Kurt Waldheim Dead at 88

Kurt Waldheim has died.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, whose legacy as head of the world body was overshadowed by revelations that he belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans in World War II, died Thursday. He was 88.

Waldheim, who was hospitalized in Vienna last month with an infection, died at home of heart failure, with his family at his bedside, state broadcaster ORF reported.

Kurt Waldheim and Wife Sissy 2002 Photo (via WikiPedia) Austrian President Heinz Fischer issued a statement expressing his “deepest condolences,” and officials lowered the flag outside his office to half-staff. “We have lost a great Austrian,” Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer said.

Waldheim, who served as U.N. chief from 1972-81, was first confronted with purported evidence of his personal implication in wartime atrocities when he ran for the Austrian presidency in 1986. He consistently denied any wrongdoing, defending himself against disclosures made by his main accuser, the World Jewish Congress, and by foreign media. But his initial denial of serving in the German army unit — and then assertions that he and fellow Austrians were only doing their duty — led to international censure and a decision by Washington to place him on a “watch list” of persons prohibited from visiting the United States. That ban was never lifted.

Waldheim’s ascendancy to the presidency led to a bruising controversy at home, and it damaged Austria’s reputation abroad. During his tenure from 1986-92, Austria was largely shunned by foreign leaders, and he never honored his pledge to be a strong president.

In Austria, Waldheim’s backers saw him as an innocent victim of a smear campaign launched from abroad but triggered at home. But his opponents kept clamoring for his resignation because of the huge loss of prestige for the country caused by his election.

In February 1988, a government-appointed international commission of six historians investigating his wartime service said it found no proof that Waldheim himself committed war crimes. But it also made clear that his record was far from unblemished. The panel declared that Waldheim was in “direct proximity to criminal actions.” Its report said that Waldheim knew about German army atrocities in the Balkans and never undertook any action to prevent or oppose them. They admitted later they dropped a reference to Waldheim’s “moral guilt” for fear of overstepping their mandate with a “judgmental” statement.

I was a kid during Waldheim’s tenure at the UN but he had a sterling reputation. It was truly bizarre to watch it unravel for alleged incidents that occurred forty-odd years earlier. Certainly, being in “direct proximity to criminal actions” covered a hell of a lot of people. Expecting people to take a strong moral stand leading to certain death in a futile cause is asking, methinks, a bit much.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    But his initial denial of serving in the German army unit — and then assertions that he and fellow Austrians were only doing their duty

    That sufficed to disqualify him as Secretary-General.

    OTOH, the unkind joke of the period — Q. What’s Waldheimer’s Disease? A. It’s when you can’t remember that you were a Nazi — was unfair and should never be remembered, particularly on the occasion of his death.

  2. James Joyner says:

    That sufficed to disqualify him as Secretary-General.

    It likely would have had it been public knowledge at the time. It wasn’t, though, until five years after he left that post.