Kurt Waldheim: man of mystery

Kurt Waldheim: man of mystery

Dennis Casey

For many living in Austria in 1945 the end of the war came like an army of locusts swarming over the landscape. The Soviet army had moved through Austria in such a way and in unexpectedly rapid time.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked British intelligence to begin gearing up to handle the Soviet Union as Britain’s next major threat.

Shortly after the liberation of Vienna, the Soviets quickly installed an aging socialist, Karl Renner, as Chancellor to head a provisional Austrian government. Mr. Renner’s popularity with Joseph Stalin was regarded by the Russian military as a strong positive in exercising control over the Austrians. But when the Austrians went to the polls, the communist candidates did not fare well. According to some analysts, Austria became a political vacuum.

To further complicate matters politically, Austria had been divided into four sectors: British, Russian, French and American. Vienna was likewise divided. As the Soviet Union consolidated its position and sought to make its control over much of Central Europe permanent, much of Austria and particularly Vienna became a testing ground for the opposing sides in the rapidly emerging Cold War.

The Soviets were becoming increasingly suspicious of the allies as both jockeyed for political advantage. Suzanne Fesq, an employee of the Allied Control Commission in Austria, described the winter of 1945 in Austria as having the feeling of a great menace hung over Vienna, “… stalking the streets and pervading the air so that you didn’t feel secure in your own house.” Occasional kidnappings would bring a dose of reality to the feeling of uncertainty. Those kidnapped by the Soviets were not seen again. Despite all of this, Austria did not fall into the Soviet camp, as did East Germany. Credit for this belongs to the Austrians themselves who stood up to Soviet bullying and eventually insisted on a government friendly to the west.

One of many young Austrians coming into the foreground during this time was Dr. Kurt Waldheim. Freshly armed with a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Vienna, he joined the Austrian Foreign Ministry in December 1945 as a diplomatic secretary to Karl Gruber, formerly a Tyrolean resistance leader. Before being hired, British intelligence assured the Austrian government that there were no pending charges against Waldheim for any Nazi associations in his past.

In January 1946 when the Allied Denazification Bureau’s responsibilities came to an end and records were handed over to the new Austrian Chancellor, Leopold Figel, rumors began to surface that Kurt Waldheim was under investigation. The purpose of the investigation was not abundantly clear. He had not been a member of the Nazi Party and there was virtually no evidence of pro-Nazi views. His wife joined the Nazi Party and supported Party-sponsored organizations, but nothing implicated Mr Waldheim.

Kurt Waldheim’s career in the diplomatic service progressed rapidly. From 1948 to 1951 he served as the first Secretary of the Austrian Legation in Paris and in 1951 worked as the head of the personnel department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Vienna. In 1955 he received an appointment as permanent observer for Austria to the United Nations and later that year became the head of the Austrian mission to that body. The following year he became the Minister Plenipotentiary diplomat and then the Austrian Ambassador to Canada. After four years in that position, he returned to Vienna and eventually headed up the political department in the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then, in 1964, he returned to the United Nations as Austria’s permanent representative followed by a brief return assignment to Austria and back again to the United Nations as Austria’s representative in October 1970. During this period, Mr. Waldheim served as the chairman of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and later as the chairman of the Safeguards Committee of the International Atomic Energy Agency. From both committee assignments he gained a respectable international reputation.

Mr. Waldheim decided to undertake a career move in 1971. He made the decision to run for Chancellor of Austria. By this time he was well known and reasonably popular in Austria. Surprisingly, he was defeated in the election. This defeat was followed quickly by his election as secretary general of the United Nations. He served in this position from 1971 to 1982. As secretary general he traveled to South Africa and Namibia to seek peaceful solutions to the problems faced by both nations. Numerous trips to the Middle East in 1973 and 1974 saw the new secretary general visiting Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel and attempting to bring peace to the region. His peace efforts continued in February 1973 when he visited India and Pakistan in an effort to end the hostilities between the two countries. The following year he took a personal interest in the relief efforts in Africa then directed by the United Nations. He also participated in peace conferences around the world including the Paris International Conference on Vietnam. Certainly by the close of his second term in the United Nations he was readily recognizable and popular around the world.

Kurt Waldheim achieved yet another major accomplishment in 1986 when he was elected president of Austria. During the election campaign, however, a part of his past surfaced that has caused concern and frustration ever since.

Between 1942 and 1944 he served as an intelligence officer under General Lohr of German Army Group E. Stationed in the Balkans, Army Group E fought a ferocious and decidedly brutal guerrilla war. A report prepared by the United States Justice Department stated that Mr. Waldheim would have drafted orders on reprisals, would have made recommendations based on the interrogation of prisoners, and would have provided intelligence data to military units arresting civilians for deportation or final disposition.

