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Kurt Waldheim
9th President of Austria

In office
8 July 1986 – 8 July 1992
Chancellor Franz Vranitzky
Preceded by Rudolf Kirchschläger
Succeeded by Thomas Klestil
4th Secretary-General of the United Nations

In office
1 January 1972 – 31 December 1981
Preceded by U Thant
Succeeded by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
Personal details
Born Kurt Josef Waldheim
(1918-12-21)21 December 1918
Sankt Andrä-Wördern near Vienna, German Austria
Died 14 June 2007(2007-06-14) (aged 88)
Vienna, Austria
Nationality Austrian
Political party Austrian People's Party
Spouse(s) Elisabeth Waldheim
Children 3
Alma mater Vienna Consular Academy
Profession lawyer, diplomat
Religion Roman Catholicism
Military service
Service/branch  Austria - Österreichisches Bundesheer (1936-1937)

Nazi Germany Germany - Heer (1941-1945)

Rank Oberleutnant
Unit 5 Alpine Division Pusteria
Kampfgruppe West
9th Army
11th Italian Army
Army Group E
Battles/wars World War II
Awards Iron Cross 2nd Class
Medal of the Crown of King Zvonimir

Kurt Josef Waldheim (German pronunciation: [ˈkʊɐ̯t ˈvaldhaɪm]; 21 December 1918 – 14 June 2007) was an Austrian diplomat and politician. Waldheim was the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981, and the ninth President of Austria, from 1986 to 1992. While he was running for President in Austria in 1985, his service as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht during World War II raised international controversy.

Early life and education

Waldheim was born in Sankt Andrä-Wördern, a village near Vienna, on 21 December 1918.[1] His father was a Roman Catholic school inspector of Czech origin named Watzlawick[2] (original Czech spelling Václavík) who changed his name that year as the Habsburg monarchy collapsed. Waldheim served in the Austrian Army (1936–37) and attended the Vienna Consular Academy, where he graduated in 1939. Waldheim's father was active in the Christian Social Party. Waldheim himself was politically unaffiliated during these years at the Academy. Shortly after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, a 20-year old Waldheim applied for membership in the National Socialist German Students' League (NSDStB), a division of the Nazi Party.[3] Shortly thereafter he became a registered member of the mounted corps of the SA.

On 19 August 1944, he married Elisabeth Ritschel in Vienna; their first daughter, Lieselotte, was born the following year. A son, Gerhard, and another daughter, Christa, followed.

Military service in World War II

In early 1941, Waldheim was drafted into the Wehrmacht and sent to the Eastern Front where he served as a squad leader. In December of that year, he was wounded but later returned to service. His further service in the Wehrmacht from 1942 to 1945 was subject of the international dispute in 1985 and 1986. In 1985, in his autobiography, he stated that he was discharged from further service at the front and for the rest of the war years finished his law degree at the University of Vienna in addition to marrying in 1944.[4] Documents and witnesses which have since come to light reveal that Waldheim’s military service continued until 1945, and that he rose to the rank of Oberleutnant, and confirmed that he married in 1944 and graduated with a law degree from the University of Vienna in 1945.

Service in Yugoslavia and Greece

His functions within the staff of German Army Group E from 1942 until 1945, as determined by the International Commission of Historians,[5] were:

  1. Interpreter and liaison officer with the 5th Alpine Division (Italy) in April/May 1942, then,
  2. O2 officer (communications) with Kampfgruppe West in Bosnia in June/August 1942,
  3. Interpreter with the liaison staff attached to the Italian 9th Armydisambiguation needed in Tirana in early summer 1942,
  4. O1 officer in the German liaison staff with the Italian 11th Army and in the staff of the Army Group South in Greece in July/October 1943 and
  5. O3 officer on the staff of Army Group E in Arksali, Kosovska Mitrovica and Sarajevo from October 1943 to January/February 1945.
File:Hans Herbert Macholz, Kurt Waldheim, Escola Roncagli, and Artur Phleps in Podgorica, Yugoslavia, 1943.jpg

Waldheim (2nd from left) with Italian General Ercole Roncaglia, Col. Hans Herbert Macholz and SS-Gruppenführer Artur Phleps at Podgorica airfield, 22 May 1943

