Kurt Waldheim (born 1918) was an Austrian diplomat and politician who served as secretary general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1982. In 1986 he was elected president of Austria despite a controversy over his role as a Nazi intelligence officer in World War II.
Kurt Waldheim was born in St. Andrä-Wördern, a village near Vienna, Austria, on December 21, 1918. His father was a Roman Catholic school inspector and an active Christian Socialist. Waldheim's youth was spent in a country searching for identity amid domestic turmoil. During his years of schooling at the Vienna Consular Academy he was nonpartisan politically.
After graduation in 1936 Waldheim entered the University of Vienna and studied law and diplomacy. In 1938, three weeks after Adolph Hitler annexed Austria, Waldheim joined the Nazi student union, and later that year he joined the mounted unit of the Nazis' notorious paramilitary force, the Sturm-Abteilung (S.A.) or "brown-shirts." It was a membership that Waldheim later concealed. When war broke out, he was drafted into the army, sent to the Eastern front, wounded in the spring of 1941, and received a medical discharge. According to two autobiographies, The Challenge of Peace (1980) and In the Eye of the Storm (1986), he then quit active service, returned to Vienna, completed his doctorate in law in 1944, and married his wife Cissy before the end of the war.
But documents uncovered in the mid-1980s showed that Waldheim remained active in the Germany army until 1945, assigned as an intelligence officer on the staff of General Alexander Löhr, an Austrian who was executed in 1947 as a war criminal. Löhr's forces committed atrocities against Yugoslav resistance fighters and deported 40,000 Greek Jews to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Waldheim told reporters in 1986 that he was only an interpreter and clerk on Löhr's staff and had no part in war crimes, but intelligence reports and eyewitnesses indicated he was aware of the atrocities. After the war, the Allied war crimes commission ruled that Waldheim should be tried as a war criminal, but he was among 40,000 suspects whose files were sealed and given to the United Nations and who were never tried.
Postwar Political Rise
After the war, Austria was considered a victim of a Nazi invasion, and Austrians' complicity in Nazi war crimes was generally overlooked. Talented and ambitious, Waldheim advanced rapidly in politics. Late in 1945, he took a job in the Foreign Ministry and became involved in negotiations for an end to the Allied occupation. He became secretary to the Austrian foreign minister and rose quickly through the diplomatic ranks, serving for three years in Paris. When Austria regained its sovereignty in 1955, Waldheim was its first delegate to the United Nations. He was Austria's ambassador to Canada (1956-1960), then served four years in high posts in Austria's ministry for foreign affairs (1960-1964), and returned to the United Nations as Austria's representative (1964-1968), where he was chairman of the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (1965-1968).
In 1968, Waldheim became Austria's foreign minister. He lost his job in a change of government and returned to the United Nations a third time as Austria's ambassador in 1970. In 1971, he made an unsuccessful bid to become Austrian president as the candidate of the Independent party. Back at the UN, he became chairman of the safeguards committee of the Atomic Energy Agency.
United Nations Head
In 1972, Waldheim took over from U Thant of Burma as secretary general of the United Nations. His polished diplomacy and studied neutrality appealed to both the Soviet Union and the United States. During his eight years as UN leader, he promoted the ideals of world peace, justice, and human rights. With many new Third World nations gaining admission to the UN, Waldheim sought to lead by consensus. He put the United Nations back on a sound financial footing by reducing operating costs and getting dues collected. He led peacekeeping efforts in Cyprus, the Middle East and Vietnam. Waldheim was praised for initiating talks that ended the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but later drew the wrath of the American Jewish community for condemning Israel's 1976 raid to rescue hostages on a hijacked plane in Uganda. In his second term, Waldheim faced several crises which the United Nations had little power to resolve, including Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, the war in Afghanistan, the conflict between Iraq and Iran, and the Iranian hostage crisis.
In 1981, Waldheim sought an unprecedented third term, but lost to Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru despite the backing of the United States and the Soviet Union. He then became special Austrian envoy to international congresses and a visiting professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington, DC (1982-1984).
In 1986, Waldheim campaigned for president of Austria as the candidate of the conservative People's party, seeking to end 16 years of Socialist rule. During the campaign, the World Jewish Congress and an Austrian news magazine produced documents revealing Waldheim's Nazi past. Waldheim insisted he had joined the Nazi groups only because he wanted to protect his family. Many Austrian voters accepted his explanation that he was the victim of an international smear campaign, and he was elected president to a six-year term amid an angry eruption of anti-semitism. U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan called Waldheim's victory "a symbolic amnesty for the Holocaust."
Israel boycotted his inauguration and recalled its ambassador to Austria. The United States banned Waldheim as a war criminal. On February 8, 1988, a six-man international commission of prestigious historians found that Waldheim was aware of Nazi atrocities and did nothing to stop them, though he did not personally participate in war crimes. Waldheim resisted calls for his resignation and continued to insist he was innocent. Shunned by almost every world leader, he served out his term but did not run again in 1992. Waldheim's efforts to clear his name resulted in another autobiography, The Answer, published in 1996, in which he wrote of his wartime activities: "I did what was necessary to survive the day, the system, the war—no more, no less."
Further Reading on Kurt Waldheim
Much autobiographical material is included in Kurt Waldheim, The Challenge of Peace (1980), while his The Austrian Example (1973) cites the neutral role of his own country as a blueprint for world stability and international exchange. Building the Future Order (1981) contains a synthesis of Waldheim's key reports and speeches between 1972 and 1980. In 1986 he published In the Eye of the Storm: A Memoir and in 1996 he answered critics of his Nazi war record with The Answer. A critical look at Waldheim is contained in "Waldheim and History: Austria Recalls the Anschluss," The Nation (March 19, 1988) and in "Waldheim: the Historians' Verdict," The Economist (March 12, 1988).