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Published: Thursday, 6/14/2007

Former U.N. chief and ex-Austrian president Kurt Waldheim dead at 88

VIENNA, Austria Former U.N. chief Kurt Waldheim, who was barred from the United States for two decades after revelations he belonged to a German army unit that committed World War II atrocities, died Thursday. He was 88.

Although it was never proved that Waldheim personally committed war crimes, he left public life beneath a cloud of disgrace and died with his name still on a watch list prohibiting foreigners considered undesirables from visiting the U.S.

State broadcaster ORF said he died Thursday afternoon of heart failure at his home in Vienna, with family members at his bedside. He had been hospitalized late last month with an infection and a high fever.

Waldheim's legacy as U.N. secretary-general from 1972-81 and his later tenure as Austrian president from 1986-92 was tarnished by his secretive wartime past in the Balkans.

The details did not become common knowledge until five years after he left the world body. But the revelations led to a bruising controversy at home one that ultimately damaged Austria's reputation abroad. During Waldheim's six-year term as president, the country was largely shunned by foreign leaders, and he never honored his pledge to be a strong leader.

His backers saw him as an innocent victim of a smear campaign, while opponents clamored for his resignation.

His past began surfacing early in his campaign for president, when he published a memoir that did not mention his service for the Nazis. In his official biographies, Waldheim initially said he had been wounded at the Russian front in 1941 and had returned to Austria to continue his studies.

Only after being confronted with documents showing his unit had killed partisans and civilians, along with allegations that the victims included thousands of children, did Waldheim gradually revise his official resume.

Under pressure, he acknowledged he was transferred to the Balkans in April 1942; went to Arsakli, Greece, as an interpreter that summer; and, in April 1943, became an assistant adjutant with Army Group E, Department I-C. Its commander, Gen. Alexander Loehr, was later executed in Yugoslavia for war crimes.

Waldheim consistently maintained his innocence, defending himself against disclosures made by his main accuser, the World Jewish Congress, and by foreign media.

The World Jewish Congress published supporting documents, some of which bore Waldheim's signature or initials. But he insisted that his job was merely to verify their authenticity, not to act on the information or give orders.

As pressure mounted from all sides, Yugoslav newspapers published a facsimile of a 1947 document showing Waldheim's name on a list of German officers who took part in the infamous Mount Kozara operation. According to some Yugoslav versions, 68,000 people including 23,000 children died in the offensive.

Waldheim originally declared he had been behind the lines near Kozara. Later, he said he had confused the geography.

His initial denials of serving with Hitler's Wehrmacht and then assertions that he and fellow Austrians were only doing their duty led to international censure.

In April 1987, the Justice Department put Waldheim on the list prohibiting him from entering the United States an embarrassment no other Austrian public figure had ever experienced.

The following February, a government-appointed international commission of six historians investigating his wartime service said it found no proof that Waldheim himself committed war crimes. But it made clear his record was far from unblemished: The panel declared that Waldheim was in "direct proximity to criminal actions."

Its report said Waldheim knew about German army atrocities in the Balkans and took no action to prevent or oppose them. They admitted later they dropped a reference to Waldheim's "moral guilt" for fear of overstepping their mandate with a "judgmental" statement

Thursday's reaction from dignitaries reflected Austria's struggle even today to reconcile the pride and shame Waldheim brought it.

"We have lost a great Austrian," said Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer.

President Heinz Fischer issued a statement expressing condolences, and officials lowered the flag outside his office to half-staff.

Former Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel called Waldheim "a great fighter for peace and freedom in the world," but said he endured bitter personal experiences that "unjustifiably moved him into the proximity of war criminals."

The rightist Freedom Party, meanwhile, urged the U.S. to posthumously strike Waldheim's name from the watch list.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon learned "with sadness" of Waldheim's death, noting that he served the world body "at a crucial period in the history of the organization," spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

Born Dec. 21, 1918, in St. Andrae, a small town northwest of Vienna, Waldheim studied law at Vienna University and attended the Consular Academy, the nation's top diplomatic school.

After the war, Waldheim entered the diplomatic service and worked under Foreign Minister Karl Gruber. In 1948, he was named first secretary of the Austrian Embassy in Paris.

From 1951 to 1955, he returned to the Foreign Ministry, and spent the next two years as Austria's observer to the United Nations. He was ambassador to Canada from 1958 to 1960 and then returned to Vienna.

From 1964 to 1968, he was Austria's representative to the United Nations. He then became foreign minister, a post he held for the next two years. After starting another term as U.N. representative, he lost a 1971 bid for the presidency of Austria to Franz Jonas, the popular Socialist mayor of Vienna.

Although Waldheim traveled to many crisis areas, including the Middle East, he never gained the reputation of peacemaker enjoyed by other U.N. chiefs.

Waldheim is survived by his wife, Elisabeth, whom he married in 1944, and their three children.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com



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