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Kurt Josef Waldheim (21 December 1918 – 14 June 2007) was an Austrian diplomat and politician. Waldheim was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981, and President of Austria from 1986 to 1992. While running for President in Austria in 1985, his service as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht during World War II raised international controversy.

Early life

Waldheim was born in Sankt Andrä-Wördern, a village near Viennamarker, on 21 December 1918. His father was a Roman Catholic school inspector of Czech origin named Watzlawick (original Czech spelling Václavík) who changed his name that year as the Habsburg monarchy collapsed. Waldheim served in the Austrian Army (1936-37) and attended the Vienna Consular Academy, where he graduated in 1939. Waldheim's father was active in the Christian Social Party. Waldheim himself was politically unaffiliated during these years at the Academy. Shortly after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, Waldheim applied for membership in the National Socialist German Students' League (NSDStB), a division of the Nazi Party. Shortly thereafter he became a registered member of the mounted corps of the SAmarker.

On 19 August 1944, in Vienna, he married Elisabeth Ritschel; their first daughter Lieselotte was born the following year. Son Gerhard and daughter Christa followed.

Military service in World War II


In early 1941 Waldheim was drafted into the Wehrmacht and sent to the Eastern Front where he served as a squad leader. In December 1941 he was wounded but later returned to service. His further service in the Wehrmacht from 1942 to 1945 (at age 24 to 27) was subject of the international dispute regarding his person in 1985 and 1986. In 1985, in his autobiography, he stated that he was discharged from further service at the front and for the rest of the war years finished his law degree at the University of Viennamarker and married in 1944. Documents and witnesses which have since come to light reveal that Waldheim’s military service continued until 1945, and confirmed that he graduated with a law degree from the University of Vienna in 1945 and that he married in 1944.

Service in Yugoslavia and Greece

His functions within the staff of German Army Group E from 1942 until 1945, as determined by the International Commission of Historians, were:
  1. interpreter and liaison officer with the 5th Alpine Division in April/May 1942, then,
  2. O2 officer (communications) with Kampfgruppe West Bosnia June/August 1942,
  3. interpreter with the liaison staff attached to the Italian 9th Army in Tiranamarker in early summer 1942,
  4. O1 officer in the German liaison staff with the Italian 11th Army and in the staff of the Army Group South in Greece in July/October 1943 and
  5. O3 officer on the staff of Army Group E in Arksali, Kosovska Mitrovicamarker and Sarajevomarker from October 1943 to January/February 1945.

By 1943 he was serving in the capacity of an ordnance officer in Army Group E which was headed by General Alexander Löhr. In 1986, Waldheim said that he had served only as an interpreter and a clerk and had no knowledge either of reprisals against civilians locally or of massacres in neighboring provinces of Yugoslavia. He said that he had known about some of the things that had happened, and had been horrified, but could not see what else he could have done.

Much historical interest has centered on Waldheim's role in Operation Kozara. According to one post-war investigator, prisoners were routinely shot within only a few hundred yards of Waldheim's office, and at the Jasenovac concentration campmarker. Waldheim later stated "that he did not know about the murder of civilians there."

Waldheim's name appears on the Wehrmacht's "honor list" of those responsible for the militarily successful operation. The Independent State of Croatiamarker awarded Waldheim the silver medal of the Order of Zvonimir with an oak leaf cluster. Later, during the lobbying for his election as U.N. Secretary General, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito awarded Waldheim the Order of the Grand Cross of Yugoslavia.

According to Eli Rosenbaum, in 1944, Waldheim reviewed and approved a packet of anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets to be dropped behind Russian lines, one of which ended, "enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over."


In 1945, Waldheim surrendered to British forces in Carinthiamarker, at which point he said he had fled his command post within Army Group E, where he was serving with General Löhr, who was seeking a special deal with the British.

Diplomatic career

Waldheim joined the Austrian diplomatic service in 1945, after finishing his studies in law at the University of Viennamarker. He served as First Secretary of the Legation in Paris from 1948, and in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Vienna from 1951 to 1956. In 1956 he was made Ambassador to Canada, returning to the Ministry in 1960, after which he became the Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations in 1964. For two years beginning in 1968, he was the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs in Austria serving for the Austrian People's Party, before going back as Permanent Representative to the U.N. in 1970. Shortly afterwards, he ran and was defeated in the 1971 Austrian presidential elections.

United Nations Secretary-General

After being defeated in his home country's presidential election, he was elected to succeed U Thant as United Nations Secretary-General the same year. As Secretary-General, Waldheim opened and addressed a number of major international conferences convened under United Nations auspices. These included the third session of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (Santiago, April 1972), the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, June 1972), the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Seas (Caracas, June 1974), the World Population Conference (Bucharest, August 1974) and the World Food Conference (Rome, November 1974). However, his diplomatic efforts particularly in the Middle East were overshadowed by the diplomacy of then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

In 1972 Waldheim refused to condemn a letter sent to him by Idi Amin which
applauded the massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich and said Germany was the most appropriate locale for this because it was where Hitler burned more than six million Jews. "It happened because Hitler and all of the German people knew that the Israelis are not a people who work for humanity and because of that they burned them alive and killed them with gas on the soil of Germany."

