Waldheim asserts Nazi-free past -- interview

The controversy that swirls abroad about Kurt Waldheim's wartime activities has embittered the presidential campaign of Dr. Waldheim and his Socialist opponent, Kurt Steyrer. But the controversy is very different here than it is outside Austria; here it centers on what Waldheim describes as a slander campaign against him. Charges by World Jewish Congress spokesmen that Waldheim committed war crimes are given no credence inside Austria. And the broader question of this country's postwar reluctance to confront Austrian anti-Semitism and support of Adolf Hitler is not perceived as an issue at all.

In an interview about the whole affair on April 14, Waldheim first objected to some points in a recent article about him in The Christian Science Monitor, and especially to a caption that he said incorrectly described him as taking a lie detector test in an accompanying photo. (See correction, Page 2.)

He then stressed that he had no Nazi past and that his family had been persecuted and had suffered under the Nazis. He only got his peace when he was drafted into the German Army and could get away from Nazis and the Gestapo, he said. And he knew nothing at the time about the 1943 deportation of the Jews of Salonika to their death; after reading two books about the deportations, he says he has ascertained that he was not at his base on the outskirts of Salonika when the deportations occurred.

The questions and answers then proceeded as follows, in abridged form.

Why did you wait 40 years to explore this [the Salonika deportation]? Why in the 40 years since then didn't you take the trouble to find out about it, since this was in your area?

Why should I? Look, there was no reason on my side to talk about any military service or activity which was honest. I was in no way involved in anything of the kind they are accusing me of now because of the war crime files. In my book, for instance, ``In the Eye of the Storm,'' I make it crystal clear what the purpose of that book was: just to mention those more important events during the 10 years of my [United Nations] secretary-generalship. Out of almost 400 pages only 15 deal with my background as a child and [youth.]

In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake not to talk about these years?

Well, if I had known that it would one day create such a problem because of untrue allegations, I may have mentioned it. There was nothing to hide. I picked out just one event, the fact that I was wounded on the Eastern front, because this was for me a turning point. If I hadn't been wounded, I would have been sent back to the Russian front, and most of my comrades of that time died at the front or Stalingrad.

I understand the feeling which you have expressed a lot in the last few weeks, that you, and the Austrians too, were were victims of the Nazi period. What I've missed in the last weeks -- however fair or unfair the charges against you -- is any public statement by you of a feeling that the scale of suffering of the Jews was different.

Oh, yes, I did, I did make the statement. For instance yesterday -- I have said it already before, but yesterday Mike Wallace interviewed me and it was already broadcast yesterday evening at 7 o'clock in New York by CBS ``60 Minutes.'' I did apologize to those of my American friends who felt misled by the fact that I left out that part of my curriculum vitae.

But is your feeling that the Austrians were as much the victims of the Nazi period as the Jews were? Do you see an equation there?

You cannot compare this -- the Jews suffered much more. And I said in the interview yesterday that this was the greatest tragedy in human history; the Holocaust and the Jewish suffering is one of the most shocking, most tragic events in human history, and I'm the first one to recognize [this].

But I have also said, and I repeat it here: my family suffered under the Nazis -- not in the way the Jewish people did, and not all Austrians suffered -- I mean, I belonged to a family which suffered under the Nazis, but there were many Austrians who did not suffer. One has to be honest: some even welcomed Hitler, and those who welcomed the Anschluss [Hitler's annexation of Austria] were the ones who suffered under the economic conditions.

You see, the real tragedy, as far as Austria is concerned, was that the economic situation after the breakdown of the empire -- I was a young man at that time -- was so terribly bad. We had nothing to eat. The crown was devalued; if you had savings accounts, everything was lost.

This is understandable. I think what many foreigners have difficulty accepting is the way Austrians evaded the question of a co-responsibility for what Hitler did, after the war. There are a number of ways you can see this in comparison with West Germany. War criminals were not brought to trial here in the same way that they were in West Germany. Austria did not pay compensation to individual Jews or to Israel as West Germany did. Even today, there's not the same kind of education in the schools as in West Germany about this period.

Anti-Semitism certainly is much more openly expressed in Austria than in West Germany. Is this an area where Austria has to do some rethinking and have some more open discussion? How would you see it as president?

