LINZ, Austria — Former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim today said allegations of war crimes against him had collapsed "like a pack of cards," but he later said it had been useful for him to be "in the shadow" of Nazi organizations.
Speaking at his first press conference since a storm over his wartime past broke a month ago, Waldheim denied charges that he belonged to Nazi groups or took part in war crimes committed by Hitler's army in the Balkans.
"All that has fallen apart like a pack of cards," he told reporters in the industrial city of Linz, where he was campaigning today for Austria's presidency.
But later, in an interview with Reuters, Waldheim said he had deliberately accepted invitations to join in activities of an NS Reiterkorps (Nazi Riding Corps) and a Nazi student group at Vienna's Consular Academy before the war.
"I had a lot of trouble in finishing my studies," he said. "So I said to myself, I can participate, and that would keep me there without being attacked . . . without being suspicious in their eyes. It can't do any harm. And so I participated."
His family were known anti-Nazis and he had been attacked by the Nazi Brownshirts for supporting Austria's independence before Germany annexed Austria in 1938.
To a suggestion that it was therefore a good idea to be in the shadow of Nazi groups after 1938, Waldheim replied, "Exactly, in the shadow . . . in that way I was able to finish my studies without becoming a member."
Waldheim, U.N. secretary-general from 1972 to 1982, denied deliberately omitting from his official resumes the years he served in the Balkans under Gen. Alexander Lohr, who was hanged by Yugoslavia for war crimes.
Of his wartime service he had mentioned only what he regarded as most important, he said. He said his staff activities as a translator and a compiler of reports were less important than his front-line service.
Documents released by the World Jewish Congress said that Waldheim was sought for war crimes, including complicity in murder, by Yugoslavia after the war and that he served as a senior intelligence officer under Lohr.
Waldheim denied a suggestion that he avoided mentioning the Balkans because service under Lohr in what was a "cruel conflict with the partisans" would have damaged his chances as an international diplomat.
"I bear the awfulness of this war on my own body," he told the press conference. "I was a victim."
Waldheim was wounded on the Russian front in 1941, but in two autobiographies he states that a leg injury ended his wartime service then and that from 1942 to 1945 he was in Vienna studying law.