Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Waldheim ready for new attacks on past. Former UN chief tipped to win runoff for Austrian presidency

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 1986



Vienna

Kurt Waldheim was defiant. After a bitter campaign focusing on his wartime past, the former UN Secretary-General had fallen short of winning a majority in Austria's presidential election by a mere 20,000 votes.

Skip to next paragraph

With the prospect of a runoff vote June 8, Dr. Waldheim stood before reporters in Hofburg palace Sunday evening and offered no words of remorse that he did not win the vote outright. Instead he continued to portray himself and his country as victims of outside forces.

``There will be new fire, new attacks,'' Waldheim said, referring to the incriminating documents released by the World Jewish Congress. But his favorable showing in the election, he said, proves ``that my concept of the presidency has been accepted by a large number of the population, and I will continue to present these ideas.''

Waldheim has been accused of having knowledge of Nazi crimes during his service in a German command in the Balkans. Although his war record was criticized in this most emotional of election campaigns, Austria's Nazi past did not become a central issue. But the campaign did arouse a deep vein of anti-Semitism.

The runoff promises little change. Political analysts give Waldheim a slight edge over his Socialist opponent, Kurt Steyrer, a former minister of health and environment, who won almost 44 percent of the vote.

The Socialists feel squeezed by the World Jewish Congress. They criticize the congress for rushing forward with broad accusations without full proof. And they complain it transformed the Waldheim case into a direct assault against Austrian national pride.

But the Socialists did not raise the past as an issue in the campaign. Socialist Party officials explain that they did not want to antagonize the wartime generation.

A number of Austrian politicians belonged to Nazi organizations in their youth. Despite an active, if small, resistance movement, the country counted a half million Nazi members by the end of the war, a slightly higher percentage of the population than in Germany. That Waldheim belonged to a Nazi student union and served with the Germany Army in the Balkans, many Austrians believe, should not be held against him.

Austria never paid for its past as did the West Germans. Although Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 was broadly supported, the Allies proclaimed that Austria was ``the first country to fall a victim'' to the Nazi tyrant. Former Nazis, declared guiltless, were free to participate in the reconstruction of the country.

The positive side of this absolution was the creation of a political and social consensus. Instead of engaging in disputes, former enemies worked together. This absolution also offered an easy way to forget the past.

``At school, my history course stopped at 1930 and then started the next year after the war,'' says Hubertus Czernin, the reporter for the magazine Profil, which published the documents about Waldheim's Nazi past first. ``Since I never was taught about the Nazis, I'm not surprised Austrians reacted to my articles by telling me to be quiet, that we shouldn't worry about what happened a long, long time ago.''

But forgetting may exact a heavy price, even today. Vienna's Jewish community, more than 220,000 strong before the war but now numbering only 7,800, is scared. Some Jewish Austrians, young and old, are thinking of emigrating, says Leon Zelman, executive director of the Jewish Welcome Service. Mr. Zelman, along with other Jewish organizations and leaders, reports receiving hate mail.

While Waldheim has acknowledged the horror of what the Nazis did to the Jews, he has done little to defuse the hate. He rebuts charges that he committed any wrongdoing, explaining that his wartime activities in the Balkans consisted primarily of translating. During the campaign, he said that he and other Austrians who fought in the German Army ``were not criminals but decent men,'' doing ``their duty.''

Many Austrians of various political stripes agreed. During the campaign, some editorials questioned the World Jewish Congress rather than Waldheim.

Victor Reiman, editor of Neue Kronen-Zeitung, called the campaign against Waldheim ``an anachronism,'' saying Austria has nothing to ``overcome.''

Zelman, the Jewish leader, says that a Waldheim victory will help Austrians bury the past. ``How can we educate the young people here when their leader doesn't remember?'' he asks.

Others, however, fear a Waldheim defeat. ``Many Austrians would say it's the fault of the Jews,'' says Mr. Czernin. ``It would make it dangerous for Jews here.''

Ironically, Czernin says a Waldheim victory may offer the best hope for a positive resolution.

Waldheim's election would defuse anti-Semitism, he says. At the same time, other countries could embarrass the newly elected president by refusing to receive him. Already, a senior official of the United States Justice Department has recommended Waldheim be barred from the US.

``If the US bans him, then maybe it would change the discussion,'' Czernin says. ``Austrians would be embarrassed and they might be forced to learn.''