A Brief History
On April 27, 1987, the United States declared Austrian President Kurt Waldheim to be persona non grata, meaning that although Waldheim was the head of state of a free nation he would not be allowed entry to the United States. Even more shocking, this same Kurt Waldheim had served as Secretary General of the United Nations from January of 1972 to December of 1981, in spite of having a past as an intelligence officer for the German Army during World War II in which he and his wife, Elisabeth, both were members of the Nazi party.
During Waldheim’s 1986 campaign for the presidency of Austria an investigative reporter discovered an inconsistency in Waldheim’s purported background data as told in his own autobiography. Waldheim had claimed to have served in the German Army during World War II, being medically discharged in 1942 due to wounds. Waldheim and his aides denied any involvement in the Nazi party, let alone any involvement in war crimes, but the World Jewish Congress, having been alerted to Waldheim’s possible Nazi background, began to investigate his past and reported that Waldheim had lied about his World War II service. In fact, it was discovered through captured documents that Waldheim had really been involved in reprisals against partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece, as well as being accused of involvement in mass murder. Waldheim and the Austrian government denied those reports.
As it turned out, the United Nations had post-war information implicating Waldheim, as did American intelligence agencies. Waldheim was also found to have participated in anti-Jewish operations as well. Oddly enough, Communist Party chief and leader of post-war Yugoslavia, Josef Broz Tito, awarded Waldheim a medal during Waldheim’s 1971 campaign for Secretary General of the United Nations!
By 1987, Waldheim had already been elected President of Austria, but the United States had found ample evidence of Waldheim’s Nazi background, where Waldheim certainly knew of and tolerated war crimes under his command even if he did not personally participate in those actions and decisions. The evidence against Waldheim was overwhelming enough for the US to put him on an “immigrant watch list” and refuse him entry to the United States. In fact, the American intelligence conclusion was that Waldheim had personally participated in war crimes.
Not surprisingly, Austria was notorious during Waldheim’s political career for ignoring charges of Nazi involvement and war crimes committed by Austrians during World War II. Despite Waldheim’s new found notoriety and the fact that he did not run for a second term as President in 1992, he was largely treated with honors, including membership in a prestigious Catholic fraternity (K.H.V. Welfia Klosterneuburg) and Pope John Paul II awarded Waldheim a knighthood in the Order of Pius IX and even bestowed on his wife a papal honor. Did we mention she was also found to have been a Nazi party member?
When Waldheim died at the age of 88 in 2007, Austrian President Heinz Fischer insisted that Waldheim had been falsely accused and was in fact a “Great Austrian.” Waldheim was buried with honors in the Presidential Vault of the Zentralfriedhof (“central cemetery”). Only Japan and Syria laid wreaths at his grave, as almost all countries spurned any honors for the alleged war criminal. In attendance at the funeral was the Prince of Lichtenstein, Hans-Adam II, not exactly a top tier national delegation! (Waldheim had actually asked that other countries not send delegations to his funeral.) Waldheim did leave a letter to be read after his death, apologizing for “mistakes,” though claiming he was not “a follower or accomplice of a criminal regime.” (Yes, he was.)
Certainly any person active in the war crimes of World War II is too old today to have any important political standing, so such scandals as an alleged ex-Nazi war criminal becoming Secretary General of the United Nations and then the President of a nation are now behind us. Still, the lesson that should be learned is vigilance against allowing a person with a sullied past to attain a position of power in the future should never be taken for granted. A free press and freedom of government information is always necessary for the people to learn the real past of political candidates. Censorship and government secrets are the enemy of public knowledge, or so we believe!
Question for students (and subscribers): Are you aware of any other war criminals that attained high positions of power? Do you believe Kurt Waldheim was really a war criminal or falsely accused? Do you believe freedom of information and government transparency is important to a free society? (Why or why not?) Please tell us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Rosenbaum, Eli, and William Hoffer. Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up. St Martins Press, 1993.
The International Commission of Historians (The Waldheim Commission). The Waldheim Report: Report to Establish the Military Service of 1st Lieutenant Kurt Waldheim submitted in 1988 to the Austrian Government. Museum Tusculanum Press, 1993.
Waldheim, Kurt. In the Eye of the Storm: A Memoir. Adler & Adler, 1986.
Waldheim, Kurt. Kurt Waldheims Wartime Years A documentation. Vienna 1987, 1987.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Fritz Basch of Dr. Kurt Waldheim (UNO Ambassador Austria), nominated as UN Secretary General, behind the desk, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license. This is an image from the Nationaal Archief, the Dutch National Archives, and Spaarnestad Photo, donated in the context of a partnership program.