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Waldheim Vows to Stay in Office : Assails 'Slanders' in Controversy Over His Wartime Role

February 16, 1988|From Times Wire Services

VIENNA — President Kurt Waldheim, in an emotional television speech, Monday rejected the "slanders, hateful demonstrations and wholesale condemnations" of those who want him to resign because of his actions in World War II, and he urged the nation to unite behind him.

He vowed to complete his term, which ends in 1994, because, he maintained, to resign in the face of the demands of his opponents would be to violate the democratic institutions of postwar Austria.

The speech appeared certain to deepen divisions caused by the report of an international panel of historians last week that questioned Waldheim's moral integrity. It found no evidence of his direct involvement in war crimes but said he was "in close proximity" to Nazi atrocities during the war and did nothing to stop them.

On Monday, Waldheim claimed, without giving specifics, that "parts of the report do not correspond to the facts but are built on presumptions and hypotheses. For that reason, the conclusions drawn cannot be upheld."

Waldheim, 69, used highly emotional language in appeals both to World War II compatriots and those too young to know "the horrors of this war," which he said "was the curse of my generation."

He portrayed himself as a mere cog in the Nazi war machine, "living in fear in the effort to survive."

Referring to his postwar silence about his military activities, Waldheim declared: "The war years were a bitter period of learning which I have not spoken much about and did not want to speak much about. Perhaps that was a mistake, but it was certainly not a strategy of covering up. We were all happy then, when the war was over, and tried together to build a better and more humane world.

"I have a clear conscience," the former U.N. secretary general told Austria's 7.5 million citizens.

Without naming any individuals or group, Waldheim lashed out at his accusers who "came from Austria and abroad," the latter an apparent reference, in part, to the World Jewish Congress which has spearheaded the attacks on the president.

"They stopped at nothing, manipulations, lies and forgeries were used against me," Waldheim said. "My accusers called me a murderer, a war criminal and a liar."

The reference to "forgeries" apparently stemmed from a purported wartime telegram, provided by a Yugoslav historian to a West German magazine that linked Waldheim to wartime deportations. The telegram has been declared a fake.

Waldheim appealed to his listeners to judge him, not on his actions as a young lieutenant but as a postwar diplomat, U.N. official and president "who for decades worked for justice, tolerance and peace."

In their 202-page report, the historians concluded that Waldheim tried to cover up his service as a German army officer in the Balkans. The government appointed the panel at Waldheim's request in September, after the United States put him on a "watch list" of undesirable aliens that barred him from entering the United States as a private citizen.

Socialist Party Secretary Heinrich Keller said after the 14-minute speech that it was "a great disappointment" and means Waldheim "will continue to be an unbelievable burden for our country."

A petition drive for Waldheim's resignation has obtained more than 2,000 signatures, including those of most leading intellectuals, according to the news magazine Profil.

About 5,000 opponents of Waldheim demonstrated in downtown Vienna on Sunday, and about half marched to his offices in the Hofburg palace, calling for his resignation.

Continuing to resist the mounting calls for his resignation, Waldheim declared:

"In the course of the renewed discussion, the question was also put about my premature departure from the office of federal president. I want to take a stand in all clarity: You, my dear Austrians, have elected me federal president with a convincing majority in a secret and direct election for six years.

"Thus it is no longer a matter of the man Kurt Waldheim. In view of the slanders, I have often asked myself in the last two years whether I should carry on.

"It is a fundamental principle of our democracy that an election result cannot be subsequently corrected. A head of state must not retreat in the face of slanders, hateful demonstrations and wholesale condemnations."

In a runoff election for the presidency in June, 1986, Waldheim won with 53.6%, a result considered decisive in Austria.

Hans Rudolf Kurz, the Swiss chairman of the historians' commission, said in a magazine interview published Monday that he thinks Waldheim would do Austria a service by resigning.

Alois Mock, deputy chancellor of Austria and head of the People's Party, reiterated his support for Waldheim, but Economics Minister Robert Graf, another leading conservative, expressed impatience.

Graf said Waldheim "must take a decision which is very important for our country."

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