Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Kurt Waldheim faced accusations during his campaign for the Austrian presidency that he had concealed his membership in Nazi organizations and a substantial portion of his service in the Wehrmacht during World War II. The scandal raised questions about guilt for crimes committed during the war and about how much was known of his past before he was elected United Nations secretary-general.

Summary of Event

The Waldheim affair broke when the Austrian magazine Profil and the World Jewish Congress World Jewish Congress (WJC) and New York Times;and Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] The New York Times alleged in early March of 1986 that Waldheim’s 1985 autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, concealed several key facts. These omissions included his membership in a Nazi student organization, the National Socialist German Students League; membership in a Sturm Abteilung, or storm trooper, mounted regiment; and that units to which he was attached committed atrocities in the Balkans in World War II. [kw]Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed, Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt (Mar. 3, 1986) [kw]Nazi Past Is Revealed, Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s (Mar. 3, 1986) Waldheim, Kurt Wiesenthal, Simon Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] United Nations;Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] Austria Waldheim, Kurt Wiesenthal, Simon Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] United Nations;Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] Austria [g]Europe;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [g]Austria;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [c]Publishing and journalism;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [c]International relations;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [c]Government;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [c]Politics;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] [c]Military;Mar. 3, 1986: Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi Past Is Revealed[02210] Meese, Edwin, III

Kurt Waldheim, center, is shown in this 1943 photograph with other German Nazi officers in Yugoslavia.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Balkan atrocities included General Friedrich Stahl’s massacre of civilians at Kozara, West Bosnia, in Yugoslavia (June-August, 1942), operations against partisans in Yugoslavia (May-June, 1943) known as Operation Black, and transportation of 42,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece, to concentration camps by German general Alexander Löhr’s Army Group E (May-August, 1943). Löhr was subsequently executed in 1947 by Yugoslavia for war crimes. Waldheim had served as a Wehrmacht intelligence officer under Stahl and Löhr, and the implication was that Waldheim would have at least been aware of these incidents.

After these charges were raised, it came to light that questions about Waldheim’s past already had been asked in 1979. An inquiry by the Israeli Israel;and Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] government led to questions for so-called Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. He was asked whether Waldheim had served in the SS, the German Nazi police, or otherwise had been a Nazi. Wiesenthal answered no to both questions. In 1980, U.S. Congress member Stephen Solarz, a New York Democrat, wrote to Waldheim to ask him about his war record and his alleged membership in a Nazi student organization. Waldheim denied membership in the student organization and stated that he was incapacitated after being wounded on the Russian front in December, 1941. He said that he left the German army after his recovery and completed his law degree in 1944. The U.S. Central Intelligence Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Agency (CIA) backed Waldheim’s assertions in a written statement to Solarz.

The timing of the allegations seemed suspect, given that the Austrian presidential elections were two months away. Waldheim, who was running for president, denied membership in any Nazi organizations but offered that he did serve in the Balkans in World War II as an interpreter. His supporters condemned the allegations as unfounded and claimed that they were merely an attempt to discredit Waldheim.

On March 22, 1986, the WJC released a bombshell document listing Waldheim in the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects, developed by the U.S. Army, which listed suspected war criminals. It also had been revealed that the Yugoslav government had prepared a file accusing Waldheim of murder and presented this to the United Nations War Crimes Commission United Nations War Crimes Commission in 1948. This formal accusation became the basis for Waldheim’s name being added to the registry. Subsequent research by historians revealed that this 1948 file was prepared to attempt to derail Austria’s position in diplomatic negotiations with Yugoslavia over financial and territorial issues because Waldheim was part of Austria’s diplomatic delegation. This information was not used against Waldheim at that time, nor did Yugoslavia raise it in the future.

Waldheim had advanced through the Austrian foreign service and served as Austria’s delegate to the United Nations in the postwar years. He ran unsuccessfully for president of Austria in 1971. If he had been elected, Waldheim would have served until 1977. Because he lost the election, Waldheim was able to stand for the position of U.N. secretary-general when U Thant did not seek another term. Waldheim served two terms from 1972 to 1982.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1986, the WJC, international media, and various researchers released additional documents pertaining to Waldheim’s concealed past. Many Austrians believed that the charges were part of a Jewish conspiracy to embarrass Waldheim and Austria, and even Wiesenthal defended Waldheim, which surprised many Jews. The vote in Austria on May 4 for president resulted in a run-off because no candidate received a majority—Waldheim received 49.6 percent and Socialist challenger Kurt Steyrer received 43.7 percent; minor candidates split the remaining 6.7 percent. In the June 8 election, Waldheim triumphed with 53.9 percent of the vote.

