Kurt Waldheim

(1918—2007) Austrian diplomat and statesman, President 1986–92

Quick Reference

(b. 21 Dec. 1918).

President of Austria 1986–91 Born near Vienna, he attended the university there before and after World War II, in which he served as a young staff officer on the Eastern Front. There, he was involved in military activities resulting in the deportation of Jews and the shooting of Yugoslav partisans. He entered the Austrian foreign service from university and was Foreign Minister (1968–70), before being elected successor to U Thant at the UN. His period in office (1972–81) was at a time when the Security Council was regularly deadlocked, so that his efforts at international conciliation seldom succeeded, for example over the Iran hostage crisis, over Namibia, and in the Middle East.

After Waldheim announced his candidacy for the Austrian Presidency, his wartime record was severely criticized by the World Jewish Congress, since when the precise nature of his involvement in the Nazi atrocities, and his responsibility for them, has aroused heated discussion. Particularly his refusal to admit his complicity in the murder of Yugoslav partisans as an officer of the German army, in the face of photographic evidence, caused an international outcry. He stuck to his candidacy, however, and was elected with a clear majority. Despite his diplomatic status, he suffered several humiliations and was barred as a war criminal from visiting the USA. He refrained from standing for a second period in office. The Waldheim affair was a major landmark in the way Austrians considered their past. The legitimacy of postwar Austria had been founded on the idea that it had been Hitler's ‘first victim’ when it was ‘conquered’ in the Anschluss. Henceforth this became harder to sustain, as the enthusiasm with which many Austrians had supported Hitler and his anti‐Semitism became subject to international scrutiny.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »