It is a country caught in its own contrasts, a land of wild, forested alpine slopes and—as the home of both Wolfgang Mozart and Sigmund Freud—a cradle of the arts and the intellect. Once the centre of a mighty European empire, Austria became an annex of Nazi Germany in 1938. Austrians shared in Adolph Hitler’s early Second World War triumphs and the ravages of his defeat. Since then, after 10 years of four-power Allied occupation, nonaligned Austria’s recovery has made it one of the economic success stories of postwar Europe. But the campaign for next week’s presidential election has reawakened wartime memories among many Austrians. Former United Nations (UN) secretary general and conservative presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim has faced accusations that he obscured his war record as a German army lieutenant in the Balkans. Said Waldheim: “I only did my duty.”
In fact, Waldheim’s recollection of duty has changed since 1985, when he published his autobiography. Then, he said that he had ended his active service in the German army when he was wounded in December, 1941, and implied that he had studied law in Vienna for the remainder of the war. But since early March spokesmen for the World Jewish Congress (WJC) have charged that from 1942 Waldheim was an intelligence officer in the Balkans, part of the German army’s infamous Group E, which was responsible for war crimes against Greek Jews and Yugoslavs. The accusa-
tions have led to a series of clumsy denials from Waldheim, who finally admitted that he did serve in the Balkansbut only as an interpreter.
Waldheim also insisted at first that he had not been aware of any war crimes. But last week he acknowledged to The New York Times that he had
known of the atrocities against Yugoslavs, as well as “measures taken against Jews.” Still, he insisted that he had not been involved in any wrongdoing and rejected suggestions that he should abandon his presidential bid. Said Waldheim: “If I had the slightest feeling that I had done anything wrong, I would certainly do it. But I haven’t. What I have been accused of are lies.” Meanwhile, rejecting what
Waldheim’s supporters described as foreign intrusions into Austria’s domestic politics, the conservative People’s Party distributed campaign posters reading, “We Austrians will vote for whom we want.”
That note of defiance has apparently gained the sympathy of many Austri-
ans. Last week opinion polls showed Waldheim leading his socialist opponent, former health minister Kurt Steyrer, by 39 per cent to 34 per cent, with 20 per cent of the voters still undecided. For his part, Steyrer has steered clear of the acrimonious debate even though his Socialist party has made the charges against Waldheim a central election issue. But some Socialist spokesmen acknowledge that the backlash caused by the WJC cam-
paign has hurt Steyrer’s chances. Said Socialist member of parliament Josef Cap: “The World Jewish Congress is busy getting Waldheim elected.”
The backlash has also included a new surge of anti-Semitism against Austria’s Jewish community—7,000 out of a.total population of 7.5 million. Jewish Welcome Service organizer Leon Zellman, for one, said that he and other prominent Vienna Jews re-
ceive hate mail daily and that some Jewish families refuse to answer their telephones because of threatening calls. But the WJC has refused appeals by Austrian Jews to halt the campaign, and WJC spokesmen maintain that Waldheim must be held accountable for his past. Declared WJC secretary general Israel Singer addressing Austrian Jews: “If you don’t like it in Austria, you don’t have to stay there. Israel is your home.”
The argument over Waldheim’s candidacy has partially obscured the shifting political balance in Austria. As head of state, the Austrian president has performed a largely ceremonial public role while sometimes working behind the scenes to help resolve critical differences within the parliament or the government. But the prospect of a Waldheim victory has alarmed the Socialist party, which has maintained a parliamentary majority for 14 years. For the past year the People’s Party has gained steadily on the Socialists in opinion polls, and spokesmen for both parties acknowledge that if Waldheim wins a majority on May 4 the People’s Party, which supports his candidacy, may develop enough momentum to win a parliamentary majority in the next general election, due in 1987.
Socialist supporters say that their defeat could undermine Austria’s harmonious system of economic decisionmaking. Under that arrangement, important economic matters are referred to advisory policy groups representing the government, labor unions and industry, much of it owned by the state. As a result, the government guarantees virtually full employment, the unions keep wage demands low and industrial managers help keep prices stable. Still, the government has lost support because of budget deficits, caused largely by losses in the nationalized steel and chemical industries.
As well, some Austrians say that they fear that the government will try to cut its deficit by decreasing pensions and social benefits. Both Steyrer and Waldheim have pledged to make the most of the presidency to ensure that this will not be done. They have also vowed to convince the government to keep a firmer grip on nationalized industries. But the debate over Waldheim’s past has dominated the campaign. Declared Socialist Chancellor Fred Sinowatz, the head of government: “The real issues are playing a less important part than the character of the man who is going to represent Austria for the next six years.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.