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Kurt Waldheim, 88; former U.N. chief who hid his Nazi past

June 15, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

Kurt Waldheim, the erudite diplomat who served as U.N. secretary-general and Austria's president but left the world stage a pariah after his Nazi past was exposed, died Thursday. He was 88.

Austrian state media said Waldheim, who was hospitalized last month with a fever-causing infection, died of heart failure in Vienna.

The case that defined the legacy and memory of the longtime diplomat was built around a grainy black-and-white photograph that showed a young Waldheim -- tall, lean and uniformed -- as he fought for a Nazi army unit blamed for wartime atrocities in the Balkans. Other pieces of evidence included logs and intelligence reports, purportedly bearing his signature, describing mass deportations of Greek Jews to death camps.

The controversy surrounding Waldheim was particularly problematic for Austria, forcing a tardy reckoning of the nation's complicity in Nazi crimes. Austria had continued to portray itself as a victim of the Third Reich, rather than its collaborator, long after Germany was paying reparations and banning neo-Nazi groups.

Waldheim's initial denial of his Nazi past and obfuscation mirrored that of a nation. And although the scandal around him kicked up new poisonous clouds of anti-Semitism, when he finally left public life, in disgrace, Austria also began a slow process of recognizing its sins.

Waldheim had risen to the pinnacle of international diplomacy and was running for president of Austria when his past caught up with him. He went on to win the presidency in 1986, and less than a year later, the U.S. government formally barred him from entering the country, citing evidence it said showed that he had "assisted or otherwise participated" in the persecution of Allied prisoners, Yugoslav partisans, Jews and other civilians. The U.S. ban was never lifted.

For much of his adulthood, Waldheim claimed that he was drafted into the German army after Adolf Hitler occupied Austria but sat out most of the war, attending law school in Vienna, because of a shrapnel wound he suffered on the Eastern Front in 1941. That claim was repeated in two autobiographies and routinely to journalists. Eventually, though, he was forced to acknowledge that he continued in the military as an intelligence officer, stationed from 1942 to 1945 in Greece and Yugoslavia -- sites of some of the most horrendous massacres of the war.

Still, he denied any role in war crimes. Only after a blue-ribbon historical commission concluded in 1988 that Waldheim knew about and failed to prevent deportations and other atrocities did the former United Nations secretary-general admit that he knew what the Nazi regime was doing. Even then, he evaded moral responsibility.

"To deduce that knowledge constitutes some kind of crime is simply not correct," he told an Austrian television interviewer.

Nearly a decade later, he brought himself to accept that lying about his past was wrong. Beyond that, though, he continued to deny an active role in widespread executions and abuse and blamed his downfall on a conspiracy by American Jews.

"As a member of the German army, I did what was necessary to survive the day, the system, the war -- no more, no less," he wrote in the 1996 book, "The Answer."

Kurt Waldheim was born in a village outside Vienna on Dec. 21, 1918, the eldest son of a conservative Roman Catholic school inspector. Despite his humble beginnings, Waldheim was able to pursue university studies in law and diplomacy in Vienna. He was there when Hitler's forces invaded and annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss.

Waldheim's father, Walther, was briefly jailed because of his anti-Nazi views and stripped of his job. Later investigations showed that Kurt Waldheim, despite claims that he never belonged to any Nazi organization, apparently joined a Nazi student union three weeks after the Anschluss and then ran with the so-called brownshirts, a Nazi paramilitary group. At one point, years later, Waldheim told an interviewer that he had joined merely to shield his family, a tactic adopted by many living under Nazi occupation.

In 1939, Waldheim was drafted into the German Wehrmacht. As is now known, he fought on the Eastern Front until he was wounded in December 1941. After recovering, he returned to active duty in the spring of 1942 and was seconded to the service of Gen. Alexander Lohr, a fellow Austrian who led a string of brutal campaigns against Yugoslav partisans and dispatched some 40,000 Greek Jews to Auschwitz. Entire villages were wiped out by Lohr's men. After the war, Lohr was condemned and executed as a war criminal.

Waldheim's precise involvement in these brutalities would be a matter of debate and investigation for years to come. In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, an Allied war crimes commission recommended that he be tried as a war criminal. But for whatever reason, he and thousands of others eluded prosecution in the chaos of postwar Europe.

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