Waldheim and Austria: coming to terms with the past

SINCE his election as President of Austria in June 1986, Kurt Waldheim has continually been in the headlines, notably of the American press. His war record as an intelligence officer in the German Army in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Italy has been scrutinized. He is suspected of responsibility for war crimes, including the rounding up of Yugoslav civilians and partisans and the deportation of Jews from Greece. He has been charged with omitting the facts of his military career from his autobiography, ``In the Eye of the Storm.'' The press has had a field day, and moral outrage has been accompanied by wildly flying rumors. Incriminating documentary accounts that have circulated widely have turned out to be forgeries. Finally, Dr. Waldheim has been put on the Justice Department's ``watch list,'' barring him from entry into the United States even though he has not been presented with any conclusive proof of active involvement in war crimes.

Meanwhile, an international commission consisting of historians has found that Waldheim, while not actually guilty of war crimes, was sufficiently informed about them to have been an accessory in their execution.

It is not my purpose here to make a case for or against Waldheim. I wish, however, to point out that he served amid a deadly partisan war in the Balkans. In this brutal and chaotic setting he did, as has been recently established, file an intelligence report stating that German reprisals for sabotage and ambush were failing to achieve any noteworthy success; this statement in itself was an unusual one for a junior officer to make. For the rest, to be sure, Lieutenant Waldheim was no hero. He acquiesced in the deadly course of his superior, an Austrian with whom he had a particularly close relationship. He certainly knew a great deal more about what was going on than he later let on in his memoirs; he falsified his wartime record to blur his awareness of war crimes.

While these lapses do not precisely add up to crime, they should no doubt trouble Waldheim's conscience. Furthermore, they might well call into question his fitness to serve as Austria's President. One wonders why, to begin with, the Austrians should have elected a man so flawed.

Yet the real issue is not Waldheim but Austria. Since Waldheim's election it has been repeatedly alleged that Austrians have been ``living a lie'' ever since the end of World War II; that Austria's view of itself as the first country to be invaded by the Germans is a phony one; that much to the contrary, the Austrians in March 1938 gave Hitler a frenetic welcome on the Heldenplatz in Vienna.

According to these allegations, Austria, unlike West Germany, has not ``come to terms with the past.'' These are sweeping indictments, indeed half-truths, that both sides, the accusers and the accused, have all reason to sort out soberly and responsibly.

Why question the fact that in March 1938, Austria was invaded by the Nazis? The preceding Dollfuss-Schuschnigg regime may not have been democratic, but its intent to stave off National Socialism cannot be questioned. Undeniably, the German troops were received enthusiastically by much of the population, and Hitler was accorded that frantic welcome at the Heldenplatz. But how many Viennese stayed away from that mad occasion in anger, despair, and grief! No doubt, many Austrians were dazzled by Nazism; but also an appreciable number went into opposition and resistance and suffered deprivation, persecution, and death for it.

The Anschluss was no love affair, but an annexation of one country by another.

``Coming to terms with the past'' is an intricate matter. It certainly includes the punishment of those guilty of active Nazi involvement, and many Nazis - though not enough - have been dismissed from their positions, and many culprits - though not enough - have been sentenced by the courts.

But the larger question here is, how can an entire people probe their national conscience? There must be a way to teach the young about the unspeakable bestiality that the Nazis lived and committed, without depriving them of the chance to start anew and build a better world.

This task is an enormous challenge that must be met. It may well have been carried out better in the Federal Republic of Germany than in Austria. It is not incidental that West Germany now has Richard von Weizs"acker as President and not a Kurt Waldheim.

There may be good reasons, then, for charging the Austrians with deficiency in coming to terms with the past. Doing so may make them think harder about their part during the Nazi era. But there is no reason for compulsively pushing the criticism of Austria so far that it becomes a humiliating and exasperating vendetta.

One wishes that the warfare against Austria would cease with Waldheim's resignation. Alas, this is unlikely to take place. Waldheim might have seized the moment of the commission report to resign, and thus done so with some face-saving, if not dignity, and also with some benefit to his country.

But he is an unusually ambitious man and, so it seems, exquisitely insensitive to the mood of the world around him. While he pretends to stand for the united will of his people, he is in fact divisive. Austria, having in the past four decades constructed a viable democratic state and society, is once again becoming a state comparable to what it was in the 1930s, in which opposite camps confront each other unyieldingly. Austria is bleeding.

The problems, constitutional and political, that would ensue from Waldheim's resignation are staggering. But Austria must be left to work them out by itself. No outside interference will help. Let us encourage the Austrians in their efforts to solve their moral quandary and their political problems; let us not badger them. Nothing would be more wrongheaded than to drive that country into despair, anger, and disarray. Kurt Waldheim is not really the issue. The issue is Austria, its past and its future. A continued vendetta against it would be everyone's loss.

Klemens von Klemperer is L. Clark Seelye professor (emeritus) of history at Smith College.

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