The "Waldheim Affair" is the term conventionally applied to the controversy surrounding the disclosure of the previously unknown past of Kurt Waldheim, former secretary general of the United Nations, which arose during his campaign for the Austrian presidency in 1986. The affair not only focused international attention on Waldheim personally, but also raised broader questions relating to the history of antisemitism in Austria and the role Austrians played in the Nazi dictatorship and the "Final Solution." A concomitant of the Waldheim affair was the reemergence in Austrian political culture of the appeal to antisemitic prejudice for political ends. Employing a coded idiom more appropriate to "post-Auschwitz" political debate, the Waldheim camp (principally the Christian Democratic Austrian People's Party [övp], which had nominated him) helped construct a hostile image of Jews ("Feindbild") which served both to deflect criticism of Waldheim's credibility and to explain the international "campaign" against him. The central assumption of this "Feindbild" was that Waldheim and Austria were under attack from an international Jewish conspiracy.
Kurt Waldheim had enjoyed an exceptionally successful career in the Austrian foreign service after World War ii. Taken on as secretary to Foreign Minister Karl Gruber in 1946, Waldheim served in various posts abroad and in Vienna, including two stints as Austrian representative to the un, and was appointed foreign minister in January 1968 by Chancellor Josef Klaus (övp). His term as minister ended in March 1970, when the Socialists (spö) under Bruno Kreisky won the parliamentary elections. Shortly thereafter, Waldheim returned to New York as Austria's ambassador to the un. In January 1971, he was again in Vienna temporarily to run as the övp candidate for president, which in Austria is a largely ceremonial post for which elections are held every six years. Though he made a very respectable showing, Waldheim lost to the incumbent Socialist Franz Jonas and afterward returned to his post in New York. On December 22, 1971, Waldheim was elected secretary general of the un, and reelected to a second term in 1976. His bid for a third term, however, failed, and in March 1982, Waldheim, described by one journalist as "the most successful Austrian diplomat since Metternich," finally came home to Austria.
Waldheim's international prominence and personal ambition left few in doubt that he would run for the Austrian presidency in 1986, but it was unclear whether as the candidate of the övp, or as a consensus candidate of the two major parties. The övp hoped to draw maximum political advantage from Waldheim's candidacy for itself, without identifying him so closely with it that it would endanger either Waldheim's election as president or the hoped-for attendant political "turn." Then chairman Alois Mock pushed through Waldheim's nomination by the övp as a "non-partisan" candidate in March 1985, more than a year prior to the elections, very early by traditional Austrian standards. The spö, also conscious of Waldheim's electoral appeal, had not ruled out a joint candidacy until confronted with the övp's fait accompli. One month later, the spö presented Kurt Steyrer, then minister for health and environment, as its standard bearer. Two minor candidates, Freda Meissner-Blau from the Greens, and Otto Scrinzi, former fpö member of parliament and representative of the (German) nationalist far right in Austria, also entered the race.
The relatively uneventful early phase of the campaign, in which Kurt Waldheim was the clear front runner, ended abruptly in March 1986. Indeed, the Waldheim affair may be properly said to date from March 3, 1986, when the Austrian weekly Profil published documents first revealing details of Waldheim's unknown past. Profil 's disclosures were followed on March 4 by nearly identical revelations by the *World Jewish Congress (wjc), and the New York Times (nyt). The key to unlocking the evidence was said to be a picture published by an army unit, which placed Waldheim in Yugoslavia at a specific time and thus could unlock his wartime record. This gave historian Robert Herstein, who was commissioned by the World Jewish Congress, a place to begin.
Waldheim had always denied any affiliation with the Nazis of any kind, and, in both his public statements and in the relevant passages in his memoirs, had claimed that his military service ended in the winter of 1941–42, with his wounding on the eastern front. The evidence made public by Profil, the wjc, and the nyt suggested on the contrary that the former secretary general had been a member of the Nazi Student Union and that he had also belonged to a mounted riding unit of the Sturmabteilung, or sa, while attending the Consular Academy in Vienna between 1937 and 1939. Other documents revealed that Waldheim had been declared fit for duty in 1942, after his wound had healed. By the end of March 1942, Waldheim had been assigned to Army High Command 12 (which became Army Group E in January 1943), then based on Thessalonika (Salonica), and remained attached to it until the war's end. Army Group E, commanded by Alexander Löhr, was known for its involvement in the deportations of Jews from Greece and for the savagery of its military operations against Yugoslav partisans and their suspected civilian supporters.
For his part, Waldheim denied membership in any Nazi organization and offered evidence suggesting his ideological hostility to Nazism. He conceded having served in Army Group E, but denied participation of any kind in atrocities committed by units under Löhr's command, and claimed to have known nothing of the deportation of the Jews of Thessalonika.
