VIENNA — Austrian President Kurt Waldheim acknowledged that he knew atrocities were committed by his German army group during World War II but kept silent because he wanted to survive, a Vienna newspaper reported Friday.
A six-member historical commission issued a report last week stating that Waldheim, as a staff officer in the Balkans, knew about war crimes committed by his unit but did nothing to prevent or distance himself from the injustices.
Friday night, more than 400 people, including artists, intellectuals and journalists, marched to the president's office and demanded Waldheim's resignation, the Austrian news agency APA said.
The group observed a moment of silence before delivering a petition to Waldheim's office that said: "It is not enough for a president not to be a war criminal. Think of Austria, then resign."
Waldheim said that, like other soldiers in Hitler's army, he did only what was necessary to survive World War II, the conservative Vienna newspaper Die Presse reported.
"Practically every soldier in the Balkans knew that reprisal actions were carried out. The fact that as a staff officer I was, here and there, better informed could be true, but I did not volunteer for the job," Waldheim said in his first interview since the commission's report to the government was made public Tuesday.
"I pay the deepest respect to all those who offered resistance, but I ask for understanding for the hundreds of thousands who did not, but were still not personally guilty," he said.
"We certainly didn't do any more than try to survive the war. Yes, I admit I wanted to survive."
Waldheim also declared that it is his duty to remain as Austria's head of state and would not bow to pressure to resign, Die Presse said.
"I see it as my duty to continue to serve this country and its people," he said.
Waldheim, a two-term secretary general of the United Nations, has been banned from the United States and other countries because of his World War II record.
The 202-page historians' report accused Waldheim of clearing the way for war crimes. It did not find him guilty of war crimes, nor did it absolve him of blame. Waldheim did not try to prevent the atrocities, the report said.
Despite Waldheim's most candid remarks to date on his wartime service, political fallout from the historians' report continued.
Former Austrian Foreign Minister Karl Gruber criticized the conclusions of the historians because one member is "a socialist" and several others are "of Jewish heritage."
In an interview with Italian television Thursday night, Gruber, a conservative party member, said the commission was "against" Waldheim.
"The German member (Manfred) Messerschmidt is a socialist, and several others are of Jewish heritage. Waldheim is a only a symbolic figure and is attacked because Austria paid less reparations (to the Jews) than West Germany."
In a critical reply carried by the Austrian Press Agency, Socialist Party spokesman Heinz Fischer, speaking in Salzburg, said: "The damage suffered by Austria through ineptness and lack of recognition of reality grows greater by the day."
Socialist Party parliamentarian Ewald Novotny called on Waldheim "to distance himself" from Gruber's "unqualified" remarks.
Friday night Austrian television said that a few hours before release of the report Monday, Waldheim threatened to dissolve the government over the document's highly critical nature, and that Chancellor Franz Vranitzky offered his resignation.