Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Kurt Waldheim’s election to Austria’s presidency created controversy because Waldheim’s victory, achieved despite his falsified autobiography, typified the eagerness of Austrians to gloss over their nation’s Nazi past.

Summary of Event

On June 8, 1986, Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations, became president of Austria amid continuing controversy about his activities under the Nazis during World War II. Rumors about Waldheim’s past had started circulating in Vienna in September of 1985, after his nomination to the presidency by the conservative People’s Party. Such rumors were not entirely new; they had surfaced previously during Waldheim’s two terms as U.N. secretary-general, the office to which he was elected on December 22, 1972, after losing the race for the Austrian presidency in 1971. On the very day he secured his U.N. position, Waldheim faced the first public questions about his past. Interviewed by an Israeli journalist who had heard rumors about Waldheim’s Nazi years from a member of the Austrian delegation—in which Waldheim had been ambassador from 1958 to 1962—Waldheim claimed an anti-Nazi patriot’s past. Elections;Austria [kw]Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy (June 8, 1986) [kw]Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy, Election of (June 8, 1986) [kw]President of Austria Stirs Controversy, Election of Waldheim as (June 8, 1986) [kw]Austria Stirs Controversy, Election of Waldheim as President of (June 8, 1986) [kw]Controversy, Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs (June 8, 1986) Elections;Austria [g]Europe;June 8, 1986: Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy[06110] [g]Austria;June 8, 1986: Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy[06110] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 8, 1986: Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy[06110] [c]Government and politics;June 8, 1986: Election of Waldheim as President of Austria Stirs Controversy[06110] Waldheim, Kurt [p]Waldheim, Kurt;Nazi ties Tidl, Georg Graff, Michael Czernin, Hubertus Herzstein, Robert E. Wiesenthal, Simon

Speculation about Waldheim’s past focused on his public account of his career in the last four years of World War II. Waldheim never denied serving as a lieutenant in Adolf Hitler’s army or fighting on the Russian front. He claimed, however, that after he received a grenade wound to his right thigh on December 14, 1941, he was discharged and spent the rest of the war earning his master’s degree in law at the University of Vienna. He also denied any links to the Nazi Party, stressing his family’s resistance to the Anschluss (that is, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria).

Several years before Waldheim perpetuated this version of events in his 1985 memoir In the Eye of the Storm, In the Eye of the Storm (Waldheim) rumors about his past cropped up in print. In 1980, The New Republic ran articles by Shirley Hazzard Hazzard, Shirley and by the magazine’s editor and publisher, Martin Peretz, Peretz, Martin accusing Waldheim of Nazi allegiances. Spurred by these articles and by concerned constituents, Stephen J. Solarz, Solarz, Stephen J. U.S. congressman from New York, wrote to both Kurt Waldheim and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in November, 1980, asking for information on Waldheim’s activities under Hitler’s regime. In December, the Legislative Counsel of the CIA cleared Waldheim, and he himself wrote to Solarz, insisting that he would hardly have been elected U.N. secretary-general by several governments if his past did not stand up to scrutiny. Then, as he did again in 1986, Waldheim dismissed the allegations as slander and threatened the press with legal action—which he never took. The difference was that in 1986, rediscovered documentation forced Waldheim into a less credible self-defense.

Kurt Waldheim and family celebrate his victory in the Austrian presidential elections in June, 1986.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The intensified speculation that arose during Waldheim’s presidential campaign came about as a result of the work of Georg Tidl, an Austrian historian who was investigating General Alexander Loehr, Loehr, Alexander whom the Yugoslavs had hanged in 1947 for war crimes. Tidl inadvertently discovered that Lieutenant Kurt Waldheim had served from 1942 through 1945 as a military intelligence officer in the Army Group E staff commanded by Loehr in the Balkans. Michael Graff, the general secretary of the People’s Party, rejected this information and made the first countercharge of an international conspiracy against Waldheim’s candidacy.

Several months later, on February 21, 1986, Waldheim inexplicably gave Hubertus Czernin, a young journalist at the independent-minded magazine Profil, permission to check his service records in the Austrian National Archives. There, Czernin found a review of Waldheim’s career under the Nazis, conducted in 1945 by the Austrian government to clear Waldheim for the foreign service. That same evening, armed with evidence both of Waldheim’s presence in the Balkans and of his membership in three Nazi organizations—the National Socialist Student Federation, the paramilitary Sturm Abteilung (SA), and the SA Cavalry Troop—Czernin could not budge Waldheim from his doctored autobiography. In their next interview on February 24, however, Waldheim admitted his Balkan posting and further aroused the reporter’s suspicions with his evasiveness.

On March 3, 1986, nine weeks before the election, Profil published a detailed exposé of Czernin’s findings. The following day, The New York Times took up the story, and the World Jewish Congress World Jewish Congress (WJC) held a press conference about Waldheim’s prevarications. On March 22, the WJC revealed that the U.N. Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, U.N. (CROWCASS) held a file on Waldheim based on the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission’s request for his extradition in 1947.

