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Mystery Man

Austria’s President Rudolf Kirchschlager says he is convinced that Kurt Waldheim must have known that the German army he served with in Yugoslavia during World War II was committing atrocities against civilians. But Kirchschlager, a former judge, says that his examination of available documents does not support an accusation that Waldheim participated in Nazi war crimes. Other examiners have come to a different conclusion. The Washington Post reports that in 1948 the U.N. War Crimes Commission recommended that Waldheim “should be delivered up for trial” on charges that he was involved in “putting hostages to death” from April, 1944, to May, 1945. And a Justice Department unit has recommended that Waldheim be barred from future entry into the United States because of his wartime activities.

Until recently Waldheim had implicitly denied any wartime service in Yugoslavia, contending in his memoirs and elsewhere that that he had returned to civilian life in Austria in 1943 after being wounded in the Soviet Union. Now, a candidate for president of Austria and confronted with accusations that he has long tried to hide the details of 30 months of his military service, Waldheim acknowledges his presence in Yugoslavia and Greece during the final years of the war. Why had he failed to mention this before? In an interview with U.S. News & World Report, Waldheim blandly blames the omission on the ghostwriter of his memoirs.

The Post says that its story is based on the War Crimes Commission’s file on Waldheim, one of more than 40,000 such files in the U.N. archives. According to the Post, the commission decided that “a clear prima facie case” existed to justify trying Waldheim. In consequence, he was placed on the top priority “A” list of wanted war criminals.

There is nothing further on the public record that points to Waldheim’s direct complicity in wartime atrocities. It is known that he served on the staffs of two generals who were later executed for war crimes committed in the Balkans. Up to now, Waldheim has indicated that he worked as an interpreter. In the U.S. News interview he says that he was an ordnance officer--"just a sort of clerk.” Other evidence suggests that he was an intelligence officer. As for the accusations made against him in the War Crimes Commission file, Waldheim says that they came from only one source--"a German Austrian prisoner” of the Yugoslavs who was trying “to save his skin.”

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A major unanswered question in the Waldheim controversy is why the War Crimes Commission file has surfaced only now. Waldheim served two terms as secretary general of the United Nations. Before and during that time, any U.N. member country that asked could have seen the commission file. So far as is known, no country made such a request--not even Yugoslavia, which had provided the commission with much of the material that now has become public. This seems strange, at the least. Was no country curious enough to inform itself about the wartime activities of an Austrian who was known to have served in the German army before he was chosen to become one of the most visible of public figures?

Opinion polls in Austria indicate that Waldheim will win next month’s election for the largely ceremonial post of president. If anything, the controversy over his wartime services seems to have strengthened his standing. But Waldheim’s election, while it might be seen as a domestic vindication, won’t resolve the nagging questions about what he did and what he knew when he was stationed in the Balkans. Again it must be emphasized that no proof has yet been presented that Waldheim was involved in war crimes. It must also be emphasized that for decades he sought to obscure, deny and otherwise avoid telling the truth about an important part of his past.


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