The more general strategy pursued by Waldheim and his supporters was to brand the disclosures as part of a "defamation campaign" designed to inhibit his chances in the presidential election. Waldheim's argument ran along the following lines: the accusations of the wjc and the nyt represent a continuation of a slander campaign which the spö had been waging against him for some time. The Socialists or their accomplices had fed documents to the wjc and the nyt in order to damage Waldheim's international reputation, his main advantage over Steyrer. Such allegations were all the less credible, since Waldheim had been cleared by the Austrian secret service at the time he entered the diplomatic service 40 years previously. Moreover, during his candidacy for un secretary general, the cia, the kgb, and the Israelis all investigated him and would not have allowed his election had there been anything in the least incriminating against him. He had not mentioned his tour of duty in the Balkans in his memoirs, Waldheim claimed, because he had had such a minor function and also because his injury on the eastern front had represented a major caesura in his life. He also said that he knew nothing of Jewish deportations and had had nothing to do with other atrocities. But if Waldheim were to be blamed for such things, then truly every Wehrmacht soldier would also come under suspicion.
Although the Waldheim affair became an international media extravaganza, the principal source of documents relating to Waldheim's past, as well as his most vocal critic, was the wjc, an organization based in New York whose primary activities involve campaigning to defend threatened Jewish communities throughout the world and lobbying for what it perceives as the common interests of Jews. The series of press releases and disclosures of documents (24 between March 4 and July 8, date of the second round of the Austrian presidential election) by the wjc set the pace and largely the terms for the debate on Waldheim in the United States. In the early phase of the controversy, the wjc published evidence relating to Waldheim's membership in the sa and Nazi Student Union, which it believed amounted to proof of his "Nazi past." The material on Waldheim's wartime past the wjc first presented was patchy and inconclusive, but over the next several months it made public dozens of additional documents which helped complete the picture of Waldheim's various duties in the Balkans.
On March 22, the wjc published a copy of the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects (crowcass), a list compiled by the U.S. Army of persons suspected of war crimes, showing that Waldheim had been sought by Yugoslavia after the war for, among other things, murder. The basis for the crowcass listing was a file of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (unwcc), and this latter file was in turn based on a dossier prepared by the Yugoslav authorities and submitted to the unwcc shortly before it concluded its deliberations in 1948.
With the publication of the Yugoslav file, known as the Odluka, or "Decision," the debate on Waldheim's past acquired a far more serious dimension: allegations of war crimes had been leveled against Waldheim by the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission, and these had been reviewed and endorsed by the unwcc. The wjc's subsequent disclosures as well as the discussion on Waldheim's past in general were heavily influenced by this new discovery.
On March 25, 1986, the wjc presented the findings of Robert E. Herzstein, the historian it had commissioned to look into Waldheim's past. Herzstein had discovered that Waldheim had served as a staff officer in the military intelligence department of Army Group e and had been assigned to the Battle Group West Bosnia, whose troops were responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Yugoslavs in the Kozara Mountains in 1942. Waldheim had also received an award for valor (the King Zvonimir medal) from the puppet Croatian government at the end of this campaign.
The wjc continued to offer documents it felt corroborated the findings in the Odluka, and pressed U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to place Waldheim's name on the so-called "watch list" of undesirable aliens, effectively barring him from entering the U.S. In the international media, calls for the publication of Waldheim's un file were coupled with more intensive efforts to find a "smoking gun."
The issues involving Waldheim's possible criminality were in any event never self-evident. The possibilities for inferring something opprobrious about Waldheim's service in the Wehrmacht from his previously concealed "Nazi past" were legion, while the publication of the crowcass and the Yugoslav Odluka transformed vague intimations about his military duties into concrete juridical suspicion.
Embarrassing, if not necessarily incriminating, documents were surfacing daily, but there were few around who could reliably interpret what they meant. Moreover, merely keeping track of Waldheim's whereabouts in the Balkans was difficult: he had served in seven different posts in at least ten locations in Serbia-Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. The issue of Waldheim's possible war criminality was also complicated by ignorance about the practice of the Nuremberg Tribunal. On the one hand, much of what the Wehrmacht did to Yugoslav partisans was gruesome but "legal." On the other hand, the conditions under which an officer of Waldheim's rank and position could even incur criminal liability were narrowly circumscribed. Categories of guilt, complicity, responsibility, etc., easily elided, while the suspicious background to the compilation of the Odluka, which undermined if not vitiated the charges made in it, only became known later.
In Austria itself, Waldheim and his supporters continued to portray all new claims about his wartime role as slander, and Waldheim as the victim of a coordinated international "defamation campaign," initiated by socialists, led by the World Jewish Congress, and promoted by the international press, particularly the New York Times. In the course of the election campaign, the wjc became the main object of abuse, and the abundant political invective arrayed by politicians of the övp against it as scapegoat helped promote and legitimate antisemitic prejudice in public discourse to an extent unseen since 1945. Waldheim also attempted to identify his own fate with that of his generation and country by claiming that he, like thousands of other Austrians, had merely done his "duty" under Nazi Germany, an appeal which struck a responsive note among many Austrian voters. In the election on May 4, 1986, Waldheim polled 49.7% of the votes, just short of the majority needed to win. During the six weeks leading up to the second round, the Socialists emphasized their candidate's ability to reconcile a divided nation, but to no avail. Waldheim won the second round handily: his 53.9% of the votes was the largest of its kind (i.e., when not running against an incumbent) in the Second Republic.
