Waldheim Will Be ‘Tried’ on HBO Program

Times Staff Writer

In what it calls “a unique use of television,” Home Box Office said Monday that it is joining with a British company to produce a program that will “try” Austrian President Kurt Waldheim on charges that he was a party to Nazi war crimes during World War II.

The U.S. pay-TV company and London’s Thames Television said they will jointly sponsor a Commission of Inquiry that will lay out the evidence before an international panel of five judges who will be asked to determine whether there is “enough evidence to warrant an answer by Dr. Kurt Waldheim to allegations that he wrongly participated in acts which were contrary to the international laws of war.”

Their verdict will be delivered at the conclusion of “Waldheim,” which is due to be shown in June on the HBO cable service and on Britain’s Channel 4.

Waldheim knows of the project but has refused to participate in it, “Waldheim” producer Jack Saltman said.


Allegations that Waldheim, a former secretary-general of the United Nations, participated in war crimes while in the German army surfaced when he was running for the Austrian presidency in 1986. He has denied them repeatedly.

“Waldheim” will consist of the three to four most compelling hours culled from nine days of hearings that will be held in April before a panel of judges from the United States, Britain, India and Sweden. Although there will be no defense and prosecuting attorneys as in a court trial, a “presenting counsel” will lay out the evidence against Waldheim and a “challenging counsel” will refute the allegations.

Following a deliberation period, the five judges--who will include former U.S. Secretary of Education and federal appeals court judge Shirley Hufstedler and Sir Frederick Lawton, a former judge on the Court of Appeal of Great Britain--will reach a decision as to how persuasive the evidence is. That conclusion will then be added to the program.

Both Saltman and Bridget Potter, senior vice president for original programming at HBO, insisted in interviews Monday that their goal is not “trial by television.” They noted that no formal charges have been made against Waldheim and that no legal action will result from the program.


“We feel that it’s a major issue--either the guy is the victim of a massive witch hunt, or there is more to it than that, " Potter said. “This is probably the deepest investigation that’s being done into this case. This is like a grand jury investigation, at the end of which the judges will know whether or not they should recommend a trial.”

Saltman said that the documentary would provide a fair and accurate presentation of the same details as might result from a newspaper or TV news investigation of the topic, but with the added fillip of cross-examination and a panel of professional judges to render a decision based on the evidence presented.

He added that most of the project’s approximately $9-million cost has gone into research; a research team of 25 collected more than 7,000 pages of documents in several languages, he said, and had located two dozen witnesses who have not yet discussed the case with the news media.

Both Potter and Saltman maintained that while the program’s verdict has no legal significance or power, presenting evidence in this manner will allow viewers to draw an educated conclusion of their own.


Saltman said he spent about 45 minutes with Waldheim trying to convince him to offer his side of the story. “He made very cynical comments about the ‘Waldheim industry’ (of assuming his guilt) that the press has brought about. (He believes) there is a great conspiracy about him. . . .”

Waldheim, however, still refused to participate.

“He told me that, were I to look for a hundred years, I would find no evidence that he was guilty of war crimes, and in no way would the president of Austria be involved (in the TV production),” Saltman said.

Although Potter said she believed HBO might examine other such unresolved issues in the same manner in the future, Saltman said he thought the technique was only defensible in unique cases such as Waldheim’s, where the subject is not involved in any current legal proceedings and is “almost certain” not to stand trial in the foreseeable future.


“I think trial by television is a very, very dangerous thing,” he said. “Nobody elected me a judge or a jury, and I don’t intend to become one.

“What is unique about Waldheim is that he was elected to the highest office in the world (at the United Nations), then accused of the lowest of crimes. If the audience at home feels there is a case, it raises enormous questions about how that was not discovered before he was elected to the United Nations. If he were going to be tried in an open court, our position would be completely different.”