In a 1976 security council debate, Waldheim described the Israeli rescue of hijacked airline passengers at Entebbe, Uganda as "a serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state. "

Waldheim was re-elected in 1976 despite some opposition. Waldheim and then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter both prepared written statements for inclusion on the Voyager Golden Records, now in deep space. He was the first Secretary-General to visit North Koreamarker, in 1979. In 1980 Waldheim flew to Iranmarker in an attempt to negotiate the release of the American hostages held in Tehranmarker, but Ayatollah Khomeini refused to see him. While in Tehran, it was announced that an attempt on Waldheim's life had been foiled. Near the end of his tenure as Secretary-General, Waldheim and Paul McCartney also organized a series of concerts for the People of Kampuchea to help Cambodiamarker recover from the damage done by Pol Pot. The People's Republic of China vetoed Waldheim's candidature for a third term, and he was succeeded by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Perumarker.

Presidency of Austria

Election and Waldheim Affair

Waldheim had unsuccessfully sought election as President of Austria in 1971, but his second attempt on 8 June 1986 proved successful. During his campaign for the presidency in 1985, the events started that marked the beginning of what became known internationally as the "Waldheim Affair". Before the presidential elections, Alfred Worm revealed in the Austrian weekly news magazine Profil that there had been several omissions about Waldheim's life between 1938 and 1945 in his recently-published autobiography. A short time later, the World Jewish Congress alleged that Waldheim had lied about his service as an officer in the mounted corps of the SAmarker, and his time as an ordnance officer in Salonikimarker, Greece, from 1942 to 1943. Waldheim called the allegations "pure lies and malicious acts". Nevertheless he admitted that he had known about German reprisals against partisans: "Yes, I knew. I was horrified. But what could I do? I had either to continue to serve or be executed." He said that he had never fired a shot or even seen a partisan. His former immediate superior at the time stated that Waldheim had "remained confined to a desk". Former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky denounced the actions of the World Jewish Congress as an "extraordinary infamy" adding that Austrians wouldn't "allow the Jews abroad to ... tell us who should be our President.".

In 1994, former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky claimed in his book The Other Side of Deception that Mossad doctored the file of the then UN Secretary General to implicate him in Nazi crimes. These allegedly false documents were subsequently "discovered" by Benjamin Netanyahu in the UN file, and triggered the "Waldheim Affair". Ostrovsky says it was motivated by Waldheim's criticism of Israeli action in Lebanon. Controversy surrounds Ostrovsky and his writings and some of its claims disputed; many of which have not been verified from other sources; critics, such as Benny Morris and author David Wise charged that the book is essentially a novel.

The International Committee of historians

In view of the ongoing international controversy, the Austrian government decided to appoint an international committee of historians to examine Waldheim's life between 1938 and 1945. Their report found no evidence of any personal involvement in those crimes. Although Waldheim had stated that he was unaware of any crimes taking place, the historians cited evidence that Waldheim must have known about war crimes.

In an account of the controversy, Simon Wiesenthal states that Waldheim was stationed 5 miles from Salonikamarker while, over the course of several weeks, the Jewish community which formed one third of the population there, was sent to Auschwitzmarker. Waldheim denied any knowledge of this. Wiesenthal states:

I could only reply what the committee of historians likewise made clear in its report: "I cannot believe you."

Wiesenthal stated there was no evidence found by the committee that Waldheim took part in any war crimes, but was guilty of lying about his military record. The International Committee in February 1988 concluded, with regard to Waldheim's ability to do something about the crimes he knew that were going on in Yugoslavia and Greece:
In favour of Waldheim is, that he only had very minor possibilities to act against the injustices happening. Actions against these, depending on which level the resistance occurred, were of very different importance. For a young member of the staff, who did not have any military authority on the army group level, the practical possibilities for resistance were very limited and with a high probability would not have led to any actual results. Resistance would have been limited to a formal protest or on the refusal to serve any longer in the army, which would have seemed to be a courageous act, however would have not led to any practical achievement.

Term of presidency 1986–1992

Throughout his term as president (1986–1992), Waldheim and his wife Elisabeth were officially deemed personae non gratae by the United States. In 1987, they were put on a watch list of persons banned from entering the United States and remained on the list even after the publication of the International Committee of Historians' report on his military past in the Wehrmacht. He also was not invited to, and therefore did not, visit any other Western countries during his term as Austrian president. Waldheim therefore concentrated his state visits on the Middle East, the Vaticanmarker and some communist states.

