge China into a decade and a half of terror that is likely to haunt it for generations, much as the Holocaust haunts Germany and the Jews."
Yardley says the sentence does not really reflect what he meant -- or what he knows. I use it not because I believe otherwise, but because it attracted no attention from editors or readers -- because it seems to be a perfectly reasonable, noncontroversial statement. But it is wrong. As Waldheim's own career makes manifest, the Holocaust was not just the work of Germans. It was also the work of Austrians -- and Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Russians and other peoples as well. Everywhere Jews or Gypsies, Poles or intellectuals, communists or clerics died, the Germans had their collaborators. The real horror of the Holocaust is that people killed people for absolutely no reason.
sk We all have a difficult time facing up to the Holocaust. Not only are the facts unspeakable, but they say something unspeakable about human beings: In the middle of the 20th century, in the most advanced nations on earth, millions were murdered by millions not because they were a threat, but because they were different. It is no wonder that Margaret Thatcher, no ignoramus when it comes to European history, recently broke down after visiting Yad Vashem, the museum-memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem.
sk,3 The facts are just too awful to confront and so by and large the world does not. President Reagan certainly did not when, in visiting Bitburg, he ducked the real meaning of the Holocaust. He pretended Nazism was something foisted on the German nation, that it was totally imposed by a small group of fanatics. He limited responsibility for the crime to the Nazi leadership and exonerated everyone else. And then, when protests erupted, they came mostly from Jewish organizations -- as if Reagan's simplistic version of history insulted only them.
sk Now here, thanks to Austria, is history's corrective. Here is Kurt Waldheim, the true perpetrator of the Holocaust; not a German, but an Austrian, not a mad beast, but an ordinary (oh so ordinary!) man. Here is the humanist with the Nazi past, the internationalist at his most provincial, the intellectual who kept the books for the lynch mob. He has been elected to represent Austria, but the Austrians, as is their wont, are too modest. In ways we are reluctant to face, he represents many of us.