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Austria Gets New President, Ending Painful Waldheim Era

Thomas Klestil was sworn in Wednesday as Austria’s new president, bringing to an end a bitter six-year period in which his predecessor, Kurt Waldheim, was shunned by most of the world.

A certain relief could be felt in both houses of Parliament, as the new president, a 59-year-old career diplomat, took over the presidential mantle.

The era of Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary-general and World War II German officer, provoked intensely negative feelings among the world’s Jewish community and Israel because of his wartime duties in the Balkans, where tens of thousands of Jews were deported and there were reprisal killings against anti-Nazi partisans.

Waldheim denied he had known anything about these actions. His place on the U.S. “watch list” of undesirable aliens, and his ostracism by most of the Western world, kept Austria in an embarrassing diplomatic limbo.

Klestil, who won a runoff election against his Social Democrat competitor with 57 percent of the vote, is expected to end the isolation.

The president of the Austrian Parliament, Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat, said in his farewell speech to Waldheim that the “human being” Waldheim had experienced injustice when war crimes were attributed to him. But Fischer also criticized the outgoing president for not having found the right words of regret.

Waldheim himself conceded in his farewell address that during his presidential campaign, “under massive and, for me, often hurtful attacks, I was not always able to find the appropriate words to describe my life, my feelings, the fate of my generation and my homeland, and also match the dimension of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime.”

The outgoing president ensured his listeners that his remaining in office after all these attacks was “a necessity in order to avoid a general guilt charge against a whole generation.”

The new president, a former ambassador to the United States, had very clear words regarding the country’s past: “Whoever forgets his own history is condemned to relive it,” he said.

The World Jewish Congress, the Jewish organization that mounted the strongest campaign against Waldheim, expressed relief that his days in office are over.

“We hope that Austria,” now that Waldheim is “out of the way, will join the rank of decent nations,” WJC President Edgar Bronfman said in Brussels at the a conference on anti-Semitism.

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