For two decades, Kurt Waldheim was the most ignominious name associated with modern Austria and a permanent black spot on its international reputation. But even though the former Austrian president and U.N. secretary general, who died last week at age 88, never showed true remorse for lying about his past, he inadvertently turned out to be a blessing for his country.
Waldheim’s 1986 election to the ceremonial post of the federal presidency in a campaign dominated by revelations about his role as a Wehrmacht officer forced Austria to reconsider its Nazi past and take responsibility for the crimes committed by some of its citizens. The postwar myth of Austria as the first victim of Hitler’s aggression was shattered.
The process, however, is not yet finished. Even though Waldheim is gone, Austrians, just like Germans, will have to grapple with the difficult legacy of their parents’ and grandparents’ crimes for years to come.
This “victims thesis” was the political foundation upon which Austria was reconstructed as a stable democracy after 1945. The country’s elites were determined to put behind them the civil strife between left and right that had paralyzed the country in the 1930s and paved the way for the German Anschluss of 1938. They also chose to repress the subsequent events — the mass cheers for Adolf Hitler, the systematic theft of Jewish property, a widespread rush to join the Nazi party and a disproportionate number of Austrians serving as concentration camp guards and fighting in SS or Wehrmacht units involved in war crimes and genocide. Austrians, the official line went, were victims of Nazi aggression, not perpetrators of Nazi crimes.
To underscore that point, tens of thousands of former Nazi party members were quickly rehabilitated and rose to prominence in the country’s political, business and academic life. In contrast, hardly any Jewish refugees were asked to return home, and the restitution offered was limited to a pittance. When children asked their fathers what they had done during the Nazi period, they usually were met by a deafening silence.
Kurt Waldheim followed the same course when he returned home from the front. As he climbed up the political ladder to the post of foreign minister and then rose to global prominence as U.N. head from 1972 to 1981, he never looked back to his time as a junior officer in the Wehrmacht. In his resume, he mentioned his earlier stint on the eastern front, but he conveniently left out his subsequent posting in the Balkans, where he served on the staff of convicted war criminal Alexander Löhr. It was in Bosnia and Northern Greece where Waldheim must have at least seen and heard of massacres of Yugoslav partisans and mass deportations of Jews. Waldheim’s personal involvement in war crimes was never proven, but as a political leader striving for the highest positions, it would have been his responsibility to speak out.
Instead, Waldheim reacted with shock and anger when reports about his dishonesty emerged during his 1986 presidential run. He painted himself as a victim of a concerted smear campaign driven by his domestic political rivals and a Jewish-Israeli-American conspiracy set on revenge for pro-Arab positions he took as U.N. chief. Faced with a barrage of attacks from the World Jewish Congress and the international media, the presidential campaign turned increasingly xenophobic and antisemitic. To Austria’s disgrace, the tactic of rallying the nation around the flag succeeded as Waldheim was elected with an overwhelming majority.
But Austrians soon woke up from their frenzy with a massive hangover. The sight of a president who was barred from entering the United States and shunned by most democratic countries did not sit well with the country’s self-image of a peaceful “island of the blessed.” A younger generation stood up to challenge not only Waldheim but the whole cult of forgetfulness. The 1988 commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss turned into a national exercise in soul-searching and self-criticism. National television was full of programs on the Holocaust and the search for traces of Jewish culture. The school curriculum was rewritten to let young people hear about the crimes of their grandparents. And among historians and other intellectuals, the “victims thesis” was discarded once and for all. When Chancellor Franz Vranitzky stood up in parliament in 1991 to acknowledge Austria’s responsibility for Nazi crimes, his words were widely praised.
Waldheim remained isolated until the end of his six-year term and decided not to run for re-election. When he left office, he had not changed, but the country had. In the subsequent years, the government finally accepted its financial obligations. It set up a fund to give $10,000 to all Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors and then went on to compensate wartime slave laborers. The final act was the agreement in 2000 for the restitution of Jewish property, a complex process that is still not completed.
Today, the majority of Austrians accept the complicity of their forefathers in Hitler’s wars of aggression and the Holocaust. As the country learned to cope with its past, it became intellectually more open and cosmopolitan, even though the opening of the borders to the east and increasing immigration gave rise to another form of bigotry. And a vocal minority, which is not limited to far-right maverick Jörg Haider and his supporters, still resist that view of history. Some are driven by ideology, others by loyalty to their fathers who served in the Wehrmacht or the SS. They insist that Waldheim was the victim of unfair charges and will privately rail against Jewish vindictiveness.
The debate over Austria’s past still dominates political and intellectual life to a surprisingly large extent. There is hardly a week when the issue does not make it into newspaper headlines. Even though Waldheim is dead, his ghost will not be so easily buried.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.