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Waldheim and Austria's Past

May 16, 1986

The article by Peter Loewenberg (Opinion, May 4), "Waldheim and Austria vs. the Past, a Perfect Man for President," was a disappointment.

Prof. Loewenberg is a historian of high class. He has been provided with heavy ammo during the past several weeks by articles in various newspapers and journals to compose a rather trivial sock-it-to-them Austria bash. While I certainly am no apologist for Austria and Austrian history, I do have a certain knowledge of that country and its ways to counteract the Loewenberg impressions. Loewenberg has failed to exercise his analytic strengths in his historical survey. The Waldheim issue begs explanation rather than mere recital.

For example, was it not the responsibility of the Allies to bring Austrian Nazis to the tribunal at Nuremberg? That deliberate omission permitted the Nazis in Austria to remain under the rose and to melt back into the general life of the country, denying opponents the opportunity to speak against them. Further, that deliberate omission permitted those who had power under the Nazis to regain and hold power. Voila Waldheim!

Can Austria truly be faulted for preferring tranquility to turmoil, when such silence was supported by the Allies? Did the United States hesitate at all to invite Nazis to this country for engagement in all manner of secret employments, placing utility first and Nazism second? Austria can find condoning of its behavior in the annals of our own post-World War II history.

Loewenberg makes an error in referring to Austria as if it constituted a singular entity. No other nation of 7 million has a capital the size of Vienna resulting in a mixture of highly urbanized intellectuals at one extreme with a highly parochial, isolated, inbred landed population on the other. Waldheim is not the universal hero of Austria. He is detested, scorned, and ostracized by a significant segment of Austrian society. Loewenberg does not appear aware of that.

In respect to anti-Semitism, the reader might get the impression from Loewenberg that Jew-hate was an original product of Austria. False. The most vicious roots of modern anti-Semitism started in France. Loewenberg ought to know that anti-Semitism derived its great force from nationalism, to which Hapsburg-Austria by its nature a composite of multiple states, was opposed . In Austria before and after World War I, Jews enjoyed an extraordinary level of prestige, freedom and access. Assimilation through intermarriage was widely accepted and was considered a greater threat to Jewish survival than external persecution. Pan-Germanism (the wish to be part of greater Germany) was a matter of dread to Austria. The movement attracted many Jews (including Sigmund Freud).

What I am getting at with all this is simply to point our attention to understanding rather than just naming good guys and bad guys. Austria is a different nation than it was during World War II. It has even elected a Jewish chancellor (impossible in the United States).

The recent election has shown that more than 50% of voters rejected Waldheim. Austria is a true democracy where, for example, voter turnout is much higher than in the United States. The very fact of Waldheim being allowed to stand for election is a reflection of that democracy.

The final comment by Loewenberg regarding Waldheim as the "ideal Austrian president: elegant, slippery, compromised in the Nazi era, unrepentant and unreliable" is pernicious in the extreme, suggesting this to be his view about Austrians in general.


Santa Monica

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