Waldheim entered the diplomatic service in 1945 and quickly rose through the ranks. He served as first secretary of the Austrian Legation in Paris (1948–1951) and worked in the Foreign Ministry in Vienna before being appointed as Austria's representative to the UN in 1955. Although he served only one year, the appointment marked the beginning of his long association with the UN.
After a stint in Canada (1956–1960), Waldheim again returned to Vienna, rising to the post of director-general for political affairs in 1962. Two years later, he was reappointed as Austria's representative to the UN. In 1968, he became minister for foreign affairs under Josef Klaus. Waldheim left the Austrian government in 1970 to serve as chairman of the Safeguards Committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). He became Austria's representative to the UN for a third time later that year.
Following an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency of Austria in 1971, Waldheim won election as secretary-general of the UN that December, succeeding U Thant. As secretary-general, Waldheim campaigned for peace around the globe. He traveled frequently to the Middle East, visited Cyprus several times, and attempted to establish peace talks among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. He took part in the Paris International Conference on Vietnam and presided over the opening session of the Geneva Peace Conference on the Middle East in 1973. In his second term, he negotiated, unsuccessfully, for the release of American hostages from Iran. The People's Republic of China (PRC) blocked his attempt to win a third term in 1981.
In 1986, Waldheim ran again for the post of president in Austria as the candidate of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). His campaign presented him as "a man the people trust" and emphasized his humanitarian role with the UN. Journalistic investigations into his background, however, uncovered evidence that he had been part of a German Army unit guilty of atrocities during World War II. Waldheim claimed that he had been on leave in Vienna when the crimes were committed and knew nothing about them.
Older Austrians rallied behind Waldheim, and he was elected president following a run-off election in June 1986. The decision proved troublesome, as the international community quickly ostracized Austria. Only the Vatican, the Soviet Union, a few nations in Eastern Europe, and some Arab states allowed Waldheim to visit as head of state. The opposition within Austria called for his resignation. Instead, the government launched its own inquiry into Waldheim's past.
The results of the investigation, released in February 1988, largely exonerated Waldheim. His response was to make a televised speech noting that the Holocaust was one of the most tragic events in history and, for the first time, admitting that Austrians had played a shameful role in it. Waldheim served the rest of his term in relative anonymity and chose not to run again in 1992. He died in Vienna on 14 June 2007.
Timothy C. Dowling
Finger, Seymour. Bending with the Wind: Kurt Waldheim and the United Nations. New York: Praeger, 1990.; Herzstein, Robert Edwin. Waldheim: The Missing Years. New York: Arbor House/William Morrow, 1988.; Pick, Hella. Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider. London: Tauris, 2000.; Ryan, James Daniel. The United Nations under Kurt Waldheim, 1972–1981. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2001.; Waldheim, Kurt. Die Antwort. Vienna: Amalthea, 1996.; Waldheim, Kurt. In the Eye of the Storm. Bethesda, MD: Adler and Adler, 1986.