May 22, 1943. Podgorica, Yugoslavia. From left to right, Italian Cdmr. Escola Roncagli; Waldheim; German Col. Hans Herbert Macholtz and General of the 7th SS-Division, General Artur Phelps.
In 1986, four years after his tenure as the UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim made a bid to lead his native Austria. During his presidential campaign, the press released documents indicating that he had, contrary to his claims, been aware of and perhaps involved in war crimes, including the deportation of Jews to death camps when Waldheim was a lieutenant in the German army during World War II. For decades, the charming, worldly diplomat insisted that by serving in the German Army, he was protecting his family; and that he never even knew that the Jews of Salonika — who accounted for one third of the city’s population — were being shipped off to Auschwitz.
But as an adjutant on the staff of Alexander Löhr, an Austrian General who was executed for war crimes, Waldheim must have known more than he admitted. Waldheim nonetheless denounced the scandal as a conspiracy to defame Austria, and as directly motivated by the UN’s denunciation of Zionism as racism during his tenure. Selective memory, on Waldheim’s part and on many Austrians’ part, would prove to be very dangerous indeed: some of his own generation felt that he was, like them, simply a man who had been conscripted into the Nazi German army and forced to serve. His utterances, “Ich kann mich nicht erinnern” (“I cannot remember”) and “Ich habe nur meine Pflicht getan” (“I only did my duty”) resonated. They saw the attack on him as an attack on Austria. They did not want outsiders telling them whom they could or could not vote for. For many Austrians, Waldheim’s tales — no matter how tall they seemed to outsiders — aligned with their own recollections, and he won the election in a nation that remained unsure how to confront its demons.
While Germany bore the brunt of the blame for the Holocaust, other villains and collaborators slipped away unnoticed. In a country of less than seven million, there were more than 500,000 registered Nazis in Austria at the end of the war. Austrians were greatly overrepresented in the SS and among concentration-camp staff. Over 38% of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra were Nazis, compared with just 7% of the Berlin Philharmonic. Jane Kramer notes in her book Europeans (1988) that although most Austrians today have never met an Austrian Jew, polls repeatedly show that about 70% of Austrians do not like Jews and a little over 20% actively loathe them. A poll by the London Observer, conducted shortly after Waldheim came to power, revealed that almost 40% of Austrians thought the Jews were at least partly responsible for what happened to them during the war and 48% of Austrians still believed that the country’s 8,000 remaining Jews — about 0.001% of total population — still enjoy too much economic power and influence.
Media quickly termed the inability to remember what you did during the war “Waldheimer’s disease”. An international panel concluded that Waldheim was not guilty of any war crimes, but seriously cast doubts of his claims of ignorance. It also pointed out that he was guilty of lying about his military record. In his memoirs Recht, nicht Rache, Simon Wiesenthal, the Jewish Nazi hunter, devoted a whole chapter to the Waldheim affair, noting Waldheim was neither a Nazi nor a war criminal. Regardless, Waldheim became a pariah on the world stage. His European neighbors had shunned him, and in 1987 he was put on America’s ‘Watch List’ of undesirable aliens — a signal humiliation. Thus, he became the first leader of a friendly nation to be barred from entering the U.S. He decided not to seek re-election for a second term, and quietly faded away.