Kurt Josef Waldheim
(21 December 1918
– 14 June 2007
) was an Austrian diplomat
. Waldheim was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981, and President of Austria from 1986 to 1992. While running for President in Austria in 1985, his service as a Wehrmacht intelligence officer
during World War II
raised international controversy.
Waldheim was born in Sankt Andrä-Wördern, a village near Vienna, on December 21, 1918. His father was a Roman Catholic school inspector of Czech origin named Watzlawick (original Czech spelling Waclawik) who changed his name that year as the Habsburg monarchy collapsed. Waldheim served in the Austrian Army (1936-37) and attended the Vienna Consular Academy, where he graduated in 1939. Waldheim's father was active in the Christian Social Party. Waldheim himself was politically unaffiliated during these years at the Academy. Shortly after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Waldheim applied for membership in the National Socialist German Students' League (NSDStB), a division of the Nazi Party. Shortly thereafter he became a registered member of the mounted corps of the SA.
On August 19, 1944, in Vienna, he married Elisabeth Ritschel; their first daughter Lieselotte was born the following year. Son Gerhard and daughter Christa followed.
Military service in World War II
In early 1941 Waldheim was drafted into the Wehrmacht
and sent to the Eastern Front
where he served as a squad leader. In December 1941 he was wounded but returned to service later on. His further service in the Wehrmacht from 1942 to 1945 (at age 24 to 27) was subject of the international dispute regarding his person in 1985 and 1986. In 1985, in his autobiography, he stated that he was discharged from further service at the front and for the rest of the war years finished his law degree at the University of Vienna
and married in 1944. Later documents and witnesses would come to light revealing that Waldheim’s military service continued until 1945, while it is correct that he graduated from the University of Vienna in 1945 receiving a law degree and that he married in 1944.
Service in Yugoslavia and Greece
His functions within the staff of German Army
Group E from 1942 until 1945, as determined by the International Commission of Historians, were:
- interpreter and liaison officer with the 5th Alpine Division (Italy) in April/May 1942, then,
- O2 officer (communications) with Kampfgruppe West Bosnia June/August 1942,
- interpreter with the liaison staff attached to the Italian 9th Army in Tirana in early summer 1942,
- O1 officer in the German liaison staff with the Italian 11th Army and in the staff of the Army Group South in Greece in July/October 1943 and
- O3 officer on the staff of Army Group E in Arksali, Kosovska Mitrovica and Sarajevo from October 1943 to January/February 1945.
By 1943 he was serving in the capacity of an ordnance officer in Army Group E which was headed by General Alexander Löhr. In 1986, Waldheim said that he had served only as an interpreter and a clerk and had no knowledge either of reprisals against civilians locally or of massacres in neighboring provinces of Yugoslavia. He said that he had known about some of the things that had happened, and had been horrified, but could not see what else he could have done.
Much historical interest has centered around Waldheim's role in Operation Kozara. According to one post-war investigator, prisoners were routinely shot within only a few hundred yards of Waldheim's office, and at the Jasenovac concentration camp. Waldheim later stated "that he did not know about the murder of civilians there."
Waldheim's name appears on the Wehrmacht's "honor list" of those responsible for the militarily successful operation. The Independent State of Croatia awarded Waldheim the silver medal of the Order of Zvonimir with an oak leaf cluster. Later, during the lobbying for his election as U.N. Secretary General, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito awarded Waldheim the Order of the Grand Cross of Yugoslavia.
According to Eli Rosenbaum, in 1944, Waldheim reviewed and approved a packet of anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets to be dropped behind Russian lines, one of which ended, "enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over."
In 1945, Waldheim surrendered to British forces in Carinthia
, at which point he said he had fled his command post within Army Group E, where he was serving with General Löhr, who was seeking a special deal with the British.
Waldheim joined the Austrian diplomatic service in 1945, after finishing his studies in law at the University of Vienna. He served as First Secretary of the Legation in Paris from 1948, and in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Vienna from 1951 to 1956. In 1956 he was made Ambassador to Canada, returning to the Ministry in 1960, after which he became the Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations in 1964. For two years beginning in 1968, he was the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs in Austria serving for the Austrian People's Party, before going back as Permanent Representative to the U.N. in 1970. Shortly afterwards, he ran and was defeated in the 1971 Austrian presidential elections.
