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Kurt Waldheim, former U.N. chief who hid his Nazi past, dies at 88

By Tracy Wilkinson, Times Staff Writer,

OBITUARIES, From the Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2007, Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Kurt Waldheim, the erudite diplomat who served as U.N. secretary-general and Austria's president but left the world stage a pariah after his Nazi past was exposed, died Thursday. He was 88.

Austrian state media said Waldheim, who was hospitalized last month with a fever-causing infection, died of heart failure in Vienna.

The case that defined the legacy and memory of the longtime diplomat was built around a grainy black-and-white photograph that showed a young Waldheim — tall, lean and uniformed — as he fought for a Nazi army unit blamed for wartime atrocities in the Balkans. Other pieces of evidence included logs and intelligence reports, purportedly bearing his signature, describing mass deportations of Greek Jews to death camps.

The controversy surrounding Waldheim was particularly problematic for Austria, forcing a tardy reckoning of the nation's complicity in Nazi crimes. Austria had continued to portray itself as a victim of the Third Reich, rather than its collaborator, long after Germany was paying reparations and banning neo-Nazi groups.

Waldheim's initial denial of his Nazi past and obfuscation mirrored that of a nation. And although the scandal around him kicked up new poisonous clouds of anti-Semitism, when he finally left public life, in disgrace, Austria also began a slow process of recognizing its sins.

Waldheim had risen to the pinnacle of international diplomacy and was running for president of Austria when his past caught up with him. He went on to win the presidency in 1986, and less than a year later, the U.S. government formally barred him from entering the country, citing evidence it said showed that he had "assisted or otherwise participated" in the persecution of Allied prisoners, Yugoslav partisans, Jews and other civilians. The U.S. ban was never lifted.

For much of his adulthood, Waldheim claimed that he was drafted into the German army after Adolf Hitler occupied Austria but sat out most of the war, attending law school in Vienna, because of a shrapnel wound he suffered on the Eastern Front in 1941. That claim was repeated in two autobiographies and routinely to journalists. Eventually, though, he was forced to acknowledge that he continued in the military as an intelligence officer, stationed from 1942 to 1945 in Greece and Yugoslavia — sites of some of the most horrendous massacres of the war.

Still, he denied any role in war crimes. Only after a blue-ribbon historical commission concluded in 1988 that Waldheim knew about and failed to prevent deportations and other atrocities did the former United Nations secretary-general admit that he knew what the Nazi regime was doing. Even then, he evaded moral responsibility.

"To deduce that knowledge constitutes some kind of crime is simply not correct," he told an Austrian television interviewer.

Nearly a decade later, he brought himself to accept that lying about his past was wrong. Beyond that, though, he continued to deny an active role in widespread executions and abuse and blamed his downfall on a conspiracy by American Jews.

"As a member of the German army, I did what was necessary to survive the day, the system, the war — no more, no less," he wrote in the 1996 book, "The Answer."

Kurt Waldheim was born in a village outside Vienna on Dec. 21, 1918, the eldest son of a conservative Roman Catholic school inspector. Despite his humble beginnings, Waldheim was able to pursue university studies in law and diplomacy in Vienna. He was there when Hitler's forces invaded and annexed Austria in the 1938 Anschluss.

Waldheim's father, Walther, was briefly jailed because of his anti-Nazi views and stripped of his job. Later investigations showed that Kurt Waldheim, despite claims that he never belonged to any Nazi organization, apparently joined a Nazi student union three weeks after the Anschluss and then ran with the so-called brownshirts, a Nazi paramilitary group. At one point, years later, Waldheim told an interviewer that he had joined merely to shield his family, a tactic adopted by many living under Nazi occupation.

In 1939, Waldheim was drafted into the German Wehrmacht. As is now known, he fought on the Eastern Front until he was wounded in December 1941. After recovering, he returned to active duty in the spring of 1942 and was seconded to the service of Gen. Alexander Lohr, a fellow Austrian who led a string of brutal campaigns against Yugoslav partisans and dispatched some 40,000 Greek Jews to Auschwitz. Entire villages were wiped out by Lohr's men. After the war, Lohr was condemned and executed as a war criminal.

Waldheim's precise involvement in these brutalities would be a matter of debate and investigation for years to come. In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, an Allied war crimes commission recommended that he be tried as a war criminal. But for whatever reason, he and thousands of others eluded prosecution in the chaos of postwar Europe.

Austria was also getting something of a free pass from the Allies, who excused it from the payment of reparations and other punishments meted out to Germany.

And so, apparently in the clear, Waldheim entered the Austrian foreign service at war's end. Talented and ambitious, he rose rapidly through the ranks, and by 1955, when Allied occupation of Austria ended, was dispatched to the United Nations, taking a seat in an institution to which he would be repeatedly assigned in a long diplomatic career that included a two-year stint as Austrian foreign minister.

Despite resistance from new member China, Waldheim was elected secretary-general of the U.N. and assumed office in January 1972. He won a second term in 1976 and might well have gone on to a third had China not insisted on a candidate from the Third World, throwing its backing to Waldheim's ultimate successor, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru.

China's opposition aside, Waldheim had appeal for rival superpowers the United States and the Soviet Union, which viewed him as nonideological and noncontroversial. Or, as his critics at the time put it, pliant and passive.

