Like a man trapped in a time warp, 67-year-old Kurt Waldheim is struggling to escape his past and get back to his future. The distinguished former Secretary-General of the United Nations has set his heart on winning the largely ceremonial presidency of Austria; yet, increasingly, he is mired in controversy over his role as a German army officer in World War II.

Critics accuse him of concealing his service in a Wehrmacht unit that committed war crimes, and so far the old soldier's rearguard battle to save his reputation is not going well. Photographs and documents unearthed from military archives have undermined his claims of innocence, forcing a series of damaging admissions. Yes, he might have been a member of two Nazi youth organizations, but only as a ploy to allay official suspicion of his family, which opposed Adolf Hitler's regime. True, he served as a staff officer in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945, when the Nazis were waging a cruel campaign against partisans, but he was merely an interpreter. Thousands of Greek Jews were deported to death camps, yet Waldheim, an intelligence officer stationed near Salonika at the time, says he saw and heard nothing of it. Finally, an official war diary was produced containing First Lieut. Kurt Waldheim's record of Hitler's orders to kill captured partisans and to ship suspects off to labor camps.

Persuasive as it is, the evidence has not finished off Waldheim's political career. Indeed, it may have helped. He collected 49.6 percent of the vote in the recent presidential election, only marginally short of the majority he sought, and he is expected to run a tight race against Socialist candidate Kurt Steyrer in the June 8 runoff.

The surprising thing was not that Waldheim's secret has finally emerged, but that he was able to sit on it as long as he did. While serving as head of the U.N. secretariat from 1972 until 1982, he was custodian of his own criminal war record. A file containing explosive documentary material had been compiled by the U.N. War Crimes Commission and deposited under seal in a Manhattan archive. Occasionally, when rumors of the unsavory Nazi associations drifted to the surface, Waldheim had a standard deceptive reply. He was drafted into the German army after war broke out in 1939, serving honorably until he suffered a leg wound on the Eastern Front in 1941. Waldheim claimed that he then returned to Vienna where he resumed his law studies. It is now clear that his tale was untrue, and that in fact he returned to active duty and fought on to the German defeat in 1945.

The full story of Waldheim's past lay scattered in files in the National Archives in Washington, meticulously kept German unit records and war crimes dossiers compiled in Yugoslavia. The pieces began to fall into place in January, after Waldheim was nominated for the presidency. The Austrians had been squabbling over whether to remove a plaque honoring Gen. Alexander Löhr, once commander of the Austrian air force. Known as the Butcher of the Balkans for his World War II atrocities, Löhr was hanged by the Yugoslavs in 1947. Last January an Austrian magazine article on the plaque dispute suggested that the general couldn't have been so bad: After all, even Kurt Waldheim had served with Löhr. The mention of Löhr and Waldheim is said to have caught the eye of an Austrian researcher for the World Jewish Congress (WJC).

Suddenly, the rumors had a common thread—General Löhr. The researcher, who the WJC declines to identify, found someone who had purchased an old picture in an Innsbruck curio shop. It was the now familiar snapshot of a young, beanpole-lean Waldheim, flanked by an Italian officer and a notorious German SS commander, at an airfield in Yugoslavia. When Waldheim was shown the photograph, he confirmed its authenticity.

The WJC then hired Robert E. Herzstein, a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, to investigate Waldheim's murky military service. "The material was there for anyone to see," said Herzstein, who steeped himself in the files of the National Archives in Washington. "All you had to do was to assume the improbable. I assumed that he was an intelligence officer and it turned out that he was." The U.N.'s own files, leaked to the press, branded Waldheim a war criminal who should be brought to trial. Confronted by a range of incriminating material, Waldheim dug in. "I have not thought about these things for 40 years," he told reporters. "I was never aware of the Jewish deportations, but of course I was aware of the partisans. They were the enemy.... Thousands of German soldiers were killed. They were ambushed almost daily.... I think one should see both sides."

The appeal for understanding was sympathetically received in Austria, where many citizens could readily believe Waldheim's claim that he did his duty "as a good soldier." Besides, Waldheim is widely admired for his postwar diplomatic career—he was Austria's ambassador to Canada and foreign minister before occupying the top U.N. post—and for his impeccable family life with wife Cissy and their three grown children.

Officials of the WJC do not regret the decision to challenge Waldheim. The truth was paramount, says WJC executive director Elan Steinberg. "We were about to tell the world that this man, one of the most important political figures in the world, was an unrepentant Nazi and had carried on a political hoax of the most elaborate sort, perhaps the most elaborate political deception of our time."

Unwilling to accept that Waldheim was able to lose his past so easily, some observers suspect that foreign powers may have conspired to protect him for their own sinister motives. Particularly puzzling is the failure of the Yugoslavian government to follow up on its 1947 charge that Waldheim was involved in "murder, slaughter, shooting of hostages."

"There's no question that the Yugoslavs knew everything," said Charles Lichenstein, former deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "And if they knew everything before the Tito-Stalin split, then you can be sure the KGB knew everything. It remains unexplained why the Soviet posture was one of mum's the word. Did they have their hooks into Waldheim? It is a reasonable question to ask."

Even if that speculation is groundless, Waldheim has yet to make a satisfactory explanation for his selective amnesia. "There are lapses in memory and there are lapses in memory," says Lichenstein. "It is absolutely ludicrous to assume he forgot three years of military service. He's lying." Once a diplomatic topliner, Waldheim is now a bitter one-liner. "Have you heard about Walzheimer's disease?" goes the joke. "You forget you were a Nazi."

  • Contributors:
  • Brenda Eady,
  • Maria Wilhelm.