election : austria 1986

illustration by iggdeh

by Lauren K. Wolfe

In June 1986, in a run-off election, former UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria—amid accusations of war crimes. Waldheim’s campaign precipitated a long-delayed reckoning by the Austrian people with their role in the murder of millions during WWII. This is the story of the events leading up to that election.

1985 : Kurt Waldheim declares his intention to run for president of Austria, as a representative of the right-leaning Austrian People’s Party. In January of this year, his memoirs are published, in German and English translation. The book details his 40-year career in the diplomatic service since 1945, spent variously as Austrian Ambassador to the UN, Ambassador to Canada, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and two terms as UN General Secretary (1972–1981). The memoirs touch only briefly on his military service during WWII, stating that he was drafted into the Germany army in 1938 and served on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded and then dismissed from service in 1942. He alleges to have spent 1942 to 1945 studying law in Vienna.

March 1986 : Two months before the election, journalist Hubertus Czernin publishes an article, “Waldheim and the SA,” in the news magazine profil. In it, facts about Waldheim’s military service—elided or omitted from his autobiography—are disclosed : Waldheim had been a registered member of the Nazi Student League as of 1938, as well as a member of the mounted corps of the Sturmabteilung, or SA, a Nazi paramilitary organization. In the days following, the international press picks up the story and the New York Times reports evidence that Waldheim had been attached as an intelligence officer to the German Army Group E operating in the Balkans between 1942 and 1945, during which period the brutal repression of partisan resistance and the mass deportation of Jews were both taking place. 

Waldheim’s response : 1. Denial : I was not a member of these organizations; someone else must have filled out this paperwork; I had no knowledge of any deportations or assassinations; I did my duty like thousands of others. 2. Accusation : This is a smear campaign coming from abroad. 3. Reverse Victim & Offender : “You tell me I’ve contributed to creating a lack of clarity? I cannot accept that. You are to blame for this situation,” he tells a television interviewer.

Austrian protestors popularize the slogan : “We don’t want a memory lapse for president!” 

24 March 1986 : The World Jewish Congress—an NGO with special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council—challenges Waldheim’s narrative, producing new evidence of his presence in the Balkans, including a photograph of him at an air field in Podgorica, capital city of present-day Montenegro, in May 1943, with SS Lieutenant General Artur Phleps, who was posthumously adjudicated a war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. The WJC alleges that, as an intelligence officer whose duty it was to sign off on staff reports submitted by SS units tasked with organizing deportations, Waldheim’s response is both incredible and disingenuous. Records are produced detailing numbers of Greek and Yugoslav partisans killed and bearing Waldheim’s signature; Waldheim is directly questioned regarding this evidence. 

His response : 1. A “both sides” argument : It was a brutal war; many were killed on both sides. 2. The “desk criminal” defense : I don’t deny that many were killed, but my activity was a normal part of bureaucratic operations and had nothing to do with atrocities. 

Protest becomes international : In the US, protestors call for the UN to make public its files on Waldheim. 

25 March 1986 : The WJC holds its annual conference in Vienna. Leaders of the Austrian People’s Party respond, expressing a barely veiled anti-Semitism in their allusions to “international interference” in sovereign matters. 

Background 1985 : As the Cold War is beginning to thaw, Ronald Reagan visits West Germany, where he requests, in the company of then-head of state Helmut Kohl, to see the graves of not only conscripted soldiers but also SS officers at Bitburg Cemetery. Meanwhile, Walter Reder—a war criminal who commanded the Marzabotto massacre  in which hundreds of Italian civilians were murdered in reprisal for partisan attacks—is released from Italian prison after 33 years; Reder’s repatriation had been advocated for by all prior Austrian heads of state, irrespective of political party.

On the left : The question arises as to who precisely is welcome in Austria.

3 April 1986 : A televised hearing is held, on the question of Waldheim’s relative complicity or innocence. The hearing and the surrounding activity are a matter of international interest. Protestors demand Waldheim’s withdrawal from the presidential race. The Austrian People’s Party openly mobilizes latent anti-Semitic sentiment among voters, under the declared pretense of fighting against it. Increasingly, the presidential election appears as a referendum on Austria’s capacity to reckon with its past. 

