In an unprecedented action, the Justice Department on Monday barred Austrian President Kurt Waldheim from entering the United States, citing evidence that “clearly demonstrates” that he took part in persecuting Allied prisoners and Jews and other civilians as a German army officer during World War II.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, with Secretary of State George P. Shultz concurring, placed the former U.N. secretary general’s name on the Justice Department’s “watch list,” a computer register of 40,000 people banned from entering the country or flagged for questioning on various grounds.
In “one glaring incident” in 1944, a Justice Department official said, then-Lt. Waldheim relayed intelligence to military units identifying a cluster of Yugoslav villages as a hotbed of partisan activity--"knowing what would result.” The villages in the Stil Kochane region were attacked and razed, with 114 civilians slain.
Roundup of 1,200 Jews
In another, the Justice Department official said, Waldheim passed on an order to military commanders to round up 1,200 Jews on the Greek island of Rhodes. Some were put on a barge for a short voyage, and they did not return, said the official, who declined to be named.
“The evidence collected . . . establishes a prima facie case that Kurt Waldheim assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of persons because of race, religion, national origin or political opinion,” said Terry Eastland, Meese’s chief spokesman.
In Vienna, Austria’s foreign minister, Alois Mock, said the move produced “great dismay” in the government, which quickly recalled its ambassador, Thomas Klestil, for consultations.
Chancellor’s Trip in Doubt
Mock added that it was unclear whether Chancellor Franz Vranitzky would go ahead with a planned May 21 visit to the United States. “Austria will not allow itself to be blackmailed,” said Mock, in an apparent reference to Jewish organizations’ demands that Waldheim resign.
State and Justice Department officials emphasized that the action was taken against Waldheim as an individual--not as the Austrian president or former U.N. secretary general--and that the United States highly values its relationship with Austria.
Nevertheless, the State Department said that a federal law barring entrance to those suspected of World War II-era Nazi persecution would keep Waldheim from visiting the United States or the United Nations unless Reagan or Shultz extends a specific exemption or invitation.
Marlin Fitzwater, Reagan’s spokesman, said that any such invitation for Waldheim “is a moot question at this point. There are no plans to invite him now.”
“In the real world, it is highly unlikely that he himself or the Austrian government would want to test (the) order,” a State Department official said.
Meese’s action came a year after it was recommended by Neal Sher, director of the Justice Department’s Nazi-hunting office of special investigations, and it was hailed by Jewish organizations.
It “demonstrates the determination of this government to see to it that the Holocaust is remembered, as it must be for all time,” said Morris B. Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella unit for the 40 largest national Jewish groups. “It also shows that the watch list policy is administered without regard to rank or station.”
No Special Treatment
“We believe that Mr. Waldheim should not be treated differently than any other accused war criminal,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who predicted that the decision “will likely make Waldheim the ex-president of Austria.”
In Tel Aviv, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Justice Ministry said the government has collected evidence about Waldheim’s wartime past but that the record is insufficient to start court proceedings against him or to prevent him from entering Israel.
No other head of state has ever been placed on the immigration watch list, according to a Justice Department official. In addition to those suspected of Nazi-related persecution, it includes accused drug dealers, terrorists and others considered undesirable.
The controversy over Waldheim’s role with the German army in World War II flared last spring during the Austrian presidential campaign, but Waldheim was elected anyway with 53.9% of the vote.
Previously, Waldheim had served as Austrian ambassador to the United Nations and as the organization’s secretary general from 1972 to 1982.
Cloaking Improper Activities
A Justice Department official noted that efforts by an individual to hide or distort potentially improper activities have been regarded as significant in determining whether to bar him from the country.
In this case, the official said, Waldheim had once asserted that he saw no further active military service after being wounded while serving on the Eastern Front in late 1941.
“Clearly, that is not the case,” the official said, noting that evidence shows that Waldheim returned to active duty in April, 1942. “Attempts to distort are very significant,” he said. “Why would someone want to conceal . . . ? You can draw your own conclusions.”
The official said that the evidence “clearly demonstrates” Waldheim’s participation or assistance in:
"--The transfer of civilian prisoners to the SS (Nazi elite force) for exploitation as slave labor.
"--The mass deportation of civilians to concentration and death camps.
"--The deportation of Jews from Greek islands and the town of Benja Luka, Yugoslavia, to concentration and death camps.
"--Utilization of anti-Semitic propaganda.
"--Turnover of Allied prisoners to the SD (the security arm of the SS).
"--Reprisal execution of hostages and other civilians.”
Awarded Special Decoration
The official noted that Waldheim received a special decoration in 1942 from the Nazi puppet state of Croatia for his “valorous conduct” in fighting against guerrillas in western Bosnia. At that time, Waldheim was a lieutenant in a battle group that took part in a particularly brutal campaign in which “partisans and civilians were routinely shot on the spot,” according to the Justice Department official.
The official, noting Waldheim’s eventual acknowledgement that he served in the quartermaster branch for part of his military career, said that German army quartermasters were responsible for handling prisoners, including deportations and selections for execution.
Waldheim also was responsible “for approving and disseminating propaganda, including the most vicious anti-Semitic tirades you could imagine,” a Justice Department official said, adding, “He initialed, approved and disseminated” the propaganda, some of which called “for elimination of the Jews.”
While the decision to place him on the watch list cannot be appealed in U.S. courts, Waldheim could gain review by attempting to enter the country and having a hearing on the government’s refusal, the official said.
Waldheim’s attorney, Donald E. Santarelli, did not return a reporter’s calls.
Before returning to Austria, Ambassador Klestil talked to President Reagan in a meeting on another matter. He “made some reference to the action, but not in a direct sense,” White House spokesman Fitzwater said. " . . . There was no discussion” of the sensitive matter, he added.
Meese, who was in Brussels on Monday, met with Austrian Interior Minister Karl Blecha, and later told an Austrian television reporter: “We hope the decision will not affect the excellent relations between the United States and Austria.”
In Vienna, Waldheim said he has a clear conscience and that the U.S. action contravenes the basic principles of justice, the Austrian Press Agency reported. Waldheim told a dinner for Austrian members of Parliament that he was deeply disappointed and expected the Austrian government to react appropriately to defend Austria’s reputation.
Waldheim said he will wait for the Austrian government’s formal response before making a full personal statement.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Norman Kempster contributed to this article.