Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations Secretary General and President of Austria whose hidden ties to Nazi organizations and war crimes was exposed late in his career, died today at his home in Vienna. He was 88.
... Although it was never proved that Mr. Waldheim himself committed atrocities during World War II, he was a lieutenant in army intelligence attached to German military units that executed thousands of Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported thousands of Greek Jews to death camps between 1942 and 1944.
Mr. Waldheim concealed his wartime service in the Balkans, saying his military career ended in 1942, after he was wounded on the Russian front.
But more than four decades later, his assertions were controverted by eyewitnesses, photographs, medals and commendations given to Mr. Waldheim, and by his own signature on documents linked to massacres and deportations.
“Kurt Waldheim did not, in fact, order, incite, or personally commit what is commonly called a war crime,” wrote Prof. Robert Edwin Herzstein... “But this non-guilt must not be confused with innocence. The fact that Waldheim played a significant role in military units that unquestionably committed war crimes makes him at the very least morally complicit in those crimes.”...
It was not until he ran for president of Austria in 1986 that his wartime past became widely known. During his campaign, political opponents, investigative journalists, historians and the World Jewish Congress uncovered archival evidence of Mr. Waldheim’s involvement with the Nazi movement as a student and his wartime role in the Balkans.
But the revelations were met by a nationalist, anti-Semitic backlash in Austria that aided Mr. Waldheim’s election. Many Austrians apparently viewed Mr. Waldheim’s life as a parable of their own. They identified with his attempts to deny complicity with the Nazis and to view himself as a citizen of a nation occupied by German invaders and forced into their military service....
Mr. Waldheim was also stationed in Greece just outside Salonika, where more than 60,000 Jews were shipped off to Auschwitz. Only 10,000 survived.
“I never heard or learned anything of this while I was there,” Mr. Waldheim said in an interview with The New York Times in 1986. But according to Mr. Herzstein, the historian, Mr. Waldheim prepared numerous reports on the deportations for his army superiors, including General Löhr.
“It is hard to believe,” Mr. Herzstein wrote in “Waldheim: The Missing Years,” a 1988 book on his investigations into the former Secretary General’s past, that “this ambitious young staff officer, whose success had been based in large part on his ability to keep abreast of what was going on, could have failed to notice that most of the Jewish community of Salonika — nearly a third of the city’s population — had been shipped off to Auschwitz.” He added, “As that officer, Kurt Waldheim served as an efficient and effective cog in the machinery of genocide.”...
[As UN Secretary General,] Mr. Waldheim was criticized as being ineffective and too willing to cave in to pressure. Western countries complained that he had failed to pressure Vietnam to abandon its military occupation of Cambodia. The United States and Israel said he was not being even-handed in the Middle East. He endorsed Palestinian statehood without mentioning Israel’s right to exist, and when an Israeli commando unit staged its dramatic rescue of hostages at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976, Mr. Waldheim called the action ”a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state.”...
Mr. Waldheim steadfastly portrayed himself as an ordinary citizen who had been caught up in a maelstrom.
“Waldheim was clearly not a psycopath like Dr. Josef Mengele nor a hate-filled racist like Adolf Hitler,” Mr. Herzstein wrote. ”His very ordinariness, in fact, may be the most important thing about him. For if history teaches us anything, it is that the Hitlers and the Mengeles could never have accomplished their atrocious deeds by themselves. It took hundreds of thousands of ordinary men — well-meaning but ambitious men like Kurt Waldheim — to make the Third Reich possible.”
As readers of these selected excerpts can no doubt guess, I am not a fan of the late Mr. Waldheim, nor do I admire those tendencies within Austrian life that have sought to portray their society as primarily a victim of Nazism, denying the large amount of complicity in their history. To be fair, for all I know, Mr. Waldheim may have been kind to his pets and children. But despite the high offices to which Waldheim was elected, on the public stage of history, these selected excerpts reflect how I will remember this exemplary Austrian of his generation.