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The Joy of Being Kurt Waldheim

February 10, 1988

Kurt Waldheim has pronounced himself "happy" with the findings of an international panel of historians commissioned by his government to investigate his service with the German army in World War II. The Austrian president, if he is indeed happy, must be among the world's more easily satisfied people. For what the historians concluded after five months of research is that Waldheim never opposed a wartime order that he recognized as unjust, that he "repeatedly went along with unlawful acts," and that his claim that he knew nothing about deportations of Greek and Yugoslav civilians to Nazi death camps could not be believed. By any standard of judgment this is not a vindication but an indictment.

What then has brought supposed joy to Waldheim's heart? The answer is that the historians found no evidence tying Waldheim directly to the commission of war crimes. That isn't the same thing as absolving him from the allegations of such activities. In its report the panel notes that "the question of Waldheim's culpable behavior during the war cannot be conclusively answered." The commission said that it is prepared to reopen its investigation if further evidence should emerge.

Such evidence may exist. The U.S. Justice Department, which last year put Waldheim on a not-welcome list for future entry into the United States, informed the commission that it had evidence implicating him "in (wartime) acts which clearly constitute persecution under established legal precedent." For reasons that it refuses to disclose, the department did not provide this evidence to the commission.

The guilty knowledge that the commission ascribes to Waldheim, the "deep and comprehensive insight" that he is said to have had about Nazi war crimes were undoubtedly shared by thousands of other German army officers in the early 1940s. The Waldheim case is unique only because of his postwar public career, first as secretary general of the United Nations for eight years and now as president of Austria, and because of his long efforts in furtherance of that career to hide and lie about the nature, extent and duration of his wartime activities.

Waldheim has always claimed that he has nothing to feel guilty about. His conscience may indeed be clear; his record is another matter. Waldheim says in the wake of the historians' report that he wants only to serve his country. Yet his election to the presidency last year produced an international outcry that has left Austria diplomatically isolated from the greater part of the Western world. The latest report on his wartime affairs will not diminish that isolation. What he must ponder is whether by holding on to office he is in fact helping his country.

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