This week's display by the World Jewish Congress of a 1940s document with allegations of war crimes by Kurt Waldheim has added a new twist to the controversy surrounding the former UN Secretary-General. The latest move -- along with the Israeli justice minister's speculation a few days earlier about indictment of Dr. Waldheim -- increases pressure on Austrian voters in the June 8 runoff election that candidate Waldheim is tipped to win. If reactions to the charges leveled in the past three months are any indication, however, the pressure will have just the opposite effect from that intended and will win sympathy for Waldheim from anti-Semites and from voters who view the unverified accusations as intolerable meddling by outsiders in Austrian affairs.
Waldheim received 49.6 percent of the vote in the presidential election in early May. If he wins a majority in the runoff, he will be the first conservative-backed candidate to break the Socialists' postwar monopoly on the presidency.
The copy of a document displayed last weekend in Geneva by the World Jewish Congress (WJC) contains charges that Waldheim killed hostages as a conscript lieutenant in the Balkans during the German Army's brutal suppression of Yugoslav Partisans between 1942 and 1945. Waldheim's name was one of thousands that appeared on Yugoslav lists of suspected war criminals, which were forwarded to the Allied War Crimes Commission and were then deposited in confidential UN files for safekeeping. The Yugoslav government itself never prosecuted Waldheim.
Since the allegations resurfaced in March, Waldheim has repeatedly described them as lies and has attributed them to German prisoners of war in Yugoslavia (now dead) who wanted to save their own skins by accusing any military colleagues who were already back in Germany or Austria.
After the latest move by the WJC, Waldheim repeated his denial of wrongdoing to the Jerusalem Post and said, ``It should be clear by now that I neither gave any orders nor made any operational suggestions. All I was obliged to do was [to compile] the news which reached our post. I was never involved in any fighting operations -- and I have always told the truth about that.''
Last week Israeli Justice Minister Yitzhak Modai told a radio interviewer that under Israeli law there is already sufficient evidence to indict Waldheim as a war-crimes suspect. In a charge that was weaker than the WJC accusation, Mr. Modai said there was no evidence that Waldheim had committed atrocities himself.
In a break with the Israeli government's conspicuous previous restraint on the subject, though, he said that ``we have enough proof that he [Waldheim] in his capacity as an intelligence officer in the German Army in the Balkans would pass on information and descriptions that he knew, by virtue of standards in the Nazi Army, would and did lead to liquidation actions.'' Such acts could be construed as constituting ``war crimes,'' a loose legal concept involving undefined ``participation in'' the killing or torture of civilians or prisoners of war.
In his charges, the Israeli justice minister mentioned nothing linking Waldheim with the deportation of Greek Jews to their death.
In his rebuttal of Modai's allegations, Waldheim contended that the reason for Israel's pursuit of his past is its unhappiness with two events during his term as UN Secretary-General: the address of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat to the UN and the UN resolution condemning Zionism as a form of racism. Waldheim denied responsibility for either occurrence.
Vienna Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal has consistently expressed his skepticism about the more extreme claims that Waldheim was a war criminal. But at the same time he has consistently doubted that Waldheim could have been as ignorant as he professes about the fate of Greek Jews in his zone of wartime service.
If Waldheim does win the runoff next month, Austrians will face the threat that their President could be barred entry to the United States. At the request of the WJC, the head of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department has recommended that Waldheim be put on the ``watch list'' of suspected war criminals prohibited from visiting the US.
That recommendation is based in part on findings by Robert Herzstein, a historian from the University of South Carolina commissioned by the WJC to investigate documents in the US National Archives. From his research, Professor Herzstein has reported that Waldheim kept his Army intelligence unit's diary for a month and that in this period an order from Hitler was recorded that ``bandits captured in battle are to be shot.''
Herzstein also reported that Waldheim's unit must have known about Jewish deportations, since it fulfilled the request of another German Army unit in Corfu to pass along Jewish identification numbers to help carry out ``implementation measures'' for ``settlement of the Jewish question.''