By 1943 he was serving in the capacity of an ordnance officer in Army Group E which was headed by General Alexander Löhr.[6] In 1986, Waldheim said that he had served only as an interpreter and a clerk and had no knowledge either of reprisals against local Serb civilians or of massacres in neighboring provinces of Yugoslavia. He said that he had known about some of the things that had happened, and had been horrified, but could not see what else he could have done.[4]

Much historical interest has centered on Waldheim's role in Operation Kozara in 1942.[7] According to one post-war investigator, prisoners were routinely shot within only a few hundred yards of Waldheim's office,[8] and just 35 km away at the Jasenovac concentration camp. Waldheim later stated "that he did not know about the murder of civilians there."[8]

Waldheim's name appears on the Wehrmacht's "honor list" of those responsible for the militarily successful operation. The Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, awarded Waldheim the Medal of the Crown of King Zvonimir in silver with an oak branches cluster.[9] Decades later, during the lobbying for his election as U.N. Secretary General, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito awarded Waldheim one of the highest Yugoslav orders.[10]

Waldheim denied that he knew war crimes were taking place in Bosnia at the height of the battles between the Nazis and Tito's partisans in 1943.[11] According to Eli Rosenbaum, in 1944, Waldheim reviewed and approved a packet of anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets to be dropped behind Soviet lines, one of which ended, "enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over."[12]


In 1945, Waldheim surrendered to British forces in Carinthia, at which point he said he had fled his command post within Army Group E, where he was serving with General Löhr, who was seeking a special deal with the British.

Diplomatic career

Waldheim joined the Austrian diplomatic service in 1945, after finishing his studies in law at the University of Vienna. He served as First Secretary of the Legation in Paris from 1948, and in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Vienna from 1951 to 1956. In 1956 he was made Ambassador to Canada, returning to the Ministry in 1960, after which he became the Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations in 1964. For two years beginning in 1968, he was the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs in Austria serving for the Austrian People's Party, before going back as Permanent Representative to the U.N. in 1970. Shortly afterwards, he ran and was defeated in the 1971 Austrian presidential elections.

United Nations Secretary-General

After being defeated in his home country's presidential election, he was elected to succeed U Thant as United Nations Secretary-General the same year. As Secretary-General, Waldheim opened and addressed a number of major international conferences convened under United Nations auspices. These included the third session of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (Santiago, April 1972), the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, June 1972), the third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (Caracas, June 1974), the World Population Conference (Bucharest, August 1974) and the World Food Conference (Rome, November 1974). However, his diplomatic efforts particularly in the Middle East were overshadowed by the diplomacy of then U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.[13]

On 11 September 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin sent a telegram to Waldheim, copies of which went to Yasser Arafat and Golda Meir. In the telegram, Amin "applauded the massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich and said Germany was the most appropriate locale for this because it was where Hitler burned more than six million Jews."[14] Amin also called "to expel Israel from the United Nations and to send all the Israelis to Britain, which bore the guilt for creating the Jewish state."[15] Among international protest "the UN spokesman said [in his daily press conference] it was not the secretary-general's practice to comment on telegrams sent him by heads of government. He added that the secretary-general condemned any form of racial discrimination and genocide."[15]

Waldheim was re-elected in 1976 despite some opposition. Waldheim and then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter both prepared written statements for inclusion on the Voyager Golden Records, now in deep space.[16] He was the first Secretary-General to visit North Korea, in 1979.[17] In 1980, Waldheim flew to Iran in an attempt to negotiate the release of the American hostages held in Tehran, but Ayatollah Khomeini refused to see him.[13] While in Tehran, it was announced that an attempt on Waldheim's life had been foiled. Near the end of his tenure as Secretary-General, Waldheim and Paul McCartney also organized a series of concerts for the People of Kampuchea to help Cambodia recover from the damage done by Pol Pot.[18] The People's Republic of China vetoed Waldheim's candidature for a third term, and he was succeeded by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru.

Presidency of Austria

Election and Waldheim Affair

Waldheim had unsuccessfully sought election as President of Austria in 1971, but his second attempt on 8 June 1986 proved successful. During his campaign for the presidency in 1985, the events started that marked the beginning of what became known internationally as the "Waldheim Affair". Before the presidential elections, investigative journalist Alfred Worm revealed in the Austrian weekly news magazine Profil that there had been several omissions about Waldheim's life between 1938 and 1945 in his recently published autobiography.

