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Softening of Waldheim Report Angers Jewish Leadership

February 10, 1988
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American Jewish leaders registered strong expressions of dismay upon learning that an international panel’s report on the World War II activities of Kurt Waldheim had been revised at the last moment to exclude references to the Austrian president’s “moral guilt” for war crimes he knew about but did nothing to prevent.

The 200-page report, issued in Vienna late Monday by an international commission of historians, found “no proof” that Waldheim was personally involved in the deportation of Jews from Greece, reprisals against Yugoslav partisans or other atrocities perpetrated by the German army unit he served with in the Balkans.

But the panel did say that Waldheim concealed and “even lied” about his Nazi past. And according to Austrian press reports, the original version of the report said that the Austrian president must bear some “moral guilt” for violating his “human duty to stand up to injustice.”

That passage, however, was apparently deleted from the final version of the commission’s document, reportedly at the insistence of the Austrian Foreign Ministry. As word of this revision spread, Jewish leaders reacted strongly to the apparent attempt at censorship.

Immediately upon release of the report late Monday night, the president of the American Jewish Committee, Theodore Ellenoff, issued a statement saying his group “regrets that members of the Austrian government have decided to repress the findings” of the commission report.

“Rather than resolve any of the issues that have bedeviled Austria’s standing in the international community, this decision to withhold the report will only serve to intensify suspicions and to sharpen controversy about the moral dimensions of Waldheim’s presidency,” Ellenoff stated.

“Waldheim may not be legally implicated as a Nazi war criminal who personally murdered innocent civilians,” the AJCommittee leader said. “But his ‘moral guilt’ for denying his involvement and his lying for more than 40 years about his knowledge of war crimes in Greece and Yugoslavia is unarguable.”

He said it is “now for the conscience of the Austrian people” to determine whether Waldheim “remains fit to represent as president the traditions and democratic values of the Austrian Second Republic.”

But he said that for American Jews, “Waldheim must remain a moral anathema.” He stressed, though, that “to us Waldheim is not Austria, and Austria is not Waldheim.” He urged a strengthening of ties with Austria.

The AJCommittee reaction was gracious compared to the searing statement made by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, professor of religion at Dartmouth and Columbia Colleges and a past president of the American Jewish Congress.

Hertzberg saw little saving grace in the Austrian people themselves, who he said contributed the largest proportion by far of all peoples to the population of SS officers and Nazi party members during World War II and who, for countless numbers of Jews, serve as the epitome of anti-Semites.

“My own reaction,” he said, “is that the fight around Waldheim has become not a fight about Nazis who ran concentration camps, but about people who looked away, who walked away from the principle ‘Thou shall not stand by the blood of your brother.’

“Contrary to a number of people who have said ‘the issue is not Austria, it’s Waldheim,’ I see the opposite. He has campaigned in Austria on the proposition that he is just like the rest of the people.”

Emphasizing that “there has never been a process of denazification and soul-cleansing in Austria,” Hertzberg said he was interested in “the much more intricate moral question of what is the guilt of those who stood by when atrocities took place. Waldheim didn’t only look away, he signed a few orders to get transports.”


Even if Waldheim stepped down from office, that act would not wipe the Austrian slate clean, the religion professor went on to say. “What is needed, rather, is a very substantial soul-searching in Austria and a real wrestling with its own home-grown anti-Semitism, and its own very powerful neo-Nazi party,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed by the World Jewish Congress, the body that was instrumental in bringing to light Waldheim’s Nazi past. Even before it had been made public that the report had been revised, WJC President Edgar Bronfman said, “This is a profound moral indictment of Waldheim and brings to the fore Austria’s role in World War II in which it played a more than willing part in Nazism.”

Seymour Reich, international president of B’nai B’rith, Monday night called on Waldheim to resign, even as the Austrian president and former two-term secretary general of the United Nations refused to do so.

Reich said the report “unmistakably showed the Austrian president to be a liar. He lied about his knowledge of crimes that had been committed and he lied about where he was during the killing or shipping of Jews and other civilians and partisans from Greece and Yugoslavia to concentration camps.

“Kurt Waldheim is a liability to the Austrian people. As president, he is supposed to be a good-will ambassador for his country,” said Reich. “He would do Austria and the world a service if he resigned.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said Tuesday, “The world didn’t need a blue-ribbon panel to confirm that Kurt Waldheim is a liar.”

Objecting to the commission’s last-minute move to soften the report’s language, the ADL leader called the panel’s findings “a sham and a farce.”

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