Friday, June 15, 2007

Kurt Waldheim

Kurt and Jörg'l: Austrian rightwing "populist" Jörg Haider visiting with then-Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, 1991. Haider caused quite a stir in Austria and beyond in the 1990s with his friendly references to the Third Reich and the SS, but in the end he turned out to be mainly an egotistical clown who likes seeing himself of television. Waldheim was actually around during the Third Reich and was happy to give Haider's "brown" clowning a boost at the time.

Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1972-1981) and President of Austria from 1986-1992, died this week. The obituary articles about him inevitably rehash the controversy over Waldheim's involvement in war crimes during his days in the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War. As Austria's current Social Democratic Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer put it this week, Waldheim's campaign for Austrian President "led to many discusstions, above all in connection with the confrontation with Austrian history and the past of our country." ("zu vielen Diskussionen" geführt" habe, "vor allem im Zusammenhang mit der Aufarbeitung der österreichischen Geschichte und der Vergangenheit unseres Landes". - apa/red, no direct link available)

I could write a lot about the whole notion of "Aufarbeitung", which is really means in this context the processing of history in terms of understanding it and confronting unpleasant aspects of it. The "unpleasant aspects" in the case of Austria often having to do with the Third Reich. Austria was annexed by Hitler Germany in 1938 by force, although the Austrian army was ordered by its own dictator not to fight. The late Simon Wiesenthal said in an interview with Der Spiegel 04.12.1995, "The marching Germans on their way to Vienna were hindered only by women with flowers in their arms."(my translation).

But Austria was officially an "occupied country" in the view of the Allies, and so it was regarded differently than Germany during the postwar occupation. Partly but not solely as a consequence of that, Austrian views of the war in histories and the popular tended to portray Austria as more of a victim of Germany and gave little emphasis to the active and often willing collaboration of Austrians during the war. Waldheim's 1986 election campaign, which I'll describe more below, was a catalyst for a more public re-examination of those issues.

First, the history. Without delving too deeply into the sources here, the following is my understanding of Waldheim's issues from his wartime days. This should be an inspiration to me to get my papers better organized. Somewhere around here are a bunch of notes I took about the old boy around 10 years ago, but I can't put my hands on them right away.

So far as anyone was ever able to determine, Waldheim was never a member of the NSDAP (Nazi Party), although his wife was. Waldheim was in a riding club prior to the Second World War that was affiliated with the Party, prompting the quip, "Oh, Waldheim wasn't a Nazi, only his horse was."

But Waldheim was in the German Army, the Wehrmacht. During the war, basically every able-bodied man was drafted, with some exceptions for those who were considered to be working in other vital positions. The Wehrmacht was dissolved after the war; today's German Army is called the Bundeswehr, Austria's the Bundesheer. The Wehrmacht was not considered a "criminal organization" in the Nuremberg Trial sense. But it was guilty of some systematic war crimes, particularly on the easter front, not least of them delivering Jews under their control to Eisatzgruppen and Order Police that the Wehrmacht officers knew would murder them. They also resorted to gruesome tortures, hostage-taking and executions in the partisan war in eastern Europe, a gruesome tendency with which Americans have unfortunately had recent reason to again familiarize ourselves.

Waldheim served for a while on the eastern front, and there was some question as to whether he had served in units that committed criminal actions there, but that was never established. However, several events in his military career which could have involved him in war crimes were established considerably more clearly.

Waldheim did serve as an intelligence officer during the Wehrmacht's partisan war in the Balkans, which was gruesome. He was implicated in rounding up Jews in Salonika, Greece, for deportation. His unit was involved in a notorious massacre at KozaraHe apparently helped round up civilians in Montenegro in areas sympathetic to the partisans to be sent to camps. And he is very likely to have participated in interrogations of captured British paratroopers who were executed after the interrogations. And, as the Italian front collapsed before the Allies, Waldheim played a key role in sending members of the demobilized Italian 11th Army to slave labor camps.

From what I know of it, this last incident is the most solidly documented and that was a criminal action. But any of them could have involved Waldheim in war crimes.

