Waldheim, Kurt (b. 1918)

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WALDHEIM, KURT (b. 1918)


Austrian diplomat and politician.

History will remember Kurt Waldheim as much or more for his hidden past as for his career as a diplomat and Austrian politician. Born in Sankt Andrä-Wördern on 21 December 1918 in an Austria reduced to its German-speaking regions, Kurt Watzlawik grew up in a petty bourgeois family in the province of Tulln. His father, of Czech origins, a fervent supporter of the Christian Socialists and a renowned teacher, raised his children to climb the social ladder. Therefore Kurt, after the Germanization of his surname into Waldheim, became a brilliant student, in languages in particular, at the Catholic high school in Klosterneuburg. The country's political crises, however, would affect his adolescence: a follower of Engelbert Dollfuss and then Kurt von Schuschnigg, as a young graduate he joined the Austrian army in 1936, and after leaving it took up a diplomatic career (with the Consular Academy of Vienna).

In 1938 the Anschluss of Austria and Germany exposed the Waldheims, who supported the Christian Socialists, to special surveillance by the Nazi authorities. Kurt managed to complete his studies at the academy, where he submitted to the Gleichschaltung (enforced political conformity): membership in the Nazi Student Association, in the SA (which he would later deny), and in the SA Cavalry Corps. After finishing his studies in 1939 he enlisted in the Wehrmacht and left for war, where as a second lieutenant he participated in the occupation of the Sudetenland, and the French and Soviet campaigns. After he was wounded in 1941 he returned to Austria, but from 1942 to 1945 he rejoined the Wehrmacht as a liaison officer in Yugoslavia during the offensives against the Yugoslav partisans and the accompanying massacres, as well as in Greece as a lieutenant during the deportation and extermination of the Greek Jews. Indeed in 1947 the Yugoslavian government placed him on its list of war criminals.

After the war he received his doctorate in law from the University of Vienna and launched a brilliant career as a diplomat, holding positions that included: first secretary to the Austrian delegation in Paris (1948–1951), chief of staff for the Austrian minister of foreign affairs (1951–1955), Austrian permanent observer at the United Nations (1955–1956), chief of the Austrian mission to the UN (1964–1968), permanent representative for Austria at the UN (1970–1971), and finally UN secretary-general (1972–1981). The People's Republic of China vetoed a third term for him in the latter position.

Secretary-General Waldheim's priorities consisted primarily of peaceful conflict resolution using peacekeeping operations (in Cyprus, Namibia, Guinea, and above all the Middle East); the development of humanitarian activities (in the Sudan-Sahel region, Bangladesh, and Nicaragua); and narrowing the gap between the world's rich and poor.

Under the banner of the Österreichische Volkspartei, he launched a domestic political career as well. As foreign affairs minister (1968–1970), he contributed to the concluding of the Südtirolpaketes ("South Tyrol package") with Italy and strengthened relations with the European Community. In 1971 he lost a bid for the presidency to the incumbent Social Democrat, Franz Jonas.

He ran for president again in 1986 based on his prestige as an international diplomat, but the magazine Profil revealed the gaps and silences in his recently published autobiography, Im Glaspalast der Weltpolitik (1985), concerning his beliefs during the Nazi period: he had suppressed the fact of his membership in Nazi organizations and his actions as a staff officer in Thessalonica. Under growing pressure from the World Jewish Congress and the revelation of increasingly compromising documents, candidate Waldheim issued a denial: "Ich habe im Krieg nichts anderes getan also hunderttausende Österreicher auch, nämlich meine Pflicht also Soldat erfüllt" ("During the war, I didn't do anything else than fulfilling my duty as a soldier, as did hundreds of thousands of Austrians as well"). From that moment forward the political dispute was dubbed the "Waldheim affair," spotlighting the peculiar relationship Austria entertained with its past: Waldheim's justification of his actions in the name of duty contradicted the official line held by numerous governments to the effect that Austria had been the first victim of Adolf Hitler's policies, the founding myth of a Second Republic born from the sufferings of the victims, and the heroism of the anti-Nazi Resistance.

The public's enormous support for Waldheim showed how greatly the Opferthese (victimization thesis) had eroded in Austria during the 1980s: in the midst of a climate marked by the stench of anti-Semitism maintained by the largely pro-Waldheim media, he won in the second round on 8 June 1986 with 53.9 percent of the vote, a level of support rarely achieved by previous candidates. The pressure continued, however, and the Austrian government established a commission of international historians to investigate Waldheim's military past. Publishing its findings in 1988, the commission concluded that, though never personally involved in murders, as liaison officer Waldheim had been aware of them and relayed information that aided "cleanup operations" in southern Europe. Neither these conclusions nor the ensuing government crisis led to the president's resignation. Highly aware, however, that the country, which ironically called him UHBP ("Unser Herr Bundespräsident"), no longer considered him Austria's moral authority, Waldheim declined to seek a second term in 1992.

In the sphere of international affairs Waldheim's victory isolated Austria for a considerable period, making it, in the words of Heidemarie Uhl, a"'classic case' of 'forgetting' and 'repression' on the map of European memory" (p. 491). The United States placed the new president on its "watch list" in 1987, forbidding him access to its territory. Only the Vatican and several Middle Eastern states considered him persona grata.

Although the reexamination of Waldheim's Austrian military service in the Wehrmacht caused a weakening of the country's presidential powers, its main consequence turned out to be the late adoption of a sense of Austrian collective responsibility concerning Nazi crimes.

See alsoAustria; Occupation, Military; World War II.


Cohen, Bernard, and Luc Rosenzweig. Waldheim. Translated by Josephine Bacon. New York, 1987.

Herzstein, Robert Edwin. Waldheim: The Missing Years. New York, 1988.

Ryan, James Daniel. The United Nations under Kurt Waldheim, 1972–1981. Lanham, Md., 2001.

Uhl, Heidemarie. "Österreich. Vom Opfermythos zur Mitverantwortungthese: Die Transformationen des österreichischen Gedächtnisses." In Mythen der Nationen. 1945—Arena der Erinnerungen, edited by Monica Flacke. Mainz, Germany, 2004.

Waldheim, Kurt. Im Glaspalast der Weltpolitik. Düsseldorf, Germany, 1985. Published in English as In the Eye of the Storm: A Memoir. Bethesda, Md., 1986.

——. Die Antwort. Munich, 1996.

Fabien ThÉofilakis