Austrian President Kurt Waldheim has denied new allegations about his personal involvement in atrocities committed against Yugoslav partisans during World War II, though he has admitted knowing of them.
He has also moved to sue an Austrian periodical for publishing a story about his reputed acceptance of bribes in exchange for sparing the lives of hostages in Yugoslavia in 1943 and 1944.
The new allegations surfaced as an international commission meeting in Vienna, which Waldheim himself convened, broadened the scope of its investigation against him after receiving testimony from his wartime colleagues.
On Thursday, articles alleging Waldheim’s Nazi activities in Yugoslavia were published in two German-language magazines, the West German Stern and the Austrian Wiener magazine.
The Stern article contended that the German army unit in which Waldheim was serving as a lieutenant was directly involved in massacres and deportations in the area of Kozara, Yugoslavia, during the summer of 1942.
A spokesman for Waldheim denied reports in Stern linking the Austrian president personally to the Kozara atrocities, in which some 4,000 Yugoslavs were killed and 10,000 others were sent to forced labor camps, where thousands died.
INITIATES LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
On Friday, Waldheim initiated legal proceedings against Wiener for an article, written by American journalist Chuck Ashman, which charged that Waldheim, as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht during World War II, accepted gifts of coins and gold jewelry in exchange for sparing the lives of hostages in Yugoslavia in 1943 and 1944.
The Austrian Press Agency was quoted as saying that the Wiener article was intended to incite “feelings against the Austrian head of state by unqualified and untrue allegations.”
The Chicago Tribune reported Sunday that Waldheim admitted in an interview with that paper that he knew of Nazi reprisals against Yugoslav partisans, but insists he was not involved in carrying them out.
“Orders to carry out reprisals existed,” he told the Tribune on Friday, but “They came from the highest war office in Berlin. That was well known by everyone. Only I was not involved in it.”
Waldheim said in the interview that he was a victim of “a defamation campaign against me by all kinds of circles” and added that he has no intentions of resigning as Austrian president, despite increasing pressure to do so.
DIDN’T TAKE PART IN DEPORTATIONS
But Waldheim again rejected charges that he participated in reprisals against civilians or deportation of Jews to concentration camps during his term as an intelligence officer and interpreter in the Wehrmacht.
According to the report in Stern, Waldheim worked for a captain whose task included the coordination of fascist Croatian forces (Ustasha) and the German field police, as well as the installation of collection camps for prisoners of war.
According to a spokesman for Waldheim, his tasks had only included “office work, the reporting of and dealing with supply goods.” The official explanation of Waldheim’s war role is as a “subordinate supply officer” who did not “take part in any combat, intelligence or counterintelligence operations, nor in the handling of POWs or civilians during that assignment.”
Waldheim told the Chicago Tribune that his main task as a 23-year-old first lieutenant was to compile a daily record of troop activities during the Wehrmacht campaign in the Balkans.
The new charges and admissions come as the Austrian-funded commission investigating Waldheim prepares to publish its conclusions in January, although additional information may push back publication of the findings to a later date.
Waldheim has reportedly said that although he himself convened the commission investigating him, he does not feel its verdict will be binding. He said, “A head of state could never submit himself to a private foreign tribunal.” Waldheim said it is “up to me to decide on the consequences.”
U.S. OFFICIAL UNDER FIRE
Meanwhile, a remark last week by Neil Sher of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations has triggered a diplomatic protest by the Austrian government.
Sher said that the documents leading to the U.S. decision to put Waldheim on the “watch list” for unwanted aliens had been based on evidence of his direct involvement in atrocities. However, he added, these documents could not be handed over to the international investigatory commission, since they were part of an internal investigation.
On Thursday, the secretary of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, Thomas Klestil, summoned the U.S. temporary envoy in Vienna, Philip Habib, to express the Austrian government’s displeasure over the remark. At the same time, the Austrian ambassador in Washington lodged a protest to the U.S. government.
The mounting reports about Waldheim appear for the first time to be having a negative effect on the Austrian head of state’s popularity.
A poll published by an Austrian paper Friday indicated that 50 percent of Austrians would favor Waldheim’s resignation if the historians’ commission found he knew about war crimes while in the army. A third of the persons asked were opposed.
The strongest criticism of Waldheim came from persons aged 30 to 49, of whom 60 percent favored a resignation, while older and younger Austrians remained under the 50 percent mark.
All previous polls have indicated that Waldheim would again be elected if he were a contender in new elections.
Meanwhile, Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld was briefly detained Thursday by Austrian police in Vienna, where she was arrested for trying to paste anti-Waldheim posters on the former imperial palace. The posters recalled that 1988 will be the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria.