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The Waldheim Affair

Waldheim affair
Protest demonstration against the election of Kurt Waldheim to the Presidency of Austria, Vienna, 1986
© Rudolf Semotan

The Waldheim affair marks a turning point in the Second Republic. In 1986, the former General Secretary to the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, ran as a candidate for the office of the President of the Austrian Federal Republic. The war-past of the former member of the SA-Cavalry Corps and of the National-Socialist Student League became a central theme of political debate in Austria and abroad. Thus among others the US daily newspaper, the New York Times reported on it on the basis of materials supplied by the World Jewish Congress. These documents stemmed from Austria and were in flat contradiction to the official biography of Karl Waldheim. In his biography he had concealed the fact that as early as March 1943 he had been transferred to Army Group E of the German army in Saloniki. This unit had taken part in the terrible deportation of the Jewish population.

"I was not prepared to attack Kurt Waldheim as a Nazi or a war criminal because my examination of all the documents at my disposal indicates that he was neither one nor the other," explained Simon Wiesenthal in an article for the Austrian newspaper, "Die Presse," in which he analyzed retrospectively the accusations against Waldheim and found them from his point of view undifferentiated. And yet how could Waldheim claim that he, as one of the best informed officers on the staff of Army Group E, had not noticed anything to do with the deportation of the Jewish population from Saloniki who after all constituted a third of the total population of the city? "I cannot believe you on this," said Wiesenthal in a personal telephone conversation with the Austrian President, thus putting into words what so many people thought. (Simon Wiesenthal, Das Amt und die Pflicht, in: Die Presse, Sonderausgabe "2000", Dezember 1999, p. 57f)

That he lacked sensitivity in dealing with his military activity in the Balkans was made clear in an interview for the ORF program "Meet the Press" on March 9, 1986 when Kurt Waldheim said that he had been a soldier in the German army, like a hundred thousand other Austrians who had "done their duty." He struck a live chord here with thousands of former German army soldiers in Austria, and this played no small part in his victory at the polls in June 1986. In the campaign for this election, anti-semitic tones also made themselves heard.

In April 1987, the US Ministry of Justice put Kurt Waldheim on its "watch-list". Thus he was not to be allowed entry into the US as a private individual until his innocence in connection with the charges brought against him was proven. At the request of Waldheim, the government of Austria set up an international commission of historians to scrutinize the charges. In February 1988 they presented their conclusion: Waldheim had known what he denied knowing. He had found himself in "consultative proximity" to war crimes. He had not however been personally involved in any of them.

"I thought Waldheim would use this moment to resign, without losing face and for the good of Austria which he would have had to serve as President. A person who has lost all credibility surely cannot serve Austria in this capacity. Waldheim was obviously of a different opinion, so on February 9 on Austrian television, I demanded his resignation - not because he was a Nazi or a war criminal but because of his conflict with the truth through which he had shown himself unworthy of his office and his responsibility." (Simon Wiesenthal, Das Amt und die Pflicht, in: Die Presse, Sonderausgabe "2000", Dezember 1999, p. 57f)

Even if his participation or complicity could not be proved, the "holes in his memory" and the selective presentation of his army-past led to world-wide reporting of the affair. Waldheim, the "President of Lies," - a quotation from Thomas Bernhard - became the standard way of referring to him in the foreign press. "The lie ties Waldheim inseparably to Austria which is full of Waldheims, and in many articles Waldheim and Austria were used as synonyms," writes Karin Luger (Das Bildnis war bezaubernd schön [The portrait was enchantingly beautiful], Medienjournal [Media Journal], Nr. 3/2000). In Europe and abroad, Austria still has not shed the image of not having adequately come to terms with its own Nazi-past. And the scar left by the events of 1986 has, in recent years, been opened again by the ambivalent statements on this period of the Austrian past by the former Freedom Party leader and the present Governor of Carinthia, Jörg Haider.

In domestic politics, the Waldheim-affair led to extreme polarization, but it also occasioned a public debate of new proportions on the complicity of Austria in Nazi crimes.

Station: The Waldheim Affair
(Last update: 02/2006)

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