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Not a War Criminal, Only a 'Facilitator' : WALDHEIM: The Missing Years by Robert Edwin Herzstein (Arbor House/Morrow: $18.95, 304 pp . )

May 08, 1988|Jonathan Kirsch

"Waldheim" is a historical detective story, a Ludlum novel played out in the real world--the tale of one man's secret past as a wartime Nazi officer, a secret that was carefully guarded by diplomats and spies for more than four decades, until it was finally brought to light amid an international diplomatic crisis.

The author, in a sense, is the hero of his own story--Robert Edwin Herzstein is the dedicated researcher who uncovered the dangerous truth in the dusty archives of Washington, London, Austria and Belgrade. And the climax of the story is an encounter between Herzstein and the man he stalked--Kurt Waldheim, the former secretary general of the United Nations and today the president of Austria.

In fairness to Herzstein, I must point out that "Waldheim" is a temperate and well-documented book, wholly innocent of sensationalism or "novelizing" tendencies. Herzstein is a history professor at the University of South Carolina who was asked by the World Jewish Congress to conduct archival research into the reputed war crimes of Kurt Waldehim--and Waldheim is ultimately judged "not guilty" on the strict historical record. But the story itself is so dramatic, so full of moral peril, and told so deftly, that "Waldheim" is a kind of historical thriller.

Along the way, we learn much about the roiling cauldron of Austrian politics that churned Waldheim to the top--and we learn, too, about the dirty little war that the Nazis conducted against the people of the Balkans. Over the years, Waldheim has consistently concealed and lied about his war record--after catching a chunk of shrapnel in fighting on the Eastern Front in 1941, he maintained, he was sent home. What Herzstein discovered, and reports at length in "Waldheim," is that Waldheim spent the rest of the war in the Balkans, where he served as an intelligence officer in Wehrmacht units that engaged in the torture, murder and deportation of Jews, partisans and civilian hostages.

Waldheim is depicted as a careerist and an opportunist who aspired to the Austrian diplomatic corps--he decorated his resume with what he believed to be useful entries, and left off the ones that might be embarrassing later on. He did not join the Nazi Party, but he did enroll in the Cavalry Corps of the S.A. (the storm-troop movement or Brownshirts)--which he later characterized as a sports club. Always resourceful, and not above lying to gain an advantage, Waldheim survived the rigors of the war in a position to promote himself in post-war Austrian politics. For instance, as a translator attached to the Wehrmacht, Waldheim put his budding diplomatic skills to use as liaison between the Nazi and Italian armies--and, on at least one occasion, Waldheim intentionally mis-translated the angry remarks of a German officer to avoid a confrontation.

Herzstein also gives us the long-hidden details of Waldheim's service as an intelligence officer in the Balkans. Although Waldheim has always claimed utter ignorance of the atrocities committed by his comrades-in-arms, Herzstein demonstrates that Waldheim gathered, analyzed and reported the particulars of various German military units that participated in massacres, mass deportations, interrogations under torture and other war crimes, including the extermination of the Jews of Greece and the Balkans.

"Whether he knew about the Holocaust or not," Herzstein declares, "he played a small but necessary role in the smooth execution of Hitler's Final Solution. . . . Waldheim served as an efficient and effective cog in the machinery of genocide."

Herzstein pronounces Waldheim to be innocent of the most serious charges raised against him after the war. "Given what we know now, it is fair to say that while Waldheim assisted many individuals who fell into the war-criminal category, he was not a war criminal himself," Herzstein concedes. "Rather, he was a bureaucratic accessory to both the criminal and the legitimate military activities of his Wehrmacht unit." Waldheim, Herzstein concludes, "was a facilitator."

Waldheim continues to declare that he acted under the "compulsion" of the Nazi regime, and that he bears no guilt for his conduct: "Only very few people were able to tear off the chains imposed by this compulsion, with the risk of paying with their lives for it," Waldheim has said. "I was not one of them." But Herzstein insists on confronting the moral ambiguities that Waldheim apparently ignores, and thereby helps us to answer one of the most anguishing questions of the Holocaust: How did the German people--a cultured, civilized people--find it within themselves to engage in the systematic torture and murder of many, many millions of men, women and children?

"Waldheim was clearly not a psychopath like Dr. Josef Mengele nor a hate-filled racist like Adolf Hitler," Herzstein concludes. "He was--and remains--like many others, a well-meaning, ambitious man who simply wanted to get on with his career and his life. His very ordinariness, in fact, may be the most important thing about him. For if history teaches us anything, it is that the Hitlers and the Mengeles could never have accomplished their atrocious deeds by themselves. It took hundreds of thousands of ordinary men--well-meaning but ambitious men like Kurt Waldheim--to make the Third Reich possible."

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