Late life

After his term ended in 1992, Waldheim did not seek a second term. In 1992 Waldheim was made an honorary member of K.H.V. Welfia Klosterneuburg, a Roman Catholic student fraternity that is a part of the Austrian Cartellverband (ÖCV). In 1994, Pope John Paul II awarded Waldheim a knighthood in the Order of Pius IX and his wife a papal honor. He died in June 2007 from heart failure. On 23 June his funeral was held at St. Stephen's Cathedral, Viennamarker and he was laid to rest at the Presidential Vault in the Zentralfriedhofmarker (Central Cemetery).In his speech at the Cathedral, Federal President Heinz Fischer called Waldheim "a great Austrian" who had been wrongfully accused of having committed war crimes. Fischer also praised Waldheim for his efforts to solve international crises and for his contributions to world peace.At Waldheim's own request, no foreign heads of states or governments were invited to attend his funeral. Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtensteinmarker, a neighbouring country of Austria, was the only one to be present. Also present was Luis Durnwalder, governor of Italian province of Bolzano-Bozen. Syria and Japan were the only two countries that laid a wreath. In a two-page letter, published posthumously by the Austrian Press Agency the day after he died, Waldheim admitted making "mistakes" ("but these were certainly not those of a follower let alone an accomplice of a criminal regime") and asked his critics for forgiveness.

Media references

  • Waldheim is the subject of Lou Reed's song "Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim" from the album New York, in which he is criticized as a racist along with Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, and Pope John Paul II
  • W. G. Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn (1995; English trans., 1998) refers to Waldheim, though not by name.
  • As a much-heralded invited guest on Dame Edna Everage's talk show The Dame Edna Experience, a dignified "Kurt Waldheim" began a grand entrance, except that halfway down the staircase he abruptly fell through a hidden chute and disappeared: the band's fanfare stopped as Dame Edna explained she had decided at the last minute to "abort" Dr. Waldheim's appearance because it would have been "too political." The episode aired 12 September 1987.
  • A running segment on the Howard Stern radio show is called Guess Who's The Jew and features Fred Norris portraying a Nazi Kurt Waldheim Jr.
  • Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, in which Germany won the Second World War, a "Kurt Haldweim" is the third Führer of Germany, and parts of Haldweim's biography closely parallel Waldheim's.
  • In a 1988 ice hockey film entitled Hockey, The Lighter Side, former New York Rangers goaltender John Davidson is explaining his fictional goaltender school and as hockey highlights play he exclaims, "You'll have more shots taken at you than Kurt Waldheim".
  • In episode 3, series 2 of The Million Pound Radio Show, Andy Hamilton announces next week's special guest as Waldheim, "although he'll deny [his appearance on the show] in 40 years time."
  • In an episode of The New Statesman, aired in 1989, Alan B'Stard (Rik Mayall) attempts to blackmail an aged former Nazi officer, who complains that, "it's not fair; I'm living here in the tripe capital of Europe, while Kurt Waldheim is President of Austria- and he was beneath me!"

Further reading

  • Bassett, Richard (1988). Waldheim and Austria, Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0140130195


  1. Former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim dies at 88 - Haaretz - Israel News
  2. Kurt Waldheim, The Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2007.
  3. Report of the International Historical Commission of 8 February 1988, section on "Membership in National Socialist Organizations", as cited for example in
  4. see page 39 of The Waldheim Report. Submitted 8 February 1988 to Federal Chancellor Dr. Franz Vranitzky
  5. Walther-Peer Fellgiebel (2000), Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939-1945. Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 3-7909-0284-5
  6. Letter from Europe: Vienna, 20 June: The New Yorker
  7. Rosenbaum, EM with Hoffer W, Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up St. Martin's Press, 1993, ISBN 0-312-08219-3, p. 338
  8. BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Obituary: Kurt Waldheim
  9. Israeli-Ugandan Relations in the Time of Idi Amin by Arye Oded, Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)
  10. National Review, 9 July 2007, Vol. LIX, No. 12
  11. Voyager - Spacecraft - Golden Record
  12. "Discipline and Devotion", TIME, 28 May 1979 article. Accessed 1 December 2008.
  13. - Arts - Music - Charity Begins
  14. See Section "Military Service" above
  15. Simon Wiesenthal "The Waldheim Case" in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria edited by Dagmar Lorenz. pp 81-95, University of Nebraska press
  16. Simon Wiesenthal "The Waldheim Case" in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria edited by Dagmar Lorenz. page 91, University of Nebraska Press
  17. Kurt Waldheim | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited
  18. James L. Collins Jr. u.a.: Bericht der internationalen Historikerkommission, Schlussbetrachtung, 8. Februar 1988. (translated from German)
  19. "Former Austrian president whose term was marred by wartime service buried", Associated Press (International Herald Tribune), 23 June 2007.
  20. Speech of President Heinz Fischer (official text)
  22. : Words : Subterranean Homeland Blues
  24. Howard

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