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 Thessalon??ki 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. Eventually the WJC would win billions of dollars in compensation and restitution for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
The Waldheim Affair, as it became known, began in early 1985, just before Waldheim announced that he would run for the Austrian presidency following two terms as secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1982. Previously he had a long career in the Austrian foreign service.
Elan Steinberg, the 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.
Rosenbaum told JTA that the investigation ! into Wal dheim came together piecemeal over the course of a year, but the photo was “all you really needed to know.”
The photo’s authenticity was confirmed by the chief of forensics at the CIA.
“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.
“He conveniently omitted that 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. “These villages were then obliterated.”
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 even portrayed himself as being unfairly persecuted by the WJC.
“The international press is dominated by World Jewish Congress,” Waldheim reportedly told the German newspaper National Zeitung in 1986. “This is well known.”
Documents later showed that the Yugoslav government fingered Waldheim as a potential war criminal and he was listed as such by the the United Nations War Crimes Commission in 1948.
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 Waldheim 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.
The process was difficult, Steinberg said, but President Reagan severed U.S. relations with the Austrian president in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Israel Singer, also then a top official at the WJC, said Waldheim was not Heinrich Himmler, a top Nazi official, “but fighting him was about fighting Holocaust denial.” He was part of the team that held news conferences nearly every day for months when the WJC left no stone unturned in its investigation of Waldheim’s past.
“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 during the Waldheim Affair. “But in the end it enhanced respect for the WJC in the governmental offices and editorial rooms of Europe. After all, we were right.”
Most Western governments joined the boycott of Waldheim, although he did have a meeting with Pope John Paul II, which caused friction between the Vatican and Jewish groups.
And not all Jews in Vienna supported the WJC campaign. Most famously, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal argued that Waldheim had erred but was not a Nazi war criminal and should not be treated like one.
In response to criticism, the Austrian government in 1998 commissioned international historians to investigate its former president’s past. The panel found that although Waldheim’s actions were not criminal, they 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.”
The WJC’s newly elected chairman, Ronald Lauder, was the U.S. ambassador to Austria during the Waldheim presidency.
In a statement, Lauder said, “Fidelity to the truth requires we never forget the details of the Waldheim controversy, but it must also be acknowledged that Austria and her people have done much to move on even before this day.”