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Barring Kurt Waldheim

Lawrence Bush
April 26, 2017

Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department permanently barred Austria’s President Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, from entering the U.S. on this date in 1987. Waldheim was accused of having been a Nazi intelligence officer during World War II, stationed within spitting distance of the Jasenovac concentration camp, which was known as “the Auschwitz of the Balkans,” where close to 100,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and political prisoners were killed. Waldheim, however, denied any knowledge of war crimes, and an international investigative body determined that “resistance,” had Waldheim offered it, “would have been limited to a formal protest or on the refusal to serve any longer in the army, which would have seemed to be a courageous act, however, would have not led to any practical achievement.” In a two-page letter published in Austria the day after Waldheim died at 88 in 2007, he admitted making “mistakes” (“but these were certainly not those of a follower let alone an accomplice of a criminal regime”) and asked his critics for forgiveness. “Although it was never proved that Waldheim himself committed atrocities during World War II,” said the New York Times obituary, “he was a lieutenant in army intelligence, attached to brutal German military units that executed thousands of Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported thousands of Greek Jews to death camps from 1942 to 1944. Waldheim lied about his wartime service in the Balkans, maintaining that his military career ended in 1942 after he was wounded in a battle on the Russian front. . . . But more than four decades later, his assertions were disputed by witnesses, photographs, medals and commendations given to Waldheim, and by his own signature on documents linked to massacres and deportations.”

“Waldheim may have been able to hide his past for so long because of the web of intrigue between intelligence services in the Cold War era. By early 1948, the UN War Crimes Commission listed him as a suspected war criminal subject to trial. Yet no government pressed to bring Waldheim to account or even to reveal his unsavory history. Instead Waldheim, a hardworking and talented diplomat, was allowed to rise to the pinnacle of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, and then go on to serve two terms as secretary general, from 1972 to 1982.” --

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.