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Sequels Running Out of Answers: Waldheim faces more charges

4 minute read
Michael S. Serrill

Evidence unearthed by the World Jewish Congress last month raised widespread suspicion that former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had concealed a Nazi past. The Austrian diplomat, who headed the U.N. from 1972 to ’82, proved an elusive target. While retreating from earlier claims that he had left active duty in the German army in 1942 after sustaining a leg wound on the eastern front, Waldheim made his participation sound cursory. He admitted that he served from 1942 to ’45 in the Balkans on the staff of General Alexander Lohr, who was hanged in 1947 for war crimes, but denied knowing about the Nazi atrocities going on around him.

Last week the barrage of charges intensified. At a news conference in New York City, the W.J.C., an umbrella group with members in 70 countries, alleged that newly uncovered documents indicate that Waldheim certainly had knowledge of, and may have been involved in, extermination campaigns against partisan fighters in the Balkans. Said W.J.C. General Counsel Eli Rosenbaum: “Waldheim ! is now an accused Nazi war criminal.”

He explained that the W.J.C. had asked the U.S. Justice Department to place Waldheim on a “watch list” of war criminals forbidden to enter the U.S. Since Waldheim is now running for President of Austria and is expected to be elected, any question of his exclusion could turn into a touchy diplomatic problem. The Justice Department has asked to look at the evidence.

Robert Herzstein, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina and a specialist on the German war effort, found the documents during a W.J.C.-commissioned search of the National Archives in Washington. Herzstein said he turned up intelligence reports counter-signed by 1st Lieut. Waldheim, one of which repeatedly used the words “cleansing operation,” a common Nazi term for executions and deportations to death camps. The document referred to a 1942 campaign in Bosnia that left tens of thousands of Yugoslav partisans and civilians dead. Waldheim was subsequently decorated for his role in the operation. Charged Herzstein: “Waldheim was a highly competent, upwardly mobile, politically reliable, high-level German intelligence officer.”

The W.J.C. also disclosed that it had found Waldheim’s name on a list of suspected Nazi war criminals compiled by the U.S. Army. In Yugoslavia, a newspaper published a facsimile of a 1947 document issued by the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission in which the government accuses Waldheim, along with 791 other alleged war criminals, of “murder, slaughter, shooting of hostages . . . and burning of villages.” Experts speculated, however, that the accusations were not substantiated, since the future diplomat was never formally charged.

The beleaguered Waldheim rejected the allegations as “pure lies and malicious acts.” He later admitted, however, that he was aware of German reprisals against the partisans: “Yes, I knew. I was horrified. But what could I do? I had either to continue to serve or be executed.” He said he never fired a shot or even saw a partisan. Indeed, his immediate superior at the time, former Lieut. Colonel Herbert Warnstorff, said last week that Waldheim “remained confined to a desk” during his tour. As for the medal he received, military historians support Waldheim’s contention that it was given to hundreds of officers, whether or not they were involved in combat. Says a defiant Waldheim: “Why should I apologize?”

Waldheim, 68, is running on the conservative Austrian People’s Party ticket in the May 4 elections. Last week Party Leader Alois Mock called the W.J.C. “campaign” against Waldheim a “base and improper intervention in Austrian affairs.” Former Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, himself of Jewish extraction, called the W.J.C.’s actions an “extraordinary infamy,” adding that in the election, Austrians “won’t allow the Jews abroad to order us about and tell us who should be our President.” Indeed, Waldheim’s popular standing has improved since the disclosures. A recent poll shows him leading his Socialist opponent, 43% to 32%.

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