THE books may never be finished on World War II. Kurt Waldheim's campaign for the presidency of Austria has shown how apparently closed chapters of history can suddenly reopen and make their demands upon the conscience of a world. For all the allegations made about Dr. Waldheim's Nazi past, there has been, as yet, no ``smoking gun,'' no definitive evidence that he is guilty as charged.
But his continual revision of his own account of what he was doing during those critical war years, in the midst of Nazi repression, indicates a lack of forthrightness that makes regrettable the result of Sunday's vote, which gave Waldheim a nearly 54 percent majority.
No doubt some Austrians were annoyed at all the attention their presidential election attracted from around the globe. But the idea of standards of conduct that all members of the club of nations have a responsibility to uphold is central to the concept of civilization -- and indeed, of the United Nations, where Waldheim served as secretary-general.
Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, seeing in conservative candidate Waldheim's victory an erosion of support for his own Socialist Party, has resigned. International response further illustrates the political implications of the matter. Israel has felt compelled to recall its ambassador to Vienna. There are already pressures to keep Waldheim out of the United States, athough diplomatic protocol would make it impossible to ban a head of state.
A sense of proportion toward Waldheim would weigh in the balance his UN and other public service. But where the evils of Nazism -- a scourge not only against the Jews but the whole civilized world -- may be involved, scrutiny must be exacting.
The Waldheim case has forced Austria to confront its wartime past as it has not had to do before this. That past includes those who embraced Nazism as well as those who died fighting it. Honoring the best in Austria requires regretting this week's election.