Waldheim dies

Nazi past stained legacy

June 15, 2007|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,Los Angeles Times

Kurt Waldheim, the erudite diplomat who served as U.N. secretary-general and Austria's president but left the world stage a pariah after his Nazi past was exposed, died yesterday. He was 88.

Austrian state media said Mr. Waldheim, who was hospitalized last month with an infection, died of heart failure in Vienna.

The case that defined the legacy and memory of the longtime diplomat was built around a grainy black-and-white photograph that showed a young Mr. Waldheim - tall, lean and uniformed - as he fought for a Nazi army unit blamed for wartime atrocities in the Balkans. Other pieces of evidence included logs and intelligence reports, purportedly bearing his signature, describing mass deportations of Greek Jews to death camps.

The controversy surrounding Mr. Waldheim was particularly problematic for Austria, forcing a tardy reckoning of the nation's complicity in Nazi crimes. Austria had continued to portray itself as a victim of the Third Reich, rather than its collaborator, long after Germany was paying reparations and banning neo-Nazi groups.

Mr. Waldheim's initial denial of his Nazi past and obfuscation mirrored that of a nation. And while the scandal around him kicked up new poisonous clouds of anti-Semitism, when he finally left public life, in disgrace, Austria also began a slow process of recognizing its sins.

He had risen to the pinnacle of international diplomacy and was running for president of Austria when his Nazi past caught up with him. He went on to win the presidency in 1986, and less than a year later the U.S. government formally barred him from entering the country. The U.S. ban was never lifted.

For much of his adulthood, Mr. Waldheim claimed that he was drafted into the German army after Adolf Hitler occupied Austria but sat out most of the war, attending law school in Vienna, because of a shrapnel wound he suffered on the eastern front in 1941.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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