Walter Hacker was walking to the Smithsonian Museum last week when he saw a poster bearing a picture of Kurt Waldheim.
Hacker, a 67-year-old Holocaust survivor, had stumbled onto a news conference outside the House of Representatives where Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) was trying to drum up support for a bill that would compel the U.S. government to release all information it holds on the former Austrian president and secretary-general of the United Nations.
“I’m enraged that Waldheim would deny his past,” Hacker, an Austrian Jew who lives in Los Angeles, said after taking to the podium to praise the congresswoman.
Nearly a decade after the U.S. Justice Department banned him from entering the country because he had concealed his Nazi past, Waldheim is still trying to clear his name.
In his autobiography “The Answer,” released last week in Austria, Waldheim revisits the controversy surrounding the 1987 decision to ban him from the United States.
He places the blame squarely on the World Jewish Congress and accuses the group’s president, Edgar Bronfman, of pressuring then-Attorney General Edwin Meese to add Waldheim to the “watch list” of foreigners barred from the United States.
“Once a liar, always a liar,” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said, reacting to the book’s charges.
“I’m very impressed that he gives the World Jewish Congress and Mr. Bronfman that power,” but the fact is Waldheim was “a willing servant of the Nazi regime and played a part in the worst atrocities in modern history.”
The Justice Department concluded in 1987 that Waldheim had served as an intelligence officer in the army of Nazi Germany in Yugoslavia and Greece during World War II, participating in the mass deportation of Jews and other civilians to concentration and death camps, as well as in the executions of civilians and Allied soldiers.
But Waldheim, while admitting in his new book that it was a mistake to conceal his service in the Nazi army, continues to maintain that he had no knowledge of the atrocities that occurred in the areas where he served.
“The last word has been spoken yet on this issue. Three independent investigative commissions have since stated clearly that I was no war criminal,” Waldheim says in his book. “This decision of the U.S. government violates international law.”
Waldheim’s World War II activities were not publicly known during his two terms as U.N. chief, from 1972 to 1982, and only came to light during his 1986 presidential campaign.
Although he won the presidency, he was ostracized by world leaders, a factor that apparently influenced his decision not to seek re-election in 1992.
“The World Jewish Congress sent someone to Vienna to gather information damaging to me,” Waldheim reportedly told the Austrian weekly Profil on Monday. “What did Austrian elections have to do with [them]? The presidency was an internal Austrian matter.”
Waldheim also reportedly said in the interview, “There is a worldwide network in operation. It has great power.”
In Austria, where Waldheim narrowly won the presidency in 1986, local public and media reaction to his book has been low key.
“There is nothing new in Waldheim’s argumentation,” said an Austrian journalist.
Jewish leaders in Austria also found no surprises in the book.
“This was an unnecessary exercise,” said Paul Grosz, president of the Jewish Communities of Austria.
“The book is not the remedy to heal open wounds on both sides of the fence,” he said, referring to the wave of anti-Semitism that followed the controversy during the 1986 presidential campaign.
The book is “a totally superfluous and unnecessary action after 10 years,” Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said in an interview. “There is not one aspect in this book which was unknown to me.”
But in Austria, a country of 7 million, Waldheim still enjoys support in his ongoing battle to clear his name and reverse the U.S. decision.
Gerhard Botz, an Austrian professor of history and a Waldheim observer, said the attacks on the former president were excessive.
“Waldheim was definitely done injustice by claiming that he had been a war criminal,” Botz said. “But it was just and correct to state that Waldheim had lied altogether about his tasks while serving in the Wehrmacht,” the armed forces of Nazi Germany.
“He was definitely one of those many thousands who made the machinery of the Holocaust work at all,” Botz said.
Waldheim’s publisher, Herbert Fleissner, a well-known right-wing sympathizer, announced that the English version of “The Answer” would be available shortly.
“Hopefully, this indefensible watch list decision will be revised then,” Fleissner said.
Meanwhile, Maloney’s effort to obtain full disclosure about Waldheim from U.S. governmental records faces many legislative hurdles.
“The real victims are those who died in the Holocaust, not Kurt Waldheim, who covered up his past,” Maloney said.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the sole Holocaust survivor in Congress, called for swift passage of Maloney’s War Crimes Disclosure Act. Without this legislation, Lantos said, “Waldheim could conveniently forget three years of his lifetime.”