Election of Kurt Waldheim as President

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In 1986 Austrians prepared to elect a new president. The race featured two major candidates, Kurt Waldheim for the ÍVP and Kurt Steyrer for the SPÍ, plus two less well-known candidates, a Green party activist and a former member of the FPÍ. Waldheim was one of Austria's best known citizens by virtue of his having served two terms as secretary general of the United Nations in the 1970s. Waldheim had joined the ÍVP only in early 1985 when the party decided to offer him its presidential candidate's spot. He was presented to the voters as "the man the world trusts." Steyrer was the minister for health and the environment in the SPÍ-FPÍ government. His campaign stressed his role as a family man and a humanitarian.

The 1986 presidential campaign would have taken place without many people outside Austria taking note of it, except that it focused on an issue that proved extremely sensitive for audiences inside and outside of the country. In March 1986, Profil, a Vienna based magazine specializing in investigative reporting, began to publish a series of articles claiming that Waldheim had left out crucial details about his service in the army, the German Wehrmacht, during World War II. In an autobiography published a few months before, Waldheim had glossed over most of his wartime service, alleging that he had spent much of the war in Vienna studying law while recuperating from wounds he had received. Profil, foreign newspapers, and the World Jewish Council in New York unearthed evidence that Waldheim had spent considerable time on duty in the Balkans and in Salonika, Greece. The German army had carried out brutal occupations of these areas, murdering thousands of Yugoslav partisans and deporting Greek Jews to the concentration camps in Central Europe. Waldheim, while not accused of personally participating in any atrocities, made the unbelievable claim that he had not heard of any misdeeds by the German armed forces in the Balkans or Greece until he had read the current newspaper accounts. He stuck by his account that he had been on leave when atrocities were committed, and he defended himself by saying he "had only done his duty as a soldier."

As the scrutiny of Waldheim intensified, Austrians became polarized over whether to defend or criticize him. Many older Austrians, particularly those who had served in the German army, agreed with his self-defense that he had merely done his duty in a war that Austria had not wished for. Others became more suspicious of Waldheim when documentary evidence was produced suggesting that he may have joined the Nazi Party to further his chances for a diplomatic career. The presidential campaign degenerated into a mudslinging affair, and the ÍVP launched attacks against the character of the SPÍ candidate.

Despite the furor surrounding him, on May 4, 1986, Waldheim outpolled Steyrer by 49.7 to 43.7 percent. He fell only 16,000 votes short of the absolute majority required for victory, and thus a runoff between the two top candidates was scheduled for June 8. Waldheim won the runoff handily, garnering 54 percent of the vote. Steyrer's candidacy had been handicapped by his membership in a government burdened by financial mismanagement of state industries and other scandals. Waldheim benefited from a wave of sympathy from certain segments of the Austrian electorate, who viewed him as a victim of unfair attacks.

The Waldheim presidency proved to be a major burden for Austria. In April 1987, after a one-year study of the matter by the United States Department of Justice, the United States placed Waldheim on its "watch list" of undesirable aliens. The department had concluded that there was "a prima facie case that Kurt Waldheim assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of persons because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion." Waldheim became the first active chief of state ever to be placed on the list of 40,000 subversives, terrorists, and criminals. Waldheim became isolated internationally and found support only from the Soviet Union, some of the communist governments of Eastern Europe, and Arab states such as Jordan, one of the few countries he was to visit during his presidency.

In June 1987, the Viennese branch of the SPÍ passed a resolution calling for Waldheim to resign. Chancellor Vranitzky and Sinowatz, the chairman of the SPÍ, defended Waldheim, arguing that he had been elected democratically. Strains were beginning to appear within the ÍVP-SPÍ coalition over the affair, and somehow a resolution needed to be brought about. In an effort to achieve this resolution, the Austrian government announced that it would appoint an international panel of historians and human rights experts to examine the whole matter.

The panel presented its findings in February 1988. The panel found no direct evidence that Waldheim had participated in war crimes during his military service in the Balkans and Greece. However, it concluded that he must have had some knowledge that atrocities were taking place. Predictably, Waldheim took the panel's report as his exoneration, as did most ÍVP leaders. The president gave a speech in which he said he believed it to be in the best interests of Austria that he remain in office.

The release of the panel's report came one month before the fiftieth anniversary of the Anschluss of March 1938. At a public commemoration of this event in Vienna, Vranitzky solemnly informed the Austrian people that it was time for all of them to face up to the fact that their country had been not only the first victim of Nazi aggression but also a participant in Hitler's military conquests. Waldheim gave a television address in which he described the Holocaust as one of the greatest tragedies of history and admitted that Austrians had played a role in it. He condemned fanaticism and intolerance and expounded on Austria's dual role as victim and culprit. For Waldheim's critics, it was a respectable performance, but woefully late. Austrian emotions had been rubbed raw by the Waldheim affair, but at least it presented Austrians with an opportunity to discuss openly issues that had effectively been taboo for fifty years.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress