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Waldheim Affair (1986)

Allegations of involvement in Nazi atrocities against Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary-general of the United Nations (UN) who was running for president of the Austrian Republic. Waldheim began his second campaign to become president of Austria in late 1985. He had run unsuccessfully in 1971 but lessened the sting of that defeat by negotiating his election as secretary-general of the UN the following year. He served two terms as secretary-general and established a reputation as a man of peace. His attempt to win a third term in 1981 was blocked by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), however, and Waldheim retired to Vienna. He published his autobiography in 1985.

Despite Waldheim's presence, the Austrian presidential campaign of 1986 merited little international attention until Profil, an Austrian news magazine, printed a series of articles alleging that Waldheim had omitted crucial details about his service in the German Army during World War II in both his autobiography and in his presidential campaign. Waldheim's account claimed that although a junior officer in a German SA unit before 1939, he had spent most of the war in Vienna recuperating from wounds and studying law. Profil revealed evidence that Waldheim had spent considerable time on duty in the Balkans and in Salonika, Greece. Although the magazine did not accuse Waldheim directly, it did note that his unit had murdered Yugoslav partisans and deported Jews to concentration camps during his service. Waldheim responded by saying that he had no knowledge of any atrocities and had simply "done his duty as a soldier."

The affair quickly became the focus of the presidential election. Older Austrians generally supported Waldheim, claiming that Austria was a victim of Nazi aggression and an unwilling participant in the war. Younger Austrians, however, tended to be more suspicious and called for an open discussion of Austria's Nazi past. After heated debate and a run-off election, Waldheim emerged as president of Austria in June 1986, winning 54 percent of the vote.

His presidency put Austria in the international spotlight, but in a most unfavorable way. After an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, Waldheim became the first head of state ever placed on a watch list of undesirable aliens and was denied entry to the United States. Many other states also treated Waldheim as persona non grata, leaving Austria isolated internationally. Only the Vatican, the Soviet Union and its satellites, and a few Middle Eastern states that had received similar treatment allowed Waldheim to visit.

Amid growing tensions, the Austrian government launched its own investigation, which largely exonerated Waldheim. Where the U.S. report had concluded that there was "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," these new findings found no evidence that Waldheim had participated in war crimes. At the same time, the report concluded that as a translator in the unit, Waldheim must have had knowledge of the atrocities.

Waldheim remained in office after this ambiguous finding, claiming that he did so in the best interests of the Austrian people. He also went on Austrian television to plead his case. He admitted that Austrians had played some role in the Holocaust, which he described as one of the greatest tragedies in human history, and he condemned fanaticism and intolerance in all forms. The international community remained unmoved. Whether or not Waldheim affected Austrian opinion is hard to say. He chose not to run for reelection in 1992. At the very least, Waldheim gave Austrians the chance to discuss a complicated past that had been kept under wraps for nearly fifty years.

Timothy C. Dowling

Further Reading
Herzstein, Robert Edwin. Waldheim: The Missing Years. New York: Arbor House/William Morrow, 1988.; Palumbo, Michael. The Waldheim Files: Myth and Reality. London: Faber, 1988.; Pick, Hella. Guilty Victim: Austria from the Holocaust to Haider. London: Tauris, 2000.; Rosenbaum, Eli. Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-up. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.; Tittmann, Harold. The Waldheim Affair: Democracy Subverted. Dunkirk, NY: O. Frederick, 2000.; Waldheim, Kurt. Die Antwort. Vienna: Almathea, 1996.

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