Years ago when Austrian Chancellor Kurt Waldheim's...

A FEW

September 15, 1994

A FEW years ago when Austrian Chancellor Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past was exposed, the former United Nations secretary general's first response was denial. When that didn't work, he tried to discredit his accusers, and when the uproar continued he adopted a stance of proud defiance.

Now comes French President Francois Mitterrand, whose collaboration with his country's Nazi-dominated Vichy government during World War II is the subject of two new books due out this fall.

Rather than deny his past, Mr. Mitterrand went out of his way to cooperate with one of the books' authors and publicly acknowledged his ties to right-wing political groups in the years leading up to the war.

Mr. Mitterrand admitted spying on leftist leaders during the 1930s and maintaining a close personal friendship with a Vichy official responsible for sending thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps.

Mr. Mitterrand's only explanation for these activities so far seems to be a plea for tolerance of what he has termed his "youthful indiscretions." But the French public seems inclined to accept that interpretation.

The difference in the reactions of Mr. Waldheim and Mr. Mitterrand ultimately seem to have more to do with national style than with moral vision. The Frenchman blew off the charges with Gallic savoir faire while the Austrian opted for Teutonic brutishness. Either way, these developments ought to be worrisome for Americans.

Given the alarming rise in right-wing, neo-Nazi-style violence in Europe over the past decade, one is tempted to conclude that the public in both countries is at least partly sympathetic to their leaders' past transgressions.

Has communism collapsed only to be replaced by the specter of fascism with a human face?

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