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Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Published: 6/16/2007

Waldheim's tainted legacy

HIS past caught up with him and tarnished the rest of his life. When former U.N. chief Kurt Waldheim died Thursday at 88, it was not his diplomatic career or Austrian presidency that most first recalled about the man. It was his alleged Nazi past.

Maybe that's unfortunate for someone who served the United Nations for much of the 1970s in what current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called "a crucial period in the history of the organization." But Mr. Waldheim ensured that his past would wind up defining him when he chose to run from it.

It was not until he left the international body and was campaigning for president in Austria that revelations began to surface about his activities during World War II. Curiously, his published memoir at the time omitted any mention of his service in Nazi Germany's officer corps.

But as documents and accusations began to mount that he belonged to a German army unit that committed World War II atrocities, Mr. Waldheim revised his story. His Wehrmacht career ended in 1941, he said, after he was wounded on the Russian front.

Only later, under intense pressure from all sides, did he finally admit to a more extended service with Hitler's army in the Balkans.

But the tall, erudite Austrian always denied knowing of Nazi war crimes committed there, including the deportations of thousands of Greek Jews.

However, an international panel of historians concluded he knew about the war crimes even if he wasn't involved in them because he was in "direct proximity to criminal actions."

In retrospect Mr. Waldheim would concede that his liberty with the truth was a "mistake." It certainly undermined his credibility.

Eventually he was banned from the U.S. and unwelcome in many countries. But in his homeland, most Austrians refused to believe the refined diplomat was linked to Nazi atrocities, and despite the accusations elected him president.

Kurt Waldheim brought Austria both pride and shame. He was a famous son with a secretive wartime history who, some say, left the world with a huge question mark about his past.



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