President Kurt Waldheim, commemorating Austria's annexation by Germany 50 years ago, today apologized for the crimes committed by Austrian Nazis but ignored his own controversial wartime past.
"We must not forget that many of the worst Nazi hangmen were Austrians," Waldheim said in a televised speech. "There were Austrians who were victims and others who were perpetrators.
"Obviously, there is no collective guilt" for the war crimes committed by Austrians, the president declared. "Nevertheless, as head of state of the Republic of Austria, I wish to apologize for Nazi crimes committed by Austrians."
It was the first time that Waldheim has used such language in public to acknowledge Austria's share in World War II and the Holocaust.
Waldheim did not acknowledge until two years ago that he served in World War II in a German army unit implicated in wartime atrocities, and he has resisted pressure to resign since it became known.
'Hitler's First Victim'
In his speech, the president insisted that "as a state, Austria was Hitler's first victim. That is indisputable."
Austria was wiped off the map when Nazi troops invaded on March 11, 1938. Adolf Hitler then returned in triumph to Austria, his native land, cheered by hundreds of thousands of countrymen.
In April, 1938, the Nazis said 99% of Austrians approved the Anschluss in a nationwide vote. More than half a million Austrians joined the Nazi Party, and many concentration camp guards were Austrians.
Austria's Nazi past--largely suppressed here over the last four decades--has dogged this neutral country since the disclosure a year ago of Waldheim's wartime service.
In his speech, Waldheim left unmentioned his wartime years in Yugoslavia and Greece and the furor triggered last month by a historians' report questioning Waldheim's integrity during the war.
'Close Proximity' Cited
The report did not furnish evidence to clearly back allegations Waldheim participated in war crimes, but it said he was "in close proximity" to war crimes and did nothing to prevent them.
Public pressure after the report's release forced Waldheim to drop plans to speak at a solemn remembrance of the Nazi annexation on Friday.
Waldheim recalled the Anschluss, as the Nazi annexation of Austria is known, as an event that "triggered an avalanche of suffering."
"It was an avalanche of suffering that buried those who thought differently and, in a terrible racial mania, buried our Jewish fellow citizens," Waldheim declared. "Millions of Jewish people were annihilated in the concentration camps.
"Nothing can explain or excuse those crimes," said the president. "I bow in deep respect to those victims who must always serve as a reminder and a duty" for Austria.
Barred From U.S.
The controversy over Waldheim has divided Austria and tarnished the country's image. The U.S. Justice Department last year barred Waldheim from the country as an undesirable alien.