The Skeletons of Kurt Waldheim

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Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general and president of Austria whose reputation was tarnished by revelations over his Nazi past, died June 14, 2007 at the age of 88.

When I met Kurt Waldheim in Vienna in 1994, the Balkans were doubly at issue, a generation apart. Though I lived in the Austrian capital, I was spending most of my time covering the brutal fighting and ethnic displacements then racking a disintegrating Yugoslavia. Waldheim had served a painful term as Austrian President, marked from beginning to end by controversy over what he had done, seen or known as a young Wehrmacht first lieutenant in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in 1942. When his activities there first came under scrutiny during his 1986 campaign, Waldheim, who had served two terms as U.N. Secretary-General from 1972 to 1982, had battened down the hatches, saying, "I did my duty like hundreds of thousands of Austrians" during the war. The Austrians responded by resoundingly electing him under the defiant slogan "now more than ever." But the defiance faded after early 1987, when he was barred entry to the United States and became an international pariah. After six years as a lonely captive of the Hofburg, valiantly protesting his innocence but rarely invited anywhere, he had declined to run for a second term in 1992. He would live a wealthy but constrained existence for another 15 years, until his death on Thursday.

When I went to visit Waldheim in 1994, he was ensconced in his opulent offices at the Austrian League for the United Nations — but he was still under siege. Freedom of Information Act requests had pried open the 1987 Washington report that put Waldheim on the Justice Department's "watch list." The document placed him in Banja Luka in the summer of 1942, when the Nazis had rounded up the city's Jews and the Wehrmacht was fighting an anti-partisan offensive in the Kozara Mountains to the north. Reprisal killings against civilians were part of the Germans' brutal efforts to quell armed dissent in the region. The report didn't prove any direct personal responsibility of Waldheim, who was serving as a quartermaster's deputy, but its author, Neal Sher, argued that "one doesn't have to pull the trigger to be implemented in crimes." Waldheim was having none of that: "unfounded allegations and accusations, with no proof given," he told me.

The question of guilt in a command structure is no less complex now than it was then; Waldheim was no card-carrying Nazi, but he had been an officer in a unit that had a very dirty war in the Balkans. His clean-vest spiel particularly rankled me because I'd been spending a fair amount of time in Banja Luka myself. Less than a year before my interview with Waldheim, the city's principal mosque had been totally razed by Serbs, and most of the Muslim population driven out of the city. In the summer of 1992, Serbs in Banja Luka had taken me on a bizarre tour of the camps further west where they held Muslim prisoners. The cruelty of the conflict, the suffering of thousands languishing in refugee camps, had already left a permanent mark on me. Could the conflict have been any less gutting in 1942?

Apparently so, for in his memoirs — the English translation of which bears the weirdly exculpatory title In the Eye of the Storm — Waldheim had simply skipped over his three years of military service in the Balkans. I couldn't fathom how anyone's experiences in a time and place like that could fail to figure in any honest account of a life. When Waldheim made a point of showing me that he was reading Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List — the movie had been released there just a week or so before our interview — I developed a strong sense that we'd talked long enough.

The true depth of Waldheim's involvement in Banja Luka and elsewhere in the Balkans may never be known for certain. By the end of his life he'd regretted having referred to his military service there as a duty done, and he acknowledged that it was a mistake to have excised the Balkans from his memoirs. More importantly, and largely as a result of what will always be known as the Waldheim Affair, Austria finally got beyond its mythic self-image as the first victim of National Socialism and faced up to its own share of responsibility in Hitler's assault on human values. Waldheim was an ambiguous marker on that road to a broader truth.