VIENNA (Sep. 3)
An international commission charged with sorting out the facts of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim’s militay service during World War II commenced its work Wednesday behind closed doors.
The commission will deal with the questions of whether Waldheim was directly involved in war crimes, what did he know about operations and was he personally able to influence them.
The commission is headed by Swiss military historian Hans Rudolf Kurz and includes an Israeli military historian from Tel Aviv University, Yehuda Wallach; a former U.S. General, James Collins; the director of the Institute for Military History at the University of Freiburg in West Germany, Manfred Messerschmidt; a former professor at the Surrey University in Britain, Gerald Fleming; and a professor at the Belgian Center for Research on the History of the Second World War, Jean Vanwelkenhuyzen.
Commission head Kurz drew sharp criticism on Wednesday after a private meeting between him and Waldheim became public. Kurz defended himself saying he wanted to “get in touch on a human basis.” He claimed he would also have met representatives of the World Jewish Congress, had they approached him.
The World Jewish Congress initiated the investigation that exposed Waldheim’s membership in a Nazi unit implicated in the death and deportation of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Greeks during World War II.
The members of the commission have insisted on complete independence from the Austrian government and government officials have pledged to abide by their request. But Foreign Minister Alois Mock confirmed that there was “administrative support” for the work of the commission.
SORTING OUT TWO DIFFERENT ACCOUNTS
The task of the commission is to sort through the two radically different accounts of Waldheim’s war service, one put forth by the World Jewish Congress and accepted by the U.S. government, the other put forth by Waldheim himself in a recently published White Book. Waldheim’s critics accuse him of being an intelligence officer in the Balkans whose unit was involved in the deportation of Greek Jews and atrocities in Yugoslavia. Waldheim claims he was a minor figure with no commanding power and little knowledge of atrocities.
The Israeli member of the commission, Wallach, told Austrian radio in an interview that Israel “should and must be interested in clear knowledge and conclusions in that matter.” This is the reason, Wallach said, he chose to cooperate with the investigation.
Wallach brought almost 30 pounds of documents with him but said there are still gaps he will try to fill. He added that the commission would call witnesses to testify.