President Kurt Waldheim, dismissing growing demands that he resign and a brewing crisis that may force the dissolution of Austria’s Socialist-Conservative coalition government, declared in a nationally broadcast television address Monday night that he has no intention of stepping down.
“A head of state must not give in to slander, hateful demonstrations and generalized judgments,” Waldheim said. Fairness and justice for him and respect for the highest office of the state must not be violated, he said.
He was sharply critical of the report submitted Feb. 8 by an international panel of historians which, after months examining Waldheim’s wartime activities, found no direct proof that the Austrian president and two-term United Nations secretary general had committed war crimes.
But it criticized him sharply for failing to intervene or protest against the mass deportations and atrocities that he as an intelligence officer knew were taking place.
The panel also faulted Waldheim for lying to conceal his activities as a staff officer in a German army unit stationed in the Balkans during World War II.
But the president charged that parts of the commission’s report did not correspond to the facts and were based on presumptions and hypotheses. “Thus the conclusions drawn cannot be sustained,” Waldheim declared.
VRANITZKY MAY RESIGN
If Waldheim refuses to quit, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, leader of the Socialist Party, indicated that he may very well resign himself, because the burden of defending Waldheim in order to keep the governing coalition intact was consuming too much of his time.
Appearing on a televised news interview program, Vranitzky said that about 60 percent of his time in Austria and abroad is taken up dealing with the Waldheim crisis or explaining the issues. He said his government, a partnership of the Socialists with the conservative People’s Party that sponsored Waldheim’s election in 1986, has much more urgent issues to confront.
“If the political conditions of (my) work are so that I cannot fulfill my tasks, I have to apply considerations of my own,” Vranitzky said.
While he criticized Waldheim for stretching the truth and failing to speak out more clearly on charges that are detrimental to Austria, no less than to himself, Vranitzky stopped short of asking the president to resign.
“What would be the effect of such a call?” the chancellor asked. “Parliament would be dissolved, and while elections for a new government would be necessary, Waldheim would stay in office,” the Vranitzky said.
He observed that the Second Austrian Republic was founded as the antithesis to the Nazi regime and everyone today, especially the president, is obliged to keep up that spirit. Vranitzky added that the president and his aides should keep in mind that the attacks on Waldheim from abroad are by no means a Jewish conspiracy.
Waldheim disassociated himself from remarks by former Foreign Minister Karl Gruber that the findings of the historians’ panel were colored because Jews were among its members.
“I cannot identify with that statement It is unacceptable,” Waldheim told the newspaper Kurier on Sunday. But he added: “Still, Gruber was a resistance righter and I don’t think he wanted to express evil intent.” The president observed that a large majority of the Austrian public wants him to remain in office.
However, he was confronted Friday by a group of about 500 intellectuals, journalists and artists who assembled outside the Hofburg Palace, the presidential residence, for a moment of silent protest. They presented Waldheim with a petition saying, “For the sake of the future of our country, we ask you: Think about Austria and resign.”
On Monday, the Socialist faction of the regional parliament of Vorarlberg, Austria’s westernmost province, submitted a petition to the state parliament calling on the president to resign.
The Green Party faction leader in the national parliament in Vienna, Freda Meissner-Blau, reiterated her party’s demand for resignation. This also was the opinion of Rudolf Kurz, the Swiss military historian who headed the commission that examined Waldheim’s record, according to an interview published in a Swiss magazine Monday.
‘MY ACCUSERS CALL ME A MURDERER’
But Waldheim is standing tough. In his television address Monday night, he declared, “My accusers called me a murderer, a war criminal and a liar. Without mercy I was questioned about events that happened more than 40 years ago.” He said he tried as best he could to reconstruct those distant events, but “much, too much remained open.”
Waldheim admitted it might have been a mistake to have concealed his war duties until confronted with irrefutable facts. But he insisted that was not a strategy of concealment.
Recalling that the Nazi regime had institutionalized the destruction of European Jews, he said, “It must be our holy obligation to do everything to see that the crimes of that time will not be repeated.”
But he asked his audience to judge not the young lieutenant of 40 years ago, but the man “who for decades worked for justice, tolerance and peace.”
In what is now a footnote to the Waldheim affair, the West German news weekly Der Spiegel admitted that a document that linked Waldheim directly to the mass deportation of Yugoslavian civilians has turned out to be a fake.
The magazine produced a photocopy of the document several days before the commission of historians rendered its report. The commission sent one of its members, Manfred Messerschmidt of West Germany, to find the original. But Messerschmidt, who searched the archives in Zagreb and Belgrade, reported it did not exist.
Because of the heavy volume of news over the weekend, today’s JTA Daily News Bulletin has been expanded to six pages.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.