There's a question here of degrees of certainty. (I served on a jury this past week so weighing of evidence is particularly on my mind!) It was never clear to me that any of these incidents were so thoroughly documented - with the likely exception of the Italian soldiers' deportation - that a prosecutor could have shown that Waldheim was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of war crimes. Having said that, though, another apa/red story that also has no direct Web link quotes Neal Sher from the Justice Department's Special Investigation Division this week saying that there would have been sufficient evidence for a war crimes prosecution against him.

But historical standards are different. And from what I know, I believe that he was actually a guilty participant in those incidents that I've mentioned.

I was about to add that I wouldn't want to have a President that had been involved in such crimes. But that would just sound bizarre coming from an American in 2007. After all, today Austria has Heinz Fischer as President and Alfred Gusenbauer as Chancellor. We have George Bush and Dick Cheney. Let's put it this way. It's perfectly legitimate for me to criticize Kurt Waldheim's action of 60+ years ago. And it's fine by me if Austrians (or pretty much anyone else for that matter) want to criticize crimes committed by our current American leaders. Because they are serious. I try to make a regular practice of criticizing them, myself.

When Waldheim ran for Austrian President in 1986 with the support of his party, the ÖVP (the People's Party, conservative Christian Democrats), the SPÖ (Social Democrats, then called the Socialist Party) supported Kurt Steyrer against him. Waldheim had a good shot at winning according to the polls, although he had also run with the ÖVP's backing in 1991 and lost. He was known as a distinguished diplomat and projected animage that Austrian at that time understandably liked the world to see. He looked like a Statesman with a capital "S", in other words. (Well, all vowels in German or capitalized, but I'm using an English saying.)

But instead of slinging their own dirt, the SPÖ alerted the World Jewish Congress (WJC) to Waldheim's questionable Army record; Elim Rosenbaum, who worked on the case for the WJC, describes this in Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up (1993). This has always puzzled me. I've never understood why the SPÖ couldn't have surfaced these issues more directly. Getting the WJC, based in New York, to take the lead publicly wasn't necessarily the optimal approach. But it's what happened.

Once the WJC started surfacing issues, one thing led to another. Journalists, especially those at Profil, began actively investigating and more and more of the story came out. Waldheim denied the charges and campaigned from a posture of being the victim of slander from foreigners, Jewish foreigners at that. It's worth noting, though, that the WJC did pursue the story even though of the incidents I listed above as being likely true, only the Salonika one involved Jews.

The most famous slogan from the campaign was "Jetzt Erst Recht", which is usually translated "Now More Than Ever". In this campaign poster, it's accompanied by the slogan, "We Austrians vote for who we want."

Critics pointed out that "Jetzt Erst Recht" had been a slogan the Nazis had used in the 1930s in one of their Austrian propaganda campaigns after the country was occupied by Germany. American political junkies may recognize "Now More Than Ever" as a slogan also used by the Nixon-Agnew re-election campaign in 1972.

I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

One of the odd aspects of this campaign was that Simon Wiesenthal, the famous "Nazi-hunter" and ÖVP supporter backed Waldheim against the WJC's attacks. He eventually criticized Waldheim for not being more honest about what his actual wartime service had been.

After Waldheim was elected, the Reagan administration, which can scarcely be suspected of being part of any "Jewish conspiracy", put Waldheim on the "watch list", which effectively meant he was not allowed to travel to the US. Many other countries followed suit. Since Waldheim's big appeal was his previous stature as a distinguished diplomat, the fact that we was scarcely able to travel to other countries in his role as Austrian President was embarrassing.

Waldheim's successor, Thomas Klestil, caused a bit of a ruckus by leaving his wife while he was in office in order to divorce and marry his girlfriend. This inspired a joke: "What's the difference between Kurt Waldheim and Thomas Klestil? Waldheim isn't allowed to travel abroad, and Klestil isn't allowed to go home."

Incidentally, Klestil little family disruption was going on in the 1990s, at the same time that across the Atlantic, the American press was collapsing toward it present-day broken condition by pimping endless sex stories about Bill Clinton. Just as the brouhaha didn't much damage Clinton's popularity as President, Klestil was re-elected after his split with his wife by a large majority.

Although Klestil's background was with the ÖVP, he was so widely respected after his first term that the SPÖ didn't bother to put up a candidate against him. And Klestil distinguished himself as President, largely wiping out whatever embarassing traces Waldheim may have left on the office.

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