On this day: Kurt Waldheim is inaugurated as Austrian president

July 8 1986: the Waldheim scandal


His obituaries remembered him as a onetime president of Austria and as a former UN Secretary General. But Kurt Waldheim, who was 21 when the Second World War broke out, was also recalled for his reluctance to shed light on his past.

His election to Austria's highest office was certainly dominated by the revelations that he had been part of the Nazi Wehrmacht during the Holocaust. And during the five years he was in the post, Austria was viewed with suspicion by much of the rest of the world, with Waldheim placed on a US watch list.

The young Waldheim joined the German army at the start of the war, later writing in his autobiography: "I was wounded on the Eastern Front, was no longer fit for front-line service and completed my legal studies in Vienna, where I received my doctorate in 1944."

After the war he rose through Austria's diplomatic ranks, becoming foreign minister and then going to the UN. But it was on his second bid for the presidency that the media became consumed with his wartime record, namely his involvement in the transportation of Jews to concentration camps and other atrocities when he was serving as a lieutenant in the Balkans and Greece.

His denials were enough for Austria to vote him in – against a backdrop of accusations of Jewish interference to stop his election – but he was ostracised as a leader by much of the West.

After Waldheim left office Austria began to acknowledge that the country had not simply been a victim of the Nazis, though by the time of his death in 2007 Waldheim never admitted to any guilt.

What the JC said: Austrian Jews are deeply shocked by the extent of the victory….It is clear that the older generations of Austrians voted for Dr Waldheim because they felt that they had behaved very much like him during the Second World War and did not want to feel like, or be described as, war criminals. The younger generation also mostly voted for Dr Waldheim because he was not involved in any of the political scandals which have afflicted the country in recent years.

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    Last updated: 9:37am, July 8 2011