Dec. 21, 1971—Kurt Waldheim, recently an unsuccessful candidate for President of Austria, was selected as Secretary-General of the United Nations by the organization’s Security Council. His selection marked a rare alignment of interests between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States during the Cold War. That should have made observers suspicious, but for the longest time, nobody made a peep about the politician-statesman’s service to the Nazi cause three decades earlier in Eastern Europe.
The death of novelist-essayist Shirley Hazzard last week reminded me forcefully of this anniversary. As a low-ranking UN employee starting in the early 1950s, she had become all too familiar with the organization’s moral cowardice, and Waldheim’s elevation to its highest post only represented the fulfillment of this inclination, she believed.
“The method for selecting secretariat leaders is the only UN official process that can be described as finely honed,” she explained in the scathing 1980 takedown “The League of Frightened Men,” later collected in We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays (2016). “United Nations senior officers are systematically chosen for their very lack of moral courage and independent mind. The office of secretary general is the pinnacle on which this negative capability culminates. In Waldheim, the position has found its consummate expression.”
“The League of Frightened Men” concerned itself primarily with Waldheim’s craven kowtowing to human-rights abuses by authoritarian rulers such as the Shah of Iran and the USSR’s Leonid Brezhnev. Lost amid Hazzard's castigation (perhaps understandably, in a piece subtitled “Why the UN Is Useless”) was a telling detail about Waldheim’s past: in the mid-1930s, not long after the Nazi Anschluss (union) with Austria, he had joined the Hitler Youth, then later served on the Eastern Front of the German Army.
Six years after Hazzard’s article, a small Austrian publication, Profil, focused extensively on Waldheim’s Nazi past. Even then, investigative foreign pieces like this earn no notice unless picked up in a major American newspaper. Such was the case with the Waldheim story. The day after the Profil article, The New York Times ran a front-page story of such length that Hazzard could be forgiven for believing that piece had been “held in readiness” by the Newspaper of Record for an opportune time such as this.
Sometimes, nations elect to their highest office figures that foreign observers can only regard with astonishment and bafflement over how revelations of outrageous lies can be pushed to the side by voters. The most recent instance of this, of course, occurred last month in the United States. But Austria experienced a similar moment in 1986, when it rallied around newly elected Waldheim President, even after devastating proof had emerged of his deceit about his background.
In his memoir In the Eye of the Storm, Waldheim engaged in a lie that could be—and was—quickly disproven: that, after he was wounded on the Russian front, he spent the rest of the war writing his doctorate at the University of Vienna. Instead, in short order, representatives of the World Jewish Congress determined that in early 1942, Waldheim was posted to the German high command in Belgrade and spent much of the war as an intelligence and administrative officer in the Balkans.
The question now became, what else might Waldheim have been concealing? The Balkans was notorious in WWII for being a killing ground. While hard proof of his direct involvement in these war crimes was lacking, it seemed entirely possible that he had known much, much more about his unit’s atrocities than he was letting on. Additional interesting speculation swirled around what influence his past might have had on his selection for the U.N. post. Had the Soviet Union used its knowledge of his activities to blackmail him? Had the U.S. then used him as a double-agent against the Kremlin?
By 1987, the United States Justice Department's placed Waldheim on its "watch list" of prohibited people—the first time in U.S. history that the head of a friendly country had been designated an undesirable alien suspected of war crimes with the German army in World War II. He remained a diplomatic pariah for most of the rest of his six-year term in office.
It mattered little to most of his countrymen. More than a few identified with his words upon stepping down from his nation’s highest office in 1992:
“The majority of them [his generation] were sent into a war that they did not want. They had to wear a uniform that, for many people, particularly the Jewish people, became a symbol for persecution, misery and death. I have learned how difficult it was for me as a member of this generation to make clear a contradiction that is hardly understandable for the generation born later—namely the contradiction to have rejected this regime from the first hour on, even though I lived under this regime and wore its uniform."