This Day in Jewish History, 1987

U.S. Bans Austrian President for Suspected WWII War Crimes

Kurt Waldheim rose high in global diplomatic circles, even heading the UN – before which, the U.S. learned, he’d been a Brownshirt and Nazi.

Jim Bowen / Flickr

On April 27, 1987, the United States Justice Department announced that it had included the name of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim on a watch list of aliens who were not to be admitted to the United States.

The U.S. said it wanted to question Waldheim, who had previously served as UN secretary general for a decade, about his record in the German army during World War II. He had claimed, in his 1985 autobiography, that he had been discharged from the army at the end of 1941 after being wounded. But a variety of investigations proved that Waldheim had remained in active service through the end of war, and uncovered evidence that he had been involved, at least indirectly, in a number of war crimes.

Waldheim applies to join Nazis

Kurt Josef Waldheim was born on December 21, 1918, in a small village outside Vienna. He served in his country’s army in 1936-37, following which he entered the consular academy, to undergo training for the foreign service. He graduated the academy in 1939.

Shortly after Germany annexed Austria, in 1938, Waldheim applied for membership in the Nazi students league. He also joined the SA, the paramilitary organization known as the Brownshirts.

Nonetheless, when assembling his curriculum vitae after the war, Waldheim neglected mention of having belonged to the party and later, denied it.

In 1941, Waldheim was drafted into the Wehrmacht, the German army, and was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was wounded that December. After his recovery, however, instead of returning home to Vienna and beginning law school - as he had long claimed - he actually did service in Italy, Greece, Bosnia and Serbia. Waldheim was involved in the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda, and at least indirectly, in the killing of partisans in Yugoslavia, among other things.

After the war, Waldheim completed law school and then entered the diplomatic corps. Before becoming United Nations secretary general, in 1971, he held several positions, including those of Austria’s ambassador to Canada and to the UN.

A journalist smells a rat

During Waldheim’s bid for the presidency in 1986, an Austrian journalist, Alfred Worm, began looking into his past, and concluded that his CV had omitted some key details about his whereabouts in 1942-45. The World Jewish Congress then took up the baton, and began its own investigation.

For his part, at that point Waldheim admitted that he had left details out of his record. But he insisted that, although he had been aware of German killings of civilians, and “I was horrified,” he was powerless to prevent the abuses: “I had either to continue to serve or be executed.”

If the World Jewish Congress, which was joined by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in Los Angeles, had meant to torpedo Waldheim’s bid to become president, it failed. There was a backlash among Austrians who felt, as former Chancellor Bruno Kreisky – himself a Jew -- declared, that they could not “allow the Jews abroad to... tell us who should be our president.” Waldheim won the presidential election in the June 8, 1986 poll.

Wiesenthal, belatedly on board

Although the Wiesenthal Center was involved in the campaign against Waldheim, distributing one million postcards addressed to Ronald Reagan among U.S. Jews, asking the president to bar Waldheim from entering the country, its namesake, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, had long had good relations with him, and refused to condemn Waldheim until an international commission of historians investigated his past. The Austrian government appointed such a commission, and it concluded that Waldheim had to have been aware of the war crimes being carried out, even if he was not personally involved in them.

During Waldheim’s single term as president, he remained unwelcome in the United States, nor did he visit UN headquarters in New York.

Technically, his inclusion on the watch list was directed against him as an individual. The U.S. could have invited him as the Austrian head of state, but that wasn’t about to happen.

Waldheim’s term ended in 1992, and he died on June 14, 2007, of heart failure. After his death, the Austrian Press Agency released a two-page letter in which he admitted having made “mistakes,” but denied that those mistakes were “those of a follower, let alone an accomplice of a criminal regime.”