Former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim Dies at 88

Former UN chief's career overshadowed by his years serving as an officer in the German army during World War II.

Kurt Waldheim, former United Nations Secretary General and president of Austria died of cardiovascular failure at age 88 in Vienna on Thursday.

Waldheim's election as Austrian president was overshadowed by the controversy over his past in the Nazi Wehrmacht during the Second World War.

Throughout his presidency, Austria was internationally isolated. Yet, with his refusal to come clean about his past, Waldheim involuntarily triggered a discussion about Austria's role in the Third Reich.

The myth of Austria as the mere first victim of Hitler's expansion policy was abandoned, and Austria's complicity in Nazi crimes was admitted to.

Simon Weisentahl Center Israel Director Efraim Zuroff said Waldheim's activities as a Nazi officer were questionable. However, the late Nazi hunter Weisentahl said no clear-cut evidence of Waldheim committing crimes against humanity existed.

Zuroff added Waldheim could have contributed to Austria recognizing its responsibility for the Holocaust, a responsibilty it denied until the eaerly 1990s.

Waldheim, born on December 21, 1918 in the village of Sankt Andrae-Woerdern near Vienna attended law school in the Austrian capital and joined the German army after completing his studies at the beginning of the War in 1939.

After 1945 the son of a schoolteacher joined Austria's diplomatic service, becoming an ambassador to Canada and the United Nations.

From 1968 to 1970 Waldheim served as an independent foreign minister in the Austrian government before unsuccessfully running for president in 1971 on a conservative ticket.

In 1971 Waldheim succeeded U Thant of then Burma as secretary-general of the United Nations, where he devoted much of his energies to conflict mediation. During the Iran hostage crisis Waldheim travelled to Iran to help negotiate the release of US hostages held for 14 months at the US embassy between 1979 and 1981.

By 1985, after failing to win a third term, Waldheim returned to Austria and once again ran for the presidency. When it became public during his campaign that Waldheim had glossed over his time as a lieutenant in the Balkans and Greece between 1942 and 1945, he denied all knowledge of wartime atrocities committed by his unit.

According to the reports, Waldheim had assisted or participated in transporting more than 40,000 Jews to concentration camps, and his unit was involved in the mistreatment and execution of allied prisoners. The unit was also made responsible for the deaths of 1,200 Greek Jews in the Mediterranean.

While nothing in the reports said he was personally involved, they indicated he provided the necessary intelligence or gave the appropriate orders.

Waldheim denied all accusations, saying he had worked only as a translator in the Balkans, knowing nothing of any atrocities committed.

In Austria all revelations were rejected as undue influence and manipulation by Jewish organizations from abroad, sweeping Waldheim to an election victory on a mixture of misguided national pride and anti-Semitism.

He won the popular vote over his Social Democrat competitor by 56 per cent, but was ostracized by world leaders, largely limiting Austria's international role. Although internationally isolated, he was received by Pakistan, Jordan, the Vatican and Saudi Arabia.

In 1987 the United States put Waldheim on their so-called "watch list," effectively denying him entry into the country. The charges against him were based on documents publicized by the World Jewish Congress and a report released by the US Justice Department, which said Waldheim's unit, where he served as an officer, had been involved Nazi war crimes.

Waldheim announced in 1991 that he had no intention to run for a second term, much to the relief of many Austrians, who had become wary of the scrutiny their country was under.

Waldheim remained a fixture in diplomatic and social circles after his presidency, but ceased to play a political role. Until his death, Waldheim continued to deny any allegations of wrongdoing.

The heated debates during the campaign and his term of office led however to an important change of mind in Austrian society. For the first time, Austria's role as "Hitler's first victim" was openly questioned.

Austria slowly came to accept it had also played the role of the willing accomplice in Nazi crimes. Historical views were revised, and Austrian politicians for the first time apologized publicly for Austria's complicity.

Although he never admitted to any personal guilt, Waldheim brought about a profound change in Austria's self-perception.