One month before the election : The US Congress begins investigation into Waldheim’s involvement in the war. Waldheim responds by doubling down on the “both sides” argument. Functionaries of the Austrian People’s Party disavow publicly the concept of “collective guilt” in an effort to parry the international movement to force a reckoning with Austrian involvement in Nazi atrocities. Photos of the deportations of Greek Jews from Thessaloniki, where Waldheim was stationed at the time, are discovered in the Balkans’ only war-era German-language newspaper and are widely republished; the WJC asks: Did Waldheim read his own reports? his own newspapers?

His response : A dog whistle : “A very small but very influential group, influential to the media” is responsible for this pressure to withdraw my candidacy. 

22 April 1986 : The US Congress holds a public inquiry into the WJC allegations that Waldheim covered up his past affiliation with the SA and may be responsible for war crimes. Congressman Tom Lantos, a Jewish emigré from Hungary, in questioning Waldheim’s son Gerhard, who represented his father at the televised hearing, alters the terms of the controversy from deception and credibility to facts and denial, stating that the deportation of Jews and the campaign against partisans were “the central fact of life in the Balkans. This was the pivotal development. This was the focus of activity.” 

In response : A flip of the script : It is strongly implied by representatives of the Austrian People’s Party after the congressional hearing that the WJC is engaged in a campaign of retaliation against Waldheim for his perceived anti-Israel policies as Secretary General of the UN. The word “scapegoat” is put into play. 

In fact : In 1975, the UN adopted resolution 3379 (XXX), which stated that—on the basis of prior resolutions affirming that doctrines of racial differentiation are “scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous” and noting also that “the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin”—“zionism is a form of racial discrimination.”  

26 April 1986 : In a televised interview, Austrian journalist Hugo Portisch breaks down the international historical conditions that resulted in Austria’s peculiar internal postwar ambivalence, which lay at root of the scandal of Waldheim’s candidacy : The Allied Forces provided an out for those Austrians who were complicit in the atrocities of the Nazi regime, by facilitating the narrative that the Austrians were the “first victims” of the Nazis. This narrative itself had ambivalent motives. Indeed, Austrian citizens had first-hand experience of conscription, internment, political persecution, and material suffering. On the other hand, the sooner a state treaty was signed, establishing Austrian sovereign statehood, the sooner the Allied Forces could cease occupation. In the context of an emergent Cold War, the question became: What do you do with a Central European state that includes 550,000 registered Nazis? A state, moreover, that will be crucial in deciding the postwar balance of power in Central Europe, in the contest between Soviet and American influence? One answer : integrate them, enfranchise them. This meant that postwar Austrian political parties wound up vying for the votes of unregenerate Nazis, which had ideological as well as material effects—for instance on the failure of any resolution that might have provided reparations to Austrian Jews. Herein also resides the key to the cynical denial of “collective guilt” by Austrian People’s Party functionaries in the 1980s : The state of Austria is indeed innocent of atrocities for the reason that it did not exist at the time they were committed. Individuals alone must bear the guilt of their actions. And by this point, Austrians of the war generation had long been integrated, determined worthy of civil rights and protections. 

1 May 1986 : 600 intellectuals and public figures sign a petition calling for Waldheim to withdraw his candidacy. International opinion registers denial and refusal to accept responsibility as symptomatic of Austrian politics and Austrian culture. Protests continue. 

4 May 1986 : In a first round of voting, from a pool of four candidates, Waldheim receives the most votes but falls short of the requisite majority, with just 49.64%. 

Meanwhile : the US Congress conducts hearings on whether Waldheim should be put on the government watchlist; Waldheim supporters—civilians and party members—double down on the “both sides” / “all lives matter” narrative; and Czernin, whose earlier exposure of Waldheim’s military service record catalyzed the scandal, admits sardonically that Waldheim is “the perfect president for Austria—and that’s a shame.”

8 June 1986 : In the run-off election, Waldheim wins the presidency with 53.9% of the popular vote.