A short time later, the World Jewish Congress alleged that Waldheim had lied about his service as an officer in the mounted corps of the SA, and his time as an ordnance officer for Army Group E in Saloniki, Greece, from 1942 to 1943 based in files from the United Nations War Crimes Commission.[19][20] Waldheim called the allegations "pure lies and malicious acts".[21] Nevertheless he admitted that he had known about German reprisals against partisans: "Yes, I knew. I was horrified. But what could I do? I had either to continue to serve or be executed."[21] He said that he had never fired a shot or even seen a partisan.[21] His former immediate superior at the time stated that Waldheim had "remained confined to a desk".[21] Former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, of Jewish origin, denounced the actions of the World Jewish Congress as an "extraordinary infamy"[21] adding that Austrians would not "allow the Jews abroad to ... tell us who should be our President."

Part of the reason for the controversy was Austria's refusal to address its national role in the Holocaust (many, including Adolf Hitler, were Austrians and Austria became part of the Third Reich). Austria refused to pay compensation to Nazi victims and from 1970 onwards refused to investigate Austrian citizens who were senior Nazis.[22] Stolen Jewish art remained public property until after the Waldheim affair.[23]

Because the revelations leading to the Waldheim affair came shortly before the presidential election, there has been speculation about the background of the affair.

Declassified CIA documents show that the CIA had been aware of his wartime past since 1945.[24] Information about Waldheim's wartime past was also previously published by a pro-German Austrian newspaper, Salzburger Volksblatt, during the 1971 presidential election campaign, including the claim of an SS membership, but the matter was supposedly regarded as unimportant or even advantageous for the candidate at that time.[25]

It has been asserted that his wartime past and the discrepancies in his biography, In the Eye of the Storm, must have been well-known to both superpowers before he was elected UN Secretary General, and there were rumours that the KGB had blackmailed him during his UN time.[26] In 1994, former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky claimed in his book The Other Side of Deception that Mossad doctored the file of the then UN Secretary General to implicate him in Nazi crimes. These allegedly false documents were subsequently "discovered" by Benjamin Netanyahu in the UN file and triggered the "Waldheim Affair". Ostrovsky says it was motivated by Waldheim's criticism of Israel's war in Lebanon.[27] Controversy surrounds Ostrovsky because many of his revelations have not been sourced or otherwise confirmed, leading several critics to say that most of his work (including TOSOD) is fictional. Ostrovsky's service in Mossad was confirmed when the Israeli government unsuccessfully attempted to stop publication of his book[28][29]

The International Committee of Historians and allegations of Nazi war crimes

In view of the ongoing international controversy, the Austrian government decided to appoint an international committee of historians to examine Waldheim's life between 1938 and 1945. Their report found no evidence of any personal involvement in those crimes. Although Waldheim had stated that he was unaware of any crimes taking place, the committee cited evidence that Waldheim must have known about war crimes.[30]

In response to Waldheim's denial that he knew about war crimes, Simon Wiesenthal stated that Waldheim was stationed 5 miles (8.0 km) from Salonika while, over the course of several weeks, the Jewish community, which formed one third of the population there, was sent to Auschwitz:

I could only reply what the committee of historians likewise made clear in its report: "I cannot believe you."[31]

Wiesenthal stated the committee found no evidence that Waldheim took part in any war crimes but was guilty of lying about his military record.[32] The International Committee in February 1988 concluded with that he could not stop what was going on in Yugoslavia and Greece even if he knew:

In favour of Waldheim is, that he only had very minor possibilities to act against the injustices happening. Actions against these, depending on which level the resistance occurred, were of very different importance. For a young member of the staff, who did not have any military authority on the army group level, the practical possibilities for resistance were very limited and with a high probability would not have led to any actual results. Resistance would have been limited to a formal protest or on the refusal to serve any longer in the army, which would have seemed to be a courageous act, however would have not led to any practical achievement.[33]

Foreign visits

Throughout his term as President (1986–1992), Kurt Waldheim and his wife Elisabeth were officially deemed personae non gratae by the United States.[25][34] In 1987, they were put on a watch list of persons banned from entering the United States and remained on the list even after the publication of the International Committee of Historians' report on his military past in the Wehrmacht.[citation needed]

