Last week German President Richard von Weizsäcker formally invited Austrian President Kurt Waldheim to West Germany. Coming on the heels of Jewish anger over the Pope’s reception last month, it was clearly a victory for the beleaguered Waldheim, whose office has been desperately soliciting invitations. Von Weizsäcker, after all, cannot be dismissed as insensitive to Jewish feelings. His speech in May, 1985, acknowledging the great moral responsibility of the Germans for the Holocaust, was a landmark in IsraeliGerman relations. Although it will likely turn out to be a political land mine, the invitation was not without an element of courage as well as correctness. Waldheim is the head of state of a neighboring country. In addition, he is entitled, as are all men under natural justice, to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. For some of us, who as yet have no way of knowing just what Kurt Waldheim did during the war, that presumption is an important principle.
The invitation of von Weizsäcker, however, seemed to me the formal commencement of the overdue backlash to the campaign against Waldheim—a campaign that, in the absence of public evidence, seems fuelled more by Waldheim’s postwar petty lies about his career than by his wartime actions. Waldheim stands convicted of being a liar and a coward—as do many other world leaders we routinely honor—but as yet not of being a war criminal. The situation was perhaps best summed up by veteran Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. “I don’t say he is guilty or innocent—only that what I have seen up to now is not enough to call him a war criminal,” he said. “I am fighting for the truth, the historic truth—without emotions.”
The anti-Waldheim cause is an emotional one, of course. Condemning an alleged ex-Nazi is a morally refreshing thing to do and seems to require none of the standards of proof or opportunities for response that a similar blacklisting of a man for Communist atrocities would demand. The eagerness to condemn Waldheim accelerated last month when Pope John Paul lí granted him an audience.
The Pope, of course, could do little other than see Waldheim. The Vatican has received a procession of dreadful
people including Yasser Arafat and Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. The Pope’s business, after all, is to turn the other cheek. Austria is a Roman Catholic country that has been a pillar of the church for centuries. Without Austria, as British author Paul Johnson—whose most recent book is A History of the Jews—pointed out, Rome might not have survived. It was Austria that gave the counterreformation thrust, and whatever you and I think of the counterreformation, it is a matter of some importance to the Rock of St. Peter.
There has been some attempt made to portray the Pope as a man indifferent to the emotions of the Jews and their plight, but this is sheer poppycock. As the archives of the antidefamation league of B’nai B’rith confirm, this Pope, unlike many of his colleagues in the church, belonged to an underground group in Poland that took Jewish families out of the ghettos, gave them new
Waldheim stands convicted of being a liar — as do many other world leaders — but as yet not of being a war criminal
identity papers and, when necessary, found them hiding places. The Pope himself spent the war years in active resistance to the Nazis and needs no lessons from North Americans on correct anti-Nazi stands.
As for Waldheim, well, in fact the Third Reich was unsympathetic to both him and his family. Waldheim’s father was fired by the Nazis from his job as a schoolteacher because of political unreliability. As a fervent Catholic, Waldheim himself would never have been regarded as reliable, which may account for the low rank of first lieutenant with which he ended the war. What is interesting, however, is that in 1945, when the war was over, Austrian resistance fighter Fritz Molden recommended Waldheim for a job with Austria’s first postwar foreign secretary, wartime resistance leader Karl Gruber. The resistance was so small and tight-knit that it is hard to believe they would not have known who their enemies were. They clearly did not consider Waldheim a collaborator—let alone a war criminal. When I asked Molden if he would still recommend Waldheim today in light of all the so-
called “evidence” that has surfaced, the answer was “yes.”
There are many reasons, I think, for the wave of hostility toward Waldheim, and it would take a book to do justice to them. Unlike many prominent Germans, including such people as former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Waldheim has been evasive about his career in the German army. He lied about his tour of duty in the Balkans. As well, Jews feel a deep and understandable anger toward Austria, which unlike Germany has never admitted its complicity in the evils of the Third Reich, preferring instead to take refuge in the excuse of the country’s annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938. There is, too, a deep mistrust by Jews, again perfectly understandable, of the Catholic church, which boils up in hatred and anger toward any action that seems to once again show indifference to Jewish sensibilities.
It was, I think, a mistake of the Austrians to elect Waldheim as their president. As Austrian foreign minister, he authorized the closing of the embassy in Prague in 1968—at the time of the Soviet invasion, when Czech refugees were desperate for visas—to appease the Soviets, then refused to admit his complicity until later, when confronted with his signature on the document. On grounds of competence alone, as Norman Stone, professor of modern history at Oxford, has written in a recent essay published in the Daily Telegraph, Waldheim should have been disqualified from the presidency because of his lies. But that is a matter for the people of Austria. As it stands, Waldheim is a democratically elected president. He cannot be declared a nonperson by a campaign of smears, hints and tainted testimony against him, such as that of Yugoslavs, now dead, who implicated Waldheim during the kangaroo war-crimes courts of Marshal Josip Tito in the late 1940s.
The Second World War was fought, as I have written so often, to create a world in which people were presumed innocent until proven guilty and in which every person—Jew or non-Jew, Nazi or Communist, black or white— was entitled to equal justice and due process of law. As Stone argued so eloquently, unless there is some new evidence, the time has come to leave Kurt Waldheim alone. “In the course of international relations,” wrote Stone, “the world has to swallow many toads; Dr. Waldheim is merely a minnow with an ugly face.”
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