A ‘Hero’ of His Time

Kurt Waldheim’s life story seems to be a riddle of contradictions

Waldheim’s Funeral Procession at the UN | Photo: Nayeli Urquiza

Waldheim’s Funeral Procession at the UN | Photo: Nayeli Urquiza

Waldheim with Heinz Fischer | Photo: Bundeskanzleramt

Waldheim's Funeral

Waldheim’s Funeral Procession at the UN | Photo: Nayeli Urquiza

Kurt Waldheim received both high praise and deep dishonor throughout his 88 years of life. The son of a man who lost his job when Germany invaded Austria, he was a young lawyer, a member of the National Socialist Party, a soldier of the Third Reich, an intelligence officer of the SS, an ambassador, chairman of several UN bodies, foreign minister and finally Secretary General of the United Nations.

During his UN tenure he is credited with rescuing the organization from an almost certain bankruptcy; he helped in the negotiation for the release of the Iran hostage crisis, held from 1979 to 1981 at the U.S. embassy in Iran. He also was active in negotiating the situation and the peacekeeping efforts in Cyprus, and was praised for initiating the peace talks that led to the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, according to a story by The Daily  Telegraph published in May.

He had climbed a long hard way up, but in 1986, his downfall began at the pinnacle of his career, when he became president of Austria and after documents about Waldheim’s Nazi past emerged, he was treated as a pariah by the U.S., which added his name into a “watch list.”

How will history remember a man of so many contrasts? And how can we judge someone who from 1971 to 1982 represented an organization whose main tenet is the peaceful coexistence of humanity, but was also an alleged war criminal for serving in the SS in the Balkans during World War II?

Waldheim was born in Dec. 21, 1918, in Tulln, near Vienna. As a young 20 year-old law student, Waldheim joined the National Socialist student union and the paramilitary “brown” shirts in 1938. He was wounded at the age of 24 by a grenade while fighting for the Wehrmacht on the Russian front. Then, he tried to erase himself from history.

During those long unaccounted-for years between when he was wounded in1941 and 1945 when he entered the Austrian Foreign Ministry, remained unclear. In 1946, Waldheim filed a de-Nazification questionnaire by which Austrians were to “come clean” on their role in the war. But Waldheim was circumspect, writing only that he had belonged to the National Socialist riding club, according to a Jun. 20 story in The New Yorker. 

In retrospect, 1946 could be seen as the crossroads for Waldheim, the moment where he could have revealed what he knew, saw and did, under the command of Gen. Alexander Lohr, later hanged by a Yugoslav tribunal for war crimes. Waldheim’s position was as the “conduit across whose desk passed all significant information about the enemy activity, whether partisans, Allied commandos or Italian troops,” said The Daily Telegraph, “Waldheim was exceptionally well-informed.”

Whatever he did or did not do, hiding his past would later set off a wave of speculation. There was a rumor Waldheim had “handed over 488 prisoners to be shot by the SS in 1942,” according to The Telegraph. Before a U.S. historian committee investigated CIA files released in 2001, some researchers had speculated Waldheim was being blackmailed over his past by the Soviet Union while others said he might have been recruited by American Intelligence, according to The Telegraph and an April 2001 story by The New York Times. This suspicion, even if it had been true, would not have changed the course of the Cold War, since the Secretary General’s role is very much tied to the interests of all the members of the Security Council.

Nevertheless, the mere suspicion that Waldheim was being blackmailed, would have indicate a retreat from the open diplomacy begun after World War I to the secretive power politics that, at least in part, had led European countries into that war. It would also suggest that the head of the UN was unable to be impartial in conflicts involving the USSR. This suspicion was first raised in1968, when he ordered the Austrian Ambassador in Czechoslovakia not to allow any asylum seekers into the embassy as Soviet tanks rolled in to suppress the Prague Spring uprising, according to the New Yorker story.

However Ambassador Rudolf Kirchschläger defied his superior and kept the embassy open to everyone.

Was Waldheim a pawn of the Soviets, or was he simply afraid of their power in world politics and of Austria’s long border on the Iron Curtain? There is no hard proof. There “was nothing in the CIA files that suggested Russian blackmailing,” said Richard Breitman, Professor of History at American University and director of Historical Research at the Interagency Working Group in 2001.

Heinz Fischer, Kurt Waldheim

Waldheim (right) with Bundespräsident Heinz Fischer (left) | Photo: Bundeskanzleramt

During the two terms Waldheim served as Secretary General, a new configuration of nations was in process: Many third world countries had gained membership in the U.N., changing the balance of votes and the priorities in world conflicts. Waldheim pushed the topic of terrorism onto the world stage, following the PLO airplane hijackings that made it a transnational problem.

Waldheim faced many challenges that continue to follow the world today: These include the war in Afghanistan that became the training ground for today’s Al-Qaeda leaders; the establishment of UN peacekeepers in Cyprus; and Israel’s invasion to southern Lebanon in 1978, one of the many which fueled the grievances that later led to the foundation of Hezbollah.

The world of international diplomacy changed under his watch. His first experiences with international conflict involved states with a clear command; but he was also the first Secretary General forced to deal with non-state actors such as guerrillas and terrorists, a hazy area where statesmen could transform into the enemy if there is enough support for the movement.

The act for which he may be remembered most, however, may well be his lobbying for the establishment of a UN headquarters in Vienna, said Under Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Costa, in a somber ceremony in Vienna, on Jun. 23.

The UN guards in sky-blue uniforms saluted the funeral cortège, while Waldheim’s family got off the cars, and greeted the heads of the UN bodies based here. The pale masonry high-rises on the outskirts of the city are now the permanent home of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime, the Commission for the Nuclear Ban Test treaty, and the Commission for Peaceful Outer Space Affairs, the United Nations Industrial Development Organizatio, (UNIDO) among others.

As the assembled crowd stood, with heads bowed, Costa read the remarks from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who “extended his condolences to the people of Australia.” People gasped. Costa froze, noticing his error read in front of Waldheim’s widow, Elizabeth. He then continued the speech, making no clarification about having extended condolences to the wrong country. Never apologize, never explain.

It was perhaps only one last faux pas in the life of faux pas, the story of an ambitious man who didn’t calculate the burden of the past into the equation of his political goals. Commentators interpreted Waldheim’s overwhelming victory for the presidency – earning a remarkable 54 percent of the vote – as Austrian’s giving a vote of confidence to Waldheim’s pledge of innocence.

When Waldheim was elected in 1986, U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan said that the process had been “a symbolic amnesty for the Holocaust,” according to the World Biography Encyclopedia. 

But in several examples of post-conflict resolution, amnesty is given to combatants after a war in order to reconcile a nation’s population. It was the case in Austria, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and South Africa.

It is often a necessary strategy for a nation that wants to move forward. But the strategy becomes impossible if those who are given the chance refuse the offer to make peace with history. Waldheim never apologized for anything.

In his 1996 autobiography, The Answer, he wrote, “I did what was necessary to survive the day, the system, the war – no more, no less.”

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