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Home > News > Columnists > T P Sreenivasan

Kurt Waldheim: Rogue or Role Model?

June 26, 2007

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The old rogue is dead', said Robert Fisk in The Independent when news came of the death of former United Nations secretary general and later Austrian president Kurt Waldheim. He was characterised as 'disgraced UN chief and Nazi war criminal'.

In actual fact, he was considered a successful UN secretary general, deserving an unprecedented third term and his criminal record during the Second World War was never established beyond doubt.

His fall came after he had completed ten years at the helm of the UN and had become president of Austria. He was a free man, quite acceptable in the Vienna diplomatic circuit till the very end. Many ambassadors invited him to National Day receptions and sought him out to get perspectives on national and international issues.

As for Austrians, Waldheim was a hero, who was mainly responsible for bringing several UN agencies to Vienna, giving it the unique honour of having the largest gathering of diplomats in the world. Nazis are not universally hated in Austria. A neo-Nazi political party was in the ruling coalition for a while in the 21st century.

Several Austrians had protested when the notorious Nazi concentration camp near Vienna, Mauthausen, was turned into a national memorial to the victims of the Nazis. Even today, Austrian visitors to the memorial write in the visitors' book that the Nazis were right. No wonder, then, that rumours about Waldheim's complicity in war crimes did not deter Austrians from voting for him in a direct election for the presidency.

Waldheim was a master manipulator from his early days in the foreign service. He served only in Paris, Canada [Images] and New York and even managed to serve as foreign minister before offering himself for the post of UN secretary general. His nationality and background helped in his choice as successor to U Thant.

The UN Charter had envisaged the secretary general as the head of the UN Secretariat, on par with the Security Council and the General Assembly. Dag Hammarskjold had acted in that capacity, much to the chagrin of some permanent members of the Security Council.

Waldheim transformed the secretary general into a slave of the Security Council, indeed of the permanent members. This brought down the reputation of the secretary general and the secretariat, but Waldheim, with his 'head waiter' image, became a favourite of the permanent members.

The joke about him was that he licked his finger and held it up, like the sea captains of yore, to see where the wind blew before taking a view. His speeches never went beyond the lowest common denominator in the consensus resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council. His moves were so suspect in the eyes of the General Assembly that his missions abroad did not yield results.

Ayatollah Khomeini did not even meet him when he went to Teheran, in an effort to resolve the American hostage crisis. His efforts to resolve India-Pakistan differences were also pointless. He was not credited with any diplomatic victory, but remained a convenient tool in great power manipulations. The fact that he had the skill to do this at the height of the Cold War was a marvel in itself.

Kurt WaldheimThe Western countries tried to foist Waldheim on the UN for an unprecedented third term. China vetoed him, not because it disliked him, but because it thought that it was the turn of a developing country to provide the next secretary general. With the possibility of Salim Salim of Tanzania, who had danced in the aisles at the UN when China was admitted to the UN, the United States stuck to Waldheim till an equally colourless Javier Perez de Cueller emerged as the winner.

In 1981, Waldheim left New York in a trail of glory. Austria honoured its proud son by making him the largely ceremonial president of the country.

Hell broke lose only after Waldheim became president. Nobody had noticed before that his autobiography was rather reticent about his life during the Second World War. There was a vague reference to his having returned to Austria after being wounded in the war. But historians, who had not bothered to check his background during his ten years as the UN chief, unearthed the fact that Waldheim was in Yugoslavia and Greece during the war and that he worked directly under General Alexander Lohr, who was later hanged for war crimes.

A group of historians from different countries, commissioned by the Austrian government, confirmed that Waldheim was in the unit, but absolved him of participating directly in war crimes. His role was assessed as clerical and not executive. He may have merely typed out lists for executions, but exercised no judgment over the fate of those hapless Jews on his lists. They were not even designated as Waldheim lists by posterity.

The 'Waldheim Affair' in Austrian history became a mere footnote and he proceeded to serve his complete term, though he did not contest for a second term.

The US role in the 'Waldheim Affair' is the most astonishing. Considering that background checks are essential even for middle level appointments in the United States, how is it that the CIA or FBI did not stumble across the war record of Waldheim for ten long years? The only plausible explanation is that the US found Waldheim so indispensable in New York that it held back this information from the rest of the world.

The fact that the US did not acquiesce in the Austrian report on the 'Waldheim Affair' would show that the allegations were serious in the eyes of Washington. To bar an Austrian president from entering the United States should have been a major decision for the White House to take. To be fair to the US, it took a firm position when the neo-Nazi leader Jorge Haider joined the ruling coalition in Austria.

I discovered during my four years in Vienna that Waldheim had special warmth for India, based on his many friendships with international civil servants from India. He named several of them whenever he met me and also spoke glowingly about India's role in the United Nations. He had many stories to tell about his diplomatic experiences.

The last time I met him was at the home of the Egyptian ambassador to the UN, where Waldheim had come to meet one of his old Egyptian colleagues. He did not fail to remember his Indian colleagues like former Under Secretary General Narasimhan, the doyen of Indians at the UN during the Waldheim days.

Waldheim was no rogue. Nor was he discredited as the UN secretary general. History may well judge him as a war criminal if new evidence emerges about his complicity in crimes against the Jews. But he was no more than an ambitious bureaucrat, who made use of every opportunity to his advantage without the pangs of conscience and managed to climb dizzy heights.

His disservice to the UN was that he reduced the position of secretary general so low that his brilliant successors like Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan looked like rebels. The permanent members made him a role model for future chiefs of the UN.

Photograph: Kurt Waldheim, left, gives away an academic prize to Lebanese law student Chantal Sarkis at the Lebanese University in Beirut, May 31, 2002. AFP/Getty Images

For more articles by the writer, please click here

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.


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