Whatever actually determined Austrian voting behavior is open to a great deal of speculation, but the result was almost certainly not affected in any significant way by a negative backlash against the Waldheim camp's antisemitic wager. At the same time, the election does not appear reducible to a moral referendum on Waldheim or his past, for it is doubtful either that Austrian voters conceived the election in such ethico-political terms or that their votes reflected their respective moral choices. Dissatisfaction with government policies or the desire to deliver a protest vote for any one of several reasons seem to have motivated voters at least as much as a reflexive national spite or even antisemitic prejudice. What cannot be doubted is that Waldheim's diminished credibility and his perceived trivialization of Nazi atrocities (in the eyes of his critics, if not his supporters) did not cost him the election.
Contrary to Waldheim's expectations, interest in the unanswered questions about his past did not disappear after his election. Waldheim received no official invitations from any country in Western Europe, and some official government visitors to Austria even avoided traveling to Vienna, as protocol would otherwise have required them to pay a courtesy call on the Austrian president. Some prominent private individuals, such as political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf, also boycotted events where Waldheim would have been present. In April 1987, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was placing Waldheim on the watch list, further reinforcing his pariah status.
Since Waldheim's election, three independent research efforts, a commission of seven historians established at the request of the Austrian government, a panel of five international jurists engaged by British and U.S. television production companies, and a commission of the British Ministry of Defense, have illuminated Waldheim's wartime career in great detail, and none found anything in Waldheim's behavior which could implicate him personally in any criminal activity. Waldheim himself considered these judgments a complete vindication, and he and his supporters found the stigma which still attached to him incomprehensible.
Waldheim's diplomatic isolation was broken initially by Pope John Paul ii, who received Waldheim officially in June 1987, and Waldheim subsequently visited a few Arab countries, some of whose papers had defended Waldheim against ostensible Zionist attacks. Though in April 1990 the U.S. Justice Department confirmed its decision to bar Waldheim, an indication of a possible thaw in attitudes toward Waldheim came the following July, when presidents Richard von Weizsäcker of Germany and Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia publicly met Waldheim at the Salzburg Festival, where Havel gave the ceremonial address in which he, albeit, indirectly attacked Waldheim by speaking of those who distort their memoirs.
In Austria itself, President Waldheim did not become the kind of integrative figure he had wished. Waldheim was initially an irritation and embarrassment to many, and was even forced by opponents in the government into remaining silent at the official commemoration of jubilee of the Austrian Anschluss in March 1988. During the second half of his term, which ended in 1992, on the other hand, Waldheim's treatment in the press suggested that increasing numbers of Austrians had accepted Waldheim as president, even though he would never be accorded the respect and affection his predecessors had enjoyed.
More broadly conceived, the Waldheim affair symbolizes the postwar unwillingness or inability adequately to confront the complications of the Nazi abomination. It remains to be seen whether current infelicitous images of Austria's Nazi past will be supplanted by the more prosaic Trapp family pendant, or whether the Waldheim affair becomes the occasion for a more general effort on all sides to come to terms with the past. If so, then Waldheim may indeed be said to have performed an important function.
There were two collateral impacts of the Waldheim Affair. Simon *Wiesenthal, a citizen of Austria, refused to join the World Jewish Congress in its assessment that Waldheim was a war criminal. Always cautious before making such an accusation, he remained unconvinced. His hesitation was not shared by the *Simon Wiesenthal Center, which joined the wjc in pressing the case. It was rumored that this cost him the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to Elie *Wiesel that year. Secondly, the U.S. ambassador to Austria was a then young American Jew, descendent of a family that traced its roots to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and heir to a great cosmetics fortune. Ronald *Lauder experienced antisemitism directly for the first time. This experience aroused in him the desire to act affirmatively on behalf of the Jewish people and gave rise to his important efforts to rebuild Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe through the foundation he established.
[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]
R. Mitten, The Waldheim Phenomenon in Austria. The Politics of Anti-semitic Prejudice (1991); R. Wodak, P. Nowak, J. Pelikan, R. de Cillia, H. Gruber, and R. Mitten, ' Wir sind alle unschuldige Täter!' Studien zum Nachkriegs Anti-semitismus (1990); R. Seheide, K. Gruber, and F. Trauttmansdorff (eds.), Kurt Waldheim's Wartime Years. A Documentation (1987); H. Born, Für die Richtigkeit. Kurt Waldheim (1987); H. Czernin, "Waldheims Balkanjahre," seven-part series on Waldheim's Balkan year, Profil, nos. 49–52 (1987), 1–4 (1988); J.L. Collins, Jr., H. Fleischer, G. Fleming, H.R. Kurz, M. Messersehmidt, J. Vanwelkenhuyzen, and J.L. Wallach, Der Bericht der internationalen Historikerkommission Vienna: Supplement to Profil 7 (February 15, 1988); R.E. Herzstein, Waldheim. The Missing Years (1988); M. Palumbo, The Waldheim Files: Myth and Reality (1988).
"Waldheim Affair." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/waldheim-affair
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