Later years and death

After his term ended in 1992, Waldheim did not seek re-election. The same year, he was made an honorary member of K.H.V. Welfia Klosterneuburg, a Roman Catholic student fraternity a part of the Austrian Cartellverband. In 1994, Pope John Paul II awarded Waldheim a knighthood in the Order of Pius IX and his wife a papal honor.[35] He died on 14 June 2007, from heart failure. On 23 June, his funeral was held at St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, and he was buried at the Presidential Vault in the Zentralfriedhof ("central cemetery").[36] In his speech at the Cathedral, Federal President Heinz Fischer called Waldheim "a great Austrian" who had been wrongfully accused of having committed war crimes. Fischer also praised Waldheim for his efforts to solve international crises and for his contributions to world peace.[37] At Waldheim's own request, no foreign heads of states or governments were invited to attend his funeral except Hans-Adam II, the Prince of Liechtenstein. Also present was Luis Durnwalder, governor of the Italian province of South Tyrol. Syria and Japan were the only two countries that laid a wreath. In a two-page letter, published posthumously by the Austrian Press Agency the day after he died, Waldheim admitted making "mistakes" ("but these were certainly not those of a follower let alone an accomplice of a criminal regime") and asked his critics for forgiveness.[38]

Media references

  • W. G. Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn (1995; English trans., 1998) refers to Waldheim, though not by name.[39]
  • As a much-heralded invited guest on Dame Edna Everage's talk show The Dame Edna Experience, a dignified "Kurt Waldheim" began a grand entrance, except that halfway down the staircase, he abruptly fell through a hidden chute and disappeared: the band's fanfare stopped as Dame Edna explained she had decided at the last minute to "abort" Dr. Waldheim's appearance because it would have been "too political". The episode aired 12 September 1987.
  • A running segment on The Howard Stern Show is called Guess Who's the Jew and features Fred Norris portraying a Nazi Kurt Waldheim, Jr.[40]
  • Musician Lou Reed's 1989 New York album contains a song called "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim."
  • Harry Turtledove's 2003 alternate history novel, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, in which Germany won the Second World War, a "Kurt Haldweim" is the third Führer of Germany, and parts of Haldweim's biography closely parallel Waldheim's.
  • In a 1988 ice hockey film entitled Hockey, The Lighter Side, former New York Rangers goaltender John Davidson is explaining his fictional goaltender school and as hockey highlights play, he exclaims, "You'll have more shots taken at you than Kurt Waldheim".
  • In episode 3, series 2 of The Million Pound Radio Show, Andy Hamilton announces next week's special guest as Waldheim, "although he'll deny [his appearance on the show] in 40 years time."
  • In an episode of The New Statesman, aired in 1989, Alan B'Stard (Rik Mayall) attempts to blackmail an aged former Nazi officer, who complains that, "it's not fair; I'm living here in the tripe capital of Europe, while Kurt Waldheim is President of Austria - and he was beneath me!"
  • American poet Srikanth Reddy's 2011 book Voyager presents a collection of poems and fragments created by erasing large sections of Waldheim's memoir In the Eye of the Storm.
  • Graphic novel and film comics by Marjane Satrapi reference the election in Austria.

Further reading

  • Bassett, Richard (1988). Waldheim and Austria, Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-013019-5
  • Herzstein, Robert Edwin (1988). Waldheim, the Missing Years. First ed. New York: W. Morrow and Co., 1988. 303 p., ill. with b&w photos. ISBN 0-87795-959-5
  • International Commission of Historians (1993). The Waldheim Report. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, University of Copenhagen. pp. 224 p. ISBN 87-7289-206-4. 
  • Waldheim, Kurt (1985). In the eye of the storm: the memoirs of Kurt Waldheim. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-78678-4. 
  • Waldheim, Kurt (1966). Die Antwort (The Answer). 
  • Waldheim, Kurt (1971). The Austrian Example. 
  • Waldheim, Kurt (1977). The Challenge of Peace. 
  • Waldheim, Kurt (1985). Building the Future Order. 