United Nations Secretary-General
After being defeated in his home country's presidential election, he was elected to succeed U Thant
as United Nations Secretary-General
the same year. As Secretary-General, Waldheim opened and addressed a number of major international conferences convened under United Nations auspices. These included the third session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
(Santiago, April 1972), the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment
(Stockholm, June 1972), the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Seas
(Caracas, June 1974), the World Population Conference
(Bucharest, August 1974) and the World Food Conference
(Rome, November 1974). However, his diplomatic efforts particularly in the Middle East were over shadowed by the diplomacy of then US Secretary of State
, Henry Kissinger
. In a 1976 security council debate he described the Israeli rescue of hijacked airline passengers at Entebbe, Uganda as "a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state.
Waldheim was re-elected in 1976 despite some opposition. Waldheim and then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter both prepared written statements for inclusion on the Voyager Golden Records, now in deep space. In 1980 Waldheim flew to Iran in an attempt to negotiate the release of the American hostages held in Tehran, but Ayatollah Khomeini refused to see him. While in Tehran, it was announced that an attempt on Waldheim's life had been foiled. Near the end of his tenure as Secretary-General, Waldheim and Paul McCartney also organized a series of concerts for the People of Kampuchea to help Cambodia recover from the damage done by Pol Pot.
When Waldheim sought a third Secretary-General term, the People's Republic of China used their veto powers to block this development. He was succeeded by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru.
Presidency of Austria
Election and Waldheim Affair
Waldheim had unsuccessfully sought election as President of Austria in 1971, but his second attempt on June 8
, proved successful. In 1985, during his campaign for the presidency, the events started that marked the beginning of what became known internationally as the "Waldheim Affair". Before the presidential elections, Alfred Worm
, in the Austrian weekly news magazine Profil
, revealed that there had been several omissions about Waldheim's life between 1938 and 1945 in Waldheim's recently-published autobiography. A short time later, it was proposed by the World Jewish Congress
that Waldheim had lied about his service as an officer in the mounted corps of the SA
, and his time as an ordnance officer in Saloniki
, from 1942 to 1943. Waldheim called the allegations "pure lies and malicious acts". Nevertheless he admitted that he had known about German reprisals against partisans: "Yes, I knew. I was horrified. But what could I do? I had either to continue to serve or be executed." He said that he had never fired a shot or even seen a partisan. His former immediate superior at the time stated that Waldheim had "remained confined to a desk". Former Austrian Jewish chancellor Bruno Kreisky
called the World Jewish Congress's actions an "extraordinary infamy" adding that in election, Austrians "won't allow the Jews abroad to order us about and tell us who should be our President.".
The International Committee of historians
Because of the ongoing international controversy, the Austrian government decided to appoint an international committee of historians to examine Waldheim's life between 1938 and 1945. Their report cited evidence of Waldheim's knowledge about preparation for war crimes but denied any personal involvement in those crimes. According to the controversial Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up
by Eli Rosenbaum
, the Austrian government and a number of media outlets vigorously opposed the allegations both before and after the release of the report. During the controversy, Waldheim was defended by Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal
, who stated in a letter to The Forward,
published October 15
The people from the World Jewish Congress, who were so committed to the Waldheim case, find it difficult to accept the results of the international commission of historians. This commission, which was formed at my instigation in Vienna, had come to the conclusion that Mr. Waldheim knew about the wartime crimes in the Balkans but that he was not personally involved in these. A similar judgment was pronounced by a committee that examined the documents about Mr. Waldheim on Thames Television in London. The committee included some of the most respected jurists; the former director of the Office of Special Investigations, Alan Ryan, functioned as prosecutor. This group, too, concluded that there is no 'case' against Mr. Waldheim.
As Simon Wiesenthal publicly stated, there was no evidence found by the committee that Waldheim took part in any war crimes. Rather Waldheim's offence has been to lie about his military record. The International Committee in February 1988 concluded, with regard to Waldheim's ability to do something about the crimes he knew that were going on in Yugoslavia and Greece:
In favour of Waldheim is, that he only had very minor possibilities to act against the injustices happening. Actions against these, depending on which level the resistance occurred, were of very different importance. For a young member of the staff, who did not have any military authority on the army group level, the practical possibilities for resistance were very limited and with a high probability would not have led to any actual results. Resistance would have been limited to a formal protest or on the refusal to serve any longer in the army, which would have seemed to be a courageous act, however would have not led to any practical achievement.
