VIENNA — President Kurt Waldheim "went along with unlawful acts" while serving as a German army lieutenant in the Balkans in World War II, but there was no evidence that he was guilty of war crimes, a panel of military historians has concluded, it was reported Monday.
The finding was contained in a copy of a report obtained by the Austrian News Agency that was prepared by a six-member commission empowered by the Austrian government to investigate allegations that Waldheim was involved in war crimes. The report was submitted to Austria's coalition government Monday.
Waldheim immediately took an optimistic view of the commission's findings. "Knowledge (of war crimes) is not a crime," Waldheim said after a meeting with Swiss historian Hans Rudolf Kurz, chairman of the commission, who informed him of its findings.
"I am happy," he told Austrian television. "The report shows that during the war, I wasn't involved in any war crimes actions."
Waldheim added that the findings did not alter his determination to remain in office despite demands from some political figures that he step down. "I see my duty in putting all my knowledge and experience in the service of my country, and I will continue to do this," he said.
'Unlawful Acts' Cited
The Austrian News Service quoted the report as saying that while the commission could find no evidence that Waldheim personally committed a war crime, the 69-year-old former U.N. secretary general "went along with unlawful acts and thereby made it easier for them to be carried out."
It added, according to the news agency, that "a certain guilt" could be attributed "just from knowing about the violations of human rights in the place where a person (Waldheim) was stationed, if the person concerned--out of a lack of strength or courage--violated his human duty to take steps against injustice."
The commission, according to the news agency, criticized Waldheim's efforts to cover up his service in the Balkans after he was wounded on the Soviet front and sent home in 1942--three years before the end of the war--to recuperate. Waldheim indicated in his memoirs that he saw no further military service after his return and spent the remaining war years in Vienna studying law.
The report said that the commission "could not agree with the way (Waldheim) made an effort to make his military past forgotten and once (that) was no longer possible, to make it seem harmless."
This "forgetfulness" made it impossible for the commission to determine any personal war crimes guilt in Waldheim's case, the 200-page report said.
Heribert Steinbauer, chief of staff in the office of the vice chancellor Alois Mock, a leader of the conservative People's Party, which had backed Waldheim's race for the presidency in 1986, said: "Was he a war criminal? The report says no. There's no possibility that Waldheim will resign."
Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, leader of the Socialist Party, told a news conference later that he was disturbed by some of the material dealing with Waldheim's career and statements that Waldheim has made.
The historians said they plan to have a news conference today to discuss their findings. Nevertheless, they talked with a reporter Monday evening and, in English as well as German, gave a sometimes inconsistent account of their research and their effort to produce a joint statement.
The West German member, Manfred Messerschmidt, said that a near-final draft contained language that accused Waldheim of lacking "moral responsibility," but other members regarded that description as too judgmental, and it was stricken from the final draft.
Most of the historians said that while there was some pressure to keep them from making a qualitative assessment as to Waldheim's guilt, they had not succumbed to it nor changed any of their language.
Messerschmidt was asked if he and his colleagues had discovered "a smoking gun"--clear proof of Waldheim's involvement in a war crime.
"No," he replied.
Most Serious Question
The most serious question the report raises against Waldheim is that as a young staff officer with the German army in Greece and the Balkans, he was involved in sending Jews and civilian partisans to concentration camps in Germany and Poland where they were executed.
The Israeli member of the commission, Jehuda L. Wallach, said the historians found "no personal culpability" in Waldheim's wartime behavior. He said the investigation showed that while the German army in the Balkans was involved in war crimes and atrocities, Waldheim as a lieutenant had "no command authority."
But as a staff officer, Wallach said, "he was more or less near events" where war crimes were committed.
"When Waldheim said he was just obeying orders and could not have opposed them," the Israeli historian said, "this was simply not true." Other German soldiers, he said, did oppose unlawful acts and were not court-martialed.