  1. Former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim dies at 88 - Haaretz - Israel News
  2. Kurt Waldheim, The Daily Telegraph, 15 June 2007.
  3. Report of the International Historical Commission of 8 February 1988, section on "Membership in National Socialist Organizations", as cited for example in
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Kurt Waldheim: Austrian head of the UN who as president of his country was later tainted by charges of complicity in Nazi atrocities". The Times. London. 15 June 2007. Retrieved 13 October 2008. 
  5. see page 39 of The Waldheim Report. Submitted 8 February 1988 to Federal Chancellor Dr. Franz Vranitzky
  6. Walther-Peer Fellgiebel (2000), Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939-1945. Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 3-7909-0284-5
  7. Kandell, Jonathan (15 June 2007). "Kurt Waldheim". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2010. ""Waldheim took part in, and was decorated for, Operation Kozara, a large-scale antipartisan operation involving mass reprisals – at the rate of 100 executions for every German killed – and mass deportations of Serb women and children to concentration camps."" 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dennis Casey (1 May 2005). "Kurt Waldheim: man of mystery".;col1. 
  9. Letter from Europe: Vienna, 20 June The New Yorker
  10. "Wir Österreicher wählen, wen wir wollen" (in German). Der Spiegel. 14 April 1986. "Staatschef Tito überreichte Waldheim trotzdem einen der höchsten jugoslawischen Orden [Anyhow, Tito awarded Waldheim with one of the highest Yugoslav orders]." 
  11. "Kurt Waldheim". The Daily Telegraph. London. 15 June 2007. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  12. Rosenbaum, EM with Hoffer W, Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up St. Martin's Press, 1993, ISBN 0-312-08219-3, p. 338
  13. 13.0 13.1 Obituary: Kurt Waldheim BBC News
  14. Israeli-Ugandan Relations in the Time of Idi Amin by Arye Oded, Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)
  15. 15.0 15.1 Israeli Ugandan Relations in the Time of Idi Amin JCPA
  16. Voyager - Spacecraft - Golden Record
  17. "Discipline and Devotion", TIME, 28 May 1979 Retrieved 1 December 2008.
  18. - Arts - Music - Charity Begins
  19. See Section "Military Service" above
  20. Levy, Richard S. (2005). Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution. ABC-CLIO. p. 753. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Michael S. Serrill; William McWhirter, Wayne Svoboda (7 April 1986). "Sequels Running Out of Answers". Time.,9171,961050-2,00.html. Retrieved 13 October 2008. 
  22. Efraim Zuroff, "Worldwide Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals, 2001–2002," Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jerusalem (April 2002).
  23. Ulrike Knöfel and Marion Kraske (4 April 2008)Stealing Beauty: Dispute Rages Over Austria's Looted Art Der Spiegel
  24. Historical Analysis of 20 Name Files from CIA Records
  25. 25.0 25.1 World Socialist Web Site obituary
  26. "Kurt Waldheim". The Independent. London. 15 June 2007. Archived from the original on 28 Dec 2009. Retrieved 7 May 2010.  Alternative links here
  27. Victor Ostrovsky (1994). "The Other Side of Deception: A Rogue Agent Exposes the Mossad's Secret Agenda". HarperCollins. 
  28. "18 June 2008 meeting - Victor Ostrovsky, Former Mossad Officer". AFIO. June 2008. 
  29. Kate Connolly (2 May 2001). "CIA knew about Waldheim's Nazi past". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  30. Simon Wiesenthal "The Waldheim Case" in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria edited by Dagmar Lorenz. pp 81-95, University of Nebraska press
  31. Simon Wiesenthal "The Waldheim Case" in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Austria edited by Dagmar Lorenz. page 91, University of Nebraska Press
  32. Kurt Waldheim The Guardian
  33. James L. Collins Jr. u.a.: Bericht der internationalen Historikerkommission, Schlussbetrachtung, 8. Februar 1988. (translated from German)
  34. "Waldheim, ex-UN leader and Nazi, buried in Austria". Reuters. 23 June 2007. 
  35. "Waldheim's Wife Gets a Papal Award". The New York Times. 22 August 1994. Retrieved 14 June 2007. 
  36. "Former Austrian president whose term was marred by wartime service buried", Associated Press (International Herald Tribune), 23 June 2007.
  37. Speech of President Heinz Fischer (official text)
  38. Waldheim Vermaechtnis Active Paper
  40. Howard

External links

Preceded by
U Thant
United Nations Secretary-General
1972 – 1981
Succeeded by
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar

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