Exposing Waldheims Nazi career awakened Austrians to wartime past

prague | Revelations about the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim and the subsequent international ostracism of Austria during his presidency prompted Austrians to re-examine their wartime role, one in which they long identified as Hitler’s victims rather than his allies.

Waldheim, who served as Austrian president from 1986 to 1992 after a decade as the United Nations secretary-general, died of heart failure Thursday at his home in Vienna. He was 88.

Looking back, the controversy was the best thing that happened to Austria, the head of the Vienna Jewish Community said.

“It opened the eyes to Austrians that they had to stop living a lie and come to grips with what they did in the past,” said Ariel Muzicant, who currently serves as the umbrella group’s president and was vice president when the accusations surfaced against Waldheim in the mid-’80s.

Waldheim’s cover-up of his wartime service as a Nazi intelligence officer in the Balkans came to represent the collective amnesia to which critics said Austria succumbed after World War II.

His direct superiors ordered the deportation of 40,000 Greek Jews from Thessaloniki to Auschwitz and the massacre of thousands of Yugoslav partisans and civilians.

The World Jewish Congress played a key role in exposing Waldheim and revealed the organization’s strength as it tried to obtain justice for Jewish causes from recalcitrant European governments.

The Waldheim Affair, as it became known, began in early 1985, just before Waldheim announced that he would run for the Austrian presidency. Elan Steinberg, then-executive director of the World Jewish Congress, recalled that Leon Zellman of the Vienna Jewish Community approached him with information that Waldheim was covering up the nature of his service in the Wehrmacht, the German army.

“I dispatched a very young Eli Rosenbaum to Vienna,” said Steinberg, referring to the man who is now in charge of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations into Nazi war criminals.

In Vienna, Rosenbaum was given a photograph of Waldheim in 1943 in a Nazi war uniform surrounded by officers who later were executed for war crimes. The photo and other documents contradicted the accounts of his war service in his autobiography, in which Waldheim said he had been injured and sent back to Austria to finish his law studies. The investigation into Waldheim came together piecemeal over the course of a year, but the photo was “all you really needed to know. I was completely stunned,” Rosenbaum said of the first time he saw the photo, which supposedly was found in a curio shop in Austria.

“There is someone who looks like Kurt Waldheim, surrounded by notorious Nazis at a time when he was, according to his biography, supposed to be in law school. Then you turn the photograph over and there are all the names, and there is Kurt Waldheim.”

Waldheim apparently had joined a division of the Waffen-SS.

“Instead of going to school after his rather minor injury, he was sent instead to Thessaloniki, where each morning he gave a briefing about the identity of Greek and Yugoslav villages where partisans were hiding,” Steinberg said.

As an intelligence officer, the WJC argued, it would have been next to impossible for Waldheim not to have known about the slaughter of Jews and civilians in the region.

The WJC turned over its evidence to the New York Times, and a front-page article ran in March 1985 detailing Waldheim’s secret war service.

Waldheim responded then, and for the rest of his life, that he had simply forgotten about his service and knew nothing about the Nazi massacres in the Balkans. He portrayed himself as being unfairly persecuted by the WJC.

Many Austrians resented what they saw as international meddling by outsiders in their domestic affairs and elected him president only months after his Nazi past was revealed.

Following his election, the WJC embarked on a campaign to have the State Department place him on its “watch list” of war criminals, meaning he could not visit the United States and would be persona non grata among American diplomats and government officials.

“At first, people outside of the Jewish community viewed our effort as obnoxious and attention-seeking,” said Edgar Bronfman, the longtime chairman of the WJC who was at its helm at that time. “But in the end it enhanced respect for the WJC in the governmental offices and editorial rooms of Europe.”

In response to criticism, the Austrian government in 1998 commissioned international historians to investigate Waldheim’s past. The panel found that his actions were not criminal, but were tantamount to collaboration and his denials of involvement were insupportable.

“The major problem of Waldheim was that he was a liar,” Muzicant said. “He didn’t have to say he had a personal guilt, but he could have talked about historical guilt. Instead he falsified and did what many Austrians did and pushed things under the carpet.”