In the 45-day Kozara campaign against Tito’s partisans in the summer of 1942, thousands of Croatian partisans and civilians died in battle and in the concentration camps as a result of so-called cleansing operations. At this point corpses of civilian hostages were hung on makeshift wooden gallows positioned along the road from Kostajnica to Banja Luka. Years later an investigator looking into atrocities committed during this period learned that prisoners were routinely shot only a few hundred yards from Waldheim’s office. The Jasenovac concentration camp where prisoners endured the most horrific of tortures was just a few miles away. Waldheim would relate years later “that he did not know about the murder of civilians there.”

A colleague of Waldheim’s at the time explained that his expertise while a German intelligence officer focused on his dealings with the resistance groups. Here his knowledge of Serbo-Croatian proved helpful in knowing exactly what was going on in the camp and in dealing with the pro-German Ustashi whose cooperation he had been instrumental in establishing. For his services in Kozara, Waldheim received a silver medal with an oak leaf cluster by the fascist Ustashi leader, Ante Pavelic. After service in Greece, Waldheim returned to Yugoslavia and in 1944 took part in meetings with Dreza Mihailovic’s chief of staff over negotiations to allow the anti-communist Chetniks to contact the Allies.

Years later in 1988 a Ministry of Defense report alleged that Waldheim had taken part in the murder of British servicemen captured in Greece. The report was anything but positive in that it circumvented any definitive statement. At least one Allied officer indicated that the absence of information was probably the result of an agreement whereby Waldheim’s history as a German intelligence officer would disappear if he worked for the Allies. Other Allied officers speculated that Waldheim and his colleagues surely had an intimate knowledge of the communist forces in the Balkans at the end of World War II as they were preparing to fight them. British intelligence officers attached to the 8th Army in northern Italy had come across Waldheim’s name during an interrogation of a captured Wehrmacht intelligence officer. From these interrogations, Allied intelligence compiled a list of some 200 German intelligence officers working in the Balkans and Waldheim was one of them.

Verification of Waldheim’s intelligence activities helped to explain why he was interned in a POW camp near Bad Tolz in Bavaria. This site was used for interrogating prisoners of interest to U.S. military intelligence. Waldheim fit the profile because of his knowledge of communist organizations and partisan tactics. Also his knowledge about Yugoslavia would have triggered heightened interest as the Western Allies held the view that they might have to invade the country at any time.

Was Waldheim really one of those officers who committed war crimes in the Balkans and possibly in Yugoslavia? Was he one of the former German officers who worked for British intelligence after the war? His stand against communism and his contacts with Mitja Ribic, deputy chief of Security in Slovenia, suggested an affiliation that could not be easily denied especially given the fact that Waldheim joined Ribic in supporting a cultural union of Catholic Slovenia and Croatia with Austria, Italy, and southern Germany, the so-called Alpa-Adrica movement, as a useful barrier to continued Soviet expansion.

Waldheim’s record as a German intelligence officer in the Balkans surfaced in 1986 when he sought election as chancellor of Austria. Almost immediately, news of the potential involvement appeared in the press. While Austrian officials claimed that the recently disclosed documents proved that the new chancellor was not guilty of Nazi era war crimes, Eli Rosenbaum of the U.S. Justice Department confirmed that the documents only showed that Waldheim had not worked for American intelligence after the war. He remarked that Waldheim could have been compromised by the Soviet Union. The failure of the CIA to run a background check when he was appointed U.N. Secretary General left the entire matter unresolved.

The thrust of the Justice Department Report was strong enough that in 1987 it provided the basis for the Reagan administration to deny entry into the United States to the chancellor of Austria. His name was added to the watch list of former Nazis.

The interest by American lawmakers in the Waldheim case did not end with his denial of entry into the United States. When U.S. intelligence officials admitted that they had used Nazi war criminals as informants at the beginning of the Cold War, renewed interest developed in the declassification of documentation.

Senator Patrick Leahy, on the passage of the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act in 1998, remarked that the United States should not ever repeat what happened with the government records pertaining to Kurt Waldheim. He stated the CIA withheld critical information from researchers about Waldheim’s tie to Nazis. He also criticized the CIA for keeping secret the Justice Department Report in 1987. It took a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit before the document was released at the direction of Attorney General Janet Reno. Even to this day biographies of Kurt Waldheim often leave out any comment of his war years.

Those interested must wonder who he really was and speculate about what else might have been removed from the official record.

By Dr. Dennis Casey

Air Intelligence Agency History Office

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Air Intelligence Agency

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group