"I'm happy I'm not an intellectual ball of fire," Waldheim told reporters who gathered in his opulently appointed Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan when he was first elected to head the U.N.

"I don't think you can solve the U.N.'s problems that way. What the U.N. needs is a quiet approach," he said. "A fireball can never be helpful in this situation. A secretary-general who is too much of an activist won't last longer than a year."

In those days, before the taint of scandal, Waldheim was often called the "dapper diplomat." Accompanied by his vivacious wife, the former Elisabeth Ritschl, he was the epitome of Old World aristocratic style, a gallant gentleman in bespoke suits who kissed women's hands, starred on the cocktail-and-banquet circuit and oozed obsequious charm.

An account published in the Los Angeles Times in 1971 described him this way: "Waldheim is very much the diplomats' diplomat: conservative in dress, elegant in manner and discreet to a fault."

During his tenure, he won praise for his handling of negotiations to establish a U.N. peacekeeping mission after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and during an unsuccessful attempt to mediate the U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran in 1980, he braved an angry mob of Iranians waving wooden legs and arm stumps (supposed victims of torture under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi).

But for many critics, Waldheim embodied their view of the U.N. as a toothless appeaser or a weak tool of the dominant superpowers.

Unable to win a third term as secretary-general, Waldheim left the U.N. in 1982 and served as a visiting professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington for the next two years.

In 1985, he launched his bid for the presidency of Austria, a largely ceremonial post that he nevertheless wanted to take from the hands of the Socialist Party, which had held it 16 years.

Then, in March 1986, during the campaign, Waldheim was hit with damning disclosures. The World Jewish Congress and an Austrian investigative magazine produced documents detailing his membership in Nazi organizations and his military service in the Balkans. The official Waldheim biography, which he had studiously maintained for decades, was a lie.

Waldheim did not challenge the authenticity of the documents and instead sought to explain his actions as the hard choices one must make during a reign of terror to survive and to protect one's family and future. And he portrayed himself as the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by "outside," foreign forces.

He apparently gained the sympathy of the Austrian electorate and won the presidency with 54% of the vote. International uproar surged, especially as the World Jewish Congress and American and European media continued to air new revelations about Waldheim's past.

It was reported, for example, that he had received a special decoration in 1942 from the Ustasha, Croatia's Nazi puppet regime, for "valorous conduct" in the brutal repression of guerrillas and civilians in Bosnia. (Croatia and Bosnia were part of Yugoslavia at the time.)

A year after the first allegations surfaced, the U.S. Justice Department took the highly unusual step of placing the sitting Austrian president's name on a "watch list," which prohibited him from entering the United States.

Among the deeds in which he was implicated, U.S. officials said, were the transport of civilians to Nazi slave labor camps; the deportation of Jews from the Greek islands and from Banja Luka, in Serbian Bosnia, to death camps; reprisal executions of hostages; and the approval and dissemination of propaganda calling for the elimination of the Jews.

The Austrian government, hoping to put the matter to rest, appointed a special historical commission to review the evidence against Waldheim. Its report in 1988 concluded that he "repeatedly went along with [the Nazis'] unlawful acts," "thereby facilitated their execution" and did nothing to prevent them.

A close political ally of Waldheim dismissed the commission as being full of Waldheim's enemies — "Jews and Socialists" — and thus not credible. The commission did not say Waldheim personally participated in the bloodshed, and he seized on that to claim that he had essentially been exonerated.

But for most of the world, Waldheim was ruined and discredited. He, and by extension, Austria, were ostracized and isolated. Countries refused to deal with him, and he was disinvited from numerous ceremonial functions.

He continued to maintain a few important friends, who in turn suffered for their association. No less a figure than the late Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter from Vienna, refused to label Waldheim a war criminal, although he was certain Waldheim knew more than he admitted. That position earned Wiesenthal the enmity of some Jewish groups.

And fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger invited Waldheim to his 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver, a month after the disclosures about Waldheim's Nazi past. Waldheim did not attend but sent a gift, prompting Schwarzenegger to give what participants described as a very emotional toast in Waldheim's honor. (Later, when he was running for governor of California, Schwarzenegger's aides said he realized that the invitation and the toast had been a "stupid" mistake, one that — had he known then what he knew later — he would not have committed. There was no comment or statement from the governor's office Thursday on the death of Waldheim.)

Pope John Paul II welcomed Waldheim to the Vatican in the Austrian leader's first official trip abroad after his election as president, a recognition that provoked anger across the Jewish world and in Washington.

Waldheim weathered protests abroad, calls for his resignation at home and even the cold shoulder of some members of his own political party. He refused to resign, but, finally acknowledging "years of trials, difficulties and disappointments," he chose not to run for reelection to a second six-year term.

"The controversy surrounding my person in and outside Austria often hurt me," he said. "Despite that, I tried to the best of my ability to remain loyal to my values and to serve my homeland."

He retired in 1992, never again to assume a public role outside Austria.

New U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew to Vienna and met with Waldheim in February; Ban's aides hastened to characterize the visit as "private and personal."

Waldheim's survivors include his wife, Elisabeth, and three children.

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