In 1994 the former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky claimed in his book The Other Side of Deception that Mossad doctored the file of the then UN Secretary General to implicate him in Nazi crimes. These allegedly false documents were subsequently "discovered" by Benjamin Netanyahu in the UN file, and triggered the "Waldheim Affair". Ostrovsky says the reason was Waldheim's criticism of Israeli action in Lebanon. Controversy surrounds Ostrovsky and his writings and the veracity of his writings is widely disputed, with some intelligence experts arguing 'The Other Side of Deception' should be viewed as a novel rather than a work of non-fiction.
Term of presidency 1986-1992
Throughout his term as president (1986-1992), Waldheim and his wife Elisabeth were officially deemed personae non gratae
by the United States. In 1987, they were put on a watch list
of persons banned from entering the United States
and remained on the list even after the publication of the International Committee of Historians' report on his military past in the Wehrmacht. He also was neither invited and therefore did not visit any other Western countries during his term as Austrian president. Waldheim therefore concentrated his state visits on the Middle East
, the Vatican
as well as some communist states.
After his term ended in 1992, Waldheim decided not to run for a second term and retired. In 1992 Waldheim was made an honorary member of K.H.V. Welfia Klosterneuburg, a Roman Catholic student fraternity
that is a part of the Austrian Cartellverband
(ÖCV). In 1994, Pope John Paul II
awarded Waldheim a knighthood in the Order of Pius IX
and his wife a papal honor. He died in June 2007 from heart failure. On June 23
his funeral was held at St. Stephen's Cathedral
in Vienna and he was laid to rest at the Presidential Vault in the Zentralfriedhof
In his speech at St. Stephen's Cathedral Austria's Federal President Heinz Fischer
called Waldheim "a great Austrian" who had been wrongfully accused of having committed war crimes. Fischer also praised Waldheim for his efforts to solve international crises and for his contributions to world peace.
At Waldheim's own request, no foreign heads of states or governments were invited to attend his funeral. Hans-Adam II
, the Prince of Liechtenstein
, a neighbouring country of Austria, was the only one to be present. Also present was Luis Durnwalder
, governor of Bolzano-Bozen
. Syria and Japan were the only two countries that laid a wreath. In a two-page letter, published posthumously by the Austrian Press Agency the day after he died, Waldheim admitted making "mistakes" ("but these were certainly not those of a follower let alone an accomplice of a criminal regime") and asked his critics for forgiveness.
- Waldheim is the subject of Lou Reed's song "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim" from the album New York, in which he is criticized as a racist along with Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and Pope John Paul II
- W. G. Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn (1995; English trans., 1998) refers to Waldheim, though not by name.
- As a much-heralded invited guest on Dame Edna Everage's talk show The Dame Edna Experience, a dignified "Kurt Waldheim" began a grand entrance, except that halfway down the staircase he abruptly fell through a hidden chute and disappeared: the band's fanfare stopped as Dame Edna explained she had decided at the last minute to "abort" Dr. Waldheim's appearance because it would have been "too political." The episode aired 12 September 1987.
- A running segment on the Howard Stern radio show is called Guess Who's The Jew and features Fred Norris portraying a Nazi Kurt Waldheim Jr.
- Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, in which Germany won the Second World War, a "Kurt Haldweim" is the third Führer of Germany, and parts of Haldweim's biography closely parallel Waldheim's.
- The 1988 Doctor Who story, Silver Nemesis featured Anton Diffring as a neo-nazi called De Flores, which seems to be roughly based on Waldheim.
- In a 1988 Ice Hockey film entitled "Hockey, The Lighter Side" former New York Rangers goaltender John Davidson is explaining his fictional goaltender school and as hockey highlights play he exclaims, "You'll have more shots taken at you than Kurt Waldheim".
- Bassett, Richard (1988). Waldheim and Austria, Penguin Books. ISBN-13: 978-0140130195
- International Commission of Historians (1993). The Waldheim Report. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, University of Copenhagen.
- Waldheim, Kurt (1985). In the eye of the storm: the memoirs of Kurt Waldheim. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.