Austrians assess impact of controversial election. Waldheim's likely win makes some uneasy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

``Austrians will not tolerate outside intervention,'' declared conservative presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim in his last appeal before Austrians went to the polls in the run-off vote Sunday. He was referring to charges by the World Jewish Congress that he was implicated in Nazi war crimes in the Balkans in World War II -- charges that, instead of alienating voters, have rallied Austrians to patriotic defense of Dr. Waldheim.

Preliminary returns showed Waldheim leading with 54 percent of the vote. Some protest was registered in a low turnout and in the number of invalid ballots cast.

In the last forlorn ad for underdog Socialist candidate Kurt Steyrer, one voter took a dissenting view. ``Last time I cast my ballot for Waldheim [in the indecisive initial election in May] because I felt sorry for him,'' wrote white-collar worker Margarete Strasser. ``In the meantime I have become convinced that a president must also be uncontroversial abroad. For Austria's esteem in the world, [Mr. Steyrer] is surely the best person.''

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Editor-publisher Peter Michael Lingens of Profil news magazine, disillusioned both with Waldheim and with the lackluster Socialist candidate, proposed a more radical solution: ``There should be a new category on the ballot with the caption `Neither one of them.' ''

In an acid commentary in Profil, novelist Peter Handke agreed. ``The Austrian people have a false reputation. They are said to be opportunistic, pleasure-seeking, forgetful, frivolous, dishonest, easy to influence,'' he wrote. ``A President Kurt Waldheim, like none of his predecessors, would be a pure embodiment of this false image of the Austrian people.''

By all accounts it has been a less than edifying campaign. As Waldheim heads for what seems assured election as the first non-Socialist president in Austria's postwar history, Austrians are tallying just how much damage has been done.

Ex-Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky may be wrong in saying that a victory by Waldheim would split Austria apart. Austrians have been singularly united with Waldheim in viewing (and rejecting) the accusations of Waldheim as accusations of all Austrians. Waldheim repeatedly tells crowds that he was only doing his duty as a conscript in Adolf Hitler's Army in World War II, like hundreds of thousands of other Austrians -- and the crowds regularly cheer him on.

But certainly the Swiss newspaper Bund of Bern is right in saying that no matter who the winner is in this election, the clear losers are the Austrians.

The campaign began three long months ago, when the conservative Austrian People's Party urged citizens to vote for ex-UN Secretary-General Waldheim as a man the world trusts. Then, when World Jewish Congress spokesmen accused Waldheim of war crimes, the conservative campaign switched -- very successfully -- to urging citizens to vote for Waldheim for just the opposite reason: to show foreigners that they couldn't push Austrians around.

This subliminal anti-Semitism occasionally turned explicit, with ``world Jewry'' instead of ``foreigners'' being named as the meddlers. And anti-Semitism also appeared in the increased hate mail that Austria's remnant of less than 10,000 Jews began getting.

Ironically, the very virulence of the charges against Waldheim made it easy for Waldheim and the Austrians to dismiss them as ``outrageous slander'' -- and thereby to ignore more basic questions about the conspicuous absence of Austrian postwar contrition for the Austrian embrace of Hitler.

For Austrians, the absence of proof that Waldheim personally helped the German Army commit atrocities against Yugoslav Partisans or aided the deportation of Greek Jews to their death has closed the issue.

The Waldheim accusations have thus not even begun to puncture the four-decade-old myth of the Austrians that they were only victims of Hitler's annexation and not themselves enthusiastic members of the Nazi Party and the SS (special police) and anti-Semites.

Building on this myth, Austrians never paid reparations to Israel and to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust as West Germany did, never prosecuted concentration-camp overseers and guards in court the way West Germany began doing in the 1960s, and never engaged in the anguished German soul-searching about the guilt of the passive bystander who tolerated the murder of the Jews.

So strong has solidarity with Waldheim been that the Socialists have not dared raise the broader issue of Austria's undealt-with past in the campaign.

Nor has the overwhelmingly conservative Austrian press gone beyond indignation over the allegations about Waldheim to face the broader issue.

Nor, by contrast to West Germany, has the younger generation here addressed the issue of the past.

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