Well, let me first say, there is no anti-Semitism [in Austria]. There is not a problem in this regard. I think this is exaggerated by some media. In fact, the Austrians consider this as no problem. I think it is just not true that there is anti-Semitism.

Of course, if you have a man like [World Jewish Congress Secretary-General Israel] Singer who continues the polemics against me, and in this connection also against Austria, every second day, that angers the people, because they say after 40 years, or more than 40 years, it's time to stop this kind of polemics, especially if it is unfounded.

And I repeat, I fully recognize the horrible experience, the tremendous tragedy of the Jewish people. But I cannot accept that I am accused of being a war criminal just because I was an interpreter and liaison officer; it's a very low rank, you know, I was a lieutenant. I had no power to give orders of any kind in this regard. This is the mistake. I was not an intelligence officer.

There's a distinction that's often made in Germany, in looking back at this period, between guilt and responsibility. One cannot say that the Germans today, or the Austrians today who did not themselves participate in war crimes -- there's no question about guilt of these people. But there is a special responsibiliy that a lot of Germans feel because of the history of the Hitler period, to see that the same kind of indifference toward evil done to others not be repeated -- that is, the indifference to what was happening to the Jews.

Well, there is definitely no indifference in my family. On the contrary, we will never forget that terrible tragedy of the Jewish people, and others -- don't forget, there were many others who suffered tremendously under the Nazis. Definitely, this is such a historical tragedy that one should not forget it, and it will not be forgotten.

But I think one should not construct a collective guilt and collective responsibility; this would go too far. We do recognize this tragedy, and I have deep compassion -- I said that yesterday in the interview with CBS -- I have deep compassion with the Jewish people, and I think we should really see to it that we take every measure to avoid that such a tragedy is repeated.

This is one of the great tasks for the future -- and also to educate the young generation in a way that they do not make the same mistake.

The president of Austria, as the president of the Federal Republic, has a very important role of moral leadership. West German President Richard von Weizs"acker gave a speech last May, and I wonder if you agree with the things that he said. . .

I have read the speech.

The points were particularly: ``The genocide of the Jews is . . . unparalleled in history . . . . There was, apart from the crime itself, the attempt by too many people, including those of my generation, who were young and were not involved in planning the events and carrying them out, not to take note of what was happening. There were many ways of not burdening one's conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything.''

Do you subscribe to these words?

Well, I was very much impressed by the speech of President von Weizs"acker, and I fully endorse his statement.

It's a very impressive, important statement, and it was very helpful. I have read it repeatedly, and I think he has said the right thing.

Would you as president say this kind of thing in Austria?

I see no reason why I should not.

You see, I'm a Christian, a practicing Christian. I can tell you that that terrible experience of war was for me the most wretched experience, and I'm only grateful to the Lord that He gave me a chance to work for peace after that terrible experience.

If you think back, what that generation had to go through until the war was over, that left its impact on my life, and I'm grateful that I was given the opportunity then to work for peace and for reconciliation, for bringing nations together.

How would you work for reconciliation as president of Austria? This has been a very bitter campaign.

It is, certainly. But the first thing I would do, I shall do, is to reconcile our parties and to make sure that our people will again reunite, whether they are Socialists or conservatives or liberals. You see, I was always a man of negotiation.

Would you see a particular task of reconciliation with the Jews as being necessary?

Oh yes, that's very important, by all means.

And yesterday Mike Wallace asked me the same thing. I said I hope I shall be able to reconcile the World Jewish Congress; there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to understand each other.

I have made every effort, and I will continue to make every effort to clarify those points which they are worried about. I do understand their emotion. But their emotions are based on, with the exception of the fact that I didn't mention certain parts of my military life -- incidentally, I didn't mention my participation in the French war either, or in the occupation of the Sudetenland, I didn't mention this, because I concentrated on that one point which was so important for me.

That shouldn't be interpreted in a way [to mean] that I didn't care about the other tragic developments.

I must tell you this, if I didn't say it before, as far as the Jewish deportation is concerned, I was not present in Salonika. I want to repeat that, that this was something which my friends in America could not understand.

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