In the following weeks, more data about Waldheim’s hidden past emerged through research conducted by journalists from various countries; by Eli Rosenbaum, Rosenbaum, Eli a former Justice Department war crimes prosecutor and the WJC’s counsel; and by Robert E. Herzstein, an independent historian hired by the WJC. As an Army Group E staff officer charged with writing reports on prisoner interrogations and antipartisan operations, Waldheim would inevitably have known about—if not necessarily participated in—the Nazi atrocities in the Balkans. Prominent among these was the Kozara offensive, in which the Germans killed more than four thousand rebels, took reprisal against civilians, and deported more than sixty thousand peasants to concentration camps.

Documents also placed Waldheim in Arsakli, Greece, around the time of massive deportations of Greek Jews from nearby Salonika to the death camps—between March 15 and August 7, 1943. Thus, far from having been discharged in 1941, Waldheim was associated with two notorious Nazi brutalities in southern Europe. Waldheim, whose campaign slogan had been “An Austrian the world trusts,” responded to international suspicion with an abundance of conflicting rebuttals. He first called all rumors a “monstrous lie” designed by his political opponents. On March 25, he appeared on Austrian television and insisted that there had been no massacre—only normal warfare—in the Kozara mountains. On April 13, he apologized on CBS News and 60 Minutes for concealing his Balkan history; in a French radio interview on June 16, after his presidential victory, he claimed that he had hidden his past because it was uninteresting: “I was a young man. . . . War is war.”

Instead of turning Austria against Waldheim, the publicity about his lies led his party and some Austrian media outlets to denounce the WJC and introduced a pronounced anti-Semitic element into his campaign. This reaction was consistent with Austria’s record for accepting more former Nazis into positions of power than any other European nation. Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned Nazi hunter, added to the controversy by dismissing the WJC’s condemnation of Waldheim’s hypocrisy because he himself had never found evidence for the man’s involvement in war crimes. Wiesenthal became less vocal about supporting Waldheim, however, when the latter claimed unlikely ignorance of the Salonika deportations.

On May 4, 1986, in the first election race, Waldheim missed the majority infinitesimally with a 49.3 percent vote. In the June 8 runoff between him and the Socialist candidate, Kurt Steyrer, a landslide win made Waldheim the ninth Austrian head of state since 1918.

Significance

Ultimately, however, Waldheim’s victory proved a Pyrrhic one. Other Western European leaders gave him the cold shoulder, so that his first official visit abroad did not come until June 25, 1987, when he traveled to the Vatican to meet Pope John Paul II. Soon afterward, only the Islamic governments welcomed Waldheim’s visits.

Meanwhile, on April 27, 1987, the U.S. attorney general put Waldheim’s name on a watch list of undesirable aliens denied entry into the United States; by 1990, that status remained unchanged despite three voluminous defense folders submitted to the Justice Department by Waldheim’s lawyers. In Austria, on February 8, 1988, a commission of historians established at Simon Wiesenthal’s suggestion concurred that although not personally involved in atrocities, Waldheim had been in “consultative proximity” to war crimes. The very next day, Wiesenthal called on Waldheim to resign as an untrustworthy official.

Although Waldheim remained impervious to such demands and even gained ground through an official meeting in Salzburg with the German and the Czech presidents in 1990, his deceit about his past barred him from the respect and influence enjoyed by previous Austrian presidents. On June 21, 1991, on nationwide television, the seventy-two-year-old Waldheim announced that he would not seek reelection in 1992. Elections;Austria

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Bernard, and Luc Rosenzweig. Waldheim. Translated by Josephine Bacon. New York: Adama Books, 1987. Offers a detailed investigation into Waldheim’s military life and an indictment of Austria’s amnesia about his Nazi past.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hazzard, Shirley. Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case. New York: Viking Press, 1989. A journalist who questioned Waldheim’s past back in the 1980’s condemns the United Nations’ tolerance of his Nazi background and of his mediocrity and racism as that body’s secretary-general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitten, Richard. The Politics of Antisemitic Prejudice: The Waldheim Phenomenon in Austria. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. Surveys Austrian anti-Semitism and meticulously examines errors and misrepresentations in the numerous Waldheim investigations. Written by a historian who researched the Thames Television-Home Box Office production of Kurt Waldheim: A Commission of Inquiry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelinka, Anton. Austria: Out of the Shadow of the Past. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Examines Austrian history and the perceptions of Austria held by the rest of the world. Includes discussion of Waldheim’s election.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, Eli M. Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Fascinating thriller-paced account provides a detailed look at the inquiry Rosenbaum conducted into Waldheim’s past at the request of the World Jewish Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesenthal, Simon. “The Waldheim Case.” In Justice Not Vengeance: Recollections. Translated by Ewald Osers. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989. The Nazi hunter establishes Waldheim’s unworthiness for the Austrian presidency while criticizing the WJC’s proceedings against him as reckless and self-serving.

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