At the time of the release of its initial allegations, the WJC had requested that the U.S. Justice Department add Waldheim’s name to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. so-called watch list. The watch list bars certain persons from entering the United States, including suspected war criminals who persecuted people based on political, religious, racial, or national factors during the Nazi era. After more than one year of consideration, during which time Waldheim and his lawyers were given the opportunity to present written responses to material in the Justice Department’s file, Attorney General Edwin Meese placed Waldheim’s name on the watch list on April 27, 1987, which prevented the Austrian president and former U.N. secretary-general from entering the United States. There was shock in Austria, and although some Austrians urged Waldheim to resign the presidency, he did not. He called Meese’s decision “grotesque.”

Following the watch-list debacle, the Austrian government, under Waldheim’s direction, prepared the report Kurt Waldheim’s Wartime Years: A Documentation, also known as the White Book, to rebut the charges that led to Waldheim’s placement on the watch list. A flawed document, the October, 1987, report it did not examine all relevant material and offered exculpatory explanations for Waldheim’s actions. Earlier, however, at the behest of Waldheim himself in the spring of 1987, the Austrian government formed an international commission of military historians to investigate Waldheim’s World War II service. The commission began its study in August and issued The Waldheim Report on February 8, 1988. The report stated that although Waldheim knew of war crimes committed in Yugoslavia and Greece, he did not participate in them and was not in a position to oppose them or protest against them. Some have questioned the report’s thoroughness. A June, 1988, television production by Thames Television/HBO called Kurt Waldheim: A Case to Answer, concluded that Waldheim’s activities in the Balkans did not involve criminal behavior.


The Waldheim affair damaged Austria’s international standing and curtailed his effectiveness as president. He was banned from the United States, and many other countries refused his entry for state visits. The United States never removed his name from its watch list. No major leaders visited Austria during his presidency, and his contacts were limited to the Middle East and some communist bloc nations. Critics have noted that Waldheim never explained why he had concealed the controversial portions of his past, but he did apologize for “mistakes” in a statement released after his death.

Questions subsequently arose concerning which governments knew of his concealed wartime activities when he was nominated as U.N. secretary-general and whether they had used such knowledge to gain favorable treatment during his United Nations tenure. Some have speculated that because Yugoslavia knew, it is likely that the Soviet Union knew as well, and that the Soviets took advantage of this knowledge to increase their espionage activities under United Nations cover. Another theory is that the United States knew of his activities and protected him because he was a source of intelligence. No evidence has been put forth to substantiate these claims.

The reactions of many Austrians and the media to the controversy raised the specter of lingering Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];Austrian anti-Semitism in Austria. Waldheim’s supporters claimed that the accusations against Waldheim were part of an attempt by Jews to smear his reputation. Austria Waldheim, Kurt Wiesenthal, Simon Nazi collaborators and sympathizers;Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim] United Nations;Kurt Waldheim[Waldheim]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hazzard, Shirley. Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case. New York: Viking Press, 1990. A somewhat polemical treatment of the United Nations’ role in the Waldheim investigation by a former United Nations employee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herzstein, Robert Edwin. Waldheim: The Missing Years. New York: William Morrow, 1988. An objective treatment by the historian hired by the World Jewish Congress to investigate Waldheim’s military career. The book is based on archival research and extensive interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">International Commission of Historians. The Waldheim Report. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen and Museum Tusculanum Press, 1993. This report, submitted to the Austrian federal chancellor on February 8, 1988, came without a final answer to the question of Waldheim’s wartime guilt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitten, Richard. “Bitburg, Waldheim, and the Politics of Remembering and Forgetting.” In From World War to Waldheim: Culture and Politics in Austria and the United States, edited by David F. Good and Ruth Wodak. New York: Berghahn, 1999. A concise summary of the basic facts of the controversy and an interpretation of its symbolic importance in public memory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, Eli, with William Hoffer. Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-up. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. A detailed, passionate account by the general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, which helped launch the 1986 investigation of Waldheim.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tittmann, Harold H., III. The Waldheim Affair: Democracy Subverted. Dunkirk, N.Y.: Olin Frederick, 2000. Weighs the evidence for allegations of Waldheim’s participation in Nazi atrocities. Especially examines the role of the media in presenting the evidence. Finding the accusations groundless, he considers the affair as an example of how false perceptions can dupe a free society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldheim, Kurt. In the Eye of the Storm: A Memoir. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1985. Waldheim attempts to explain his objectives and his actions in the course of the various conflicts he experienced during his ten years as secretary-general of the United Nations. The controversial work that neglects the facts of his military career.

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Categories: History