Waldheim Was Inevitable

How International Crisis Forced Austrians to Face an Unwanted Past

Opinion | Anna Claessen | July 2007

Before coming to Vienna, I had always thought of Austrians as Germans. I was not completely wrong since even Austrians wanted to be Germans and have "a greater Germany," after the collapse of the monarchy. Even with the Anschluss in 1938, many Austrians still thought Germany was their hope for the future.

It wasn’t until after the war that Austrians redefined themselves as Hitler’s first victims, as stated in the 1943 Moscow Declaration, which they may have seen as a necessary first move toward a viable future identity.

Kurt Waldheim was central to this struggle. Because after all, he forced Austria to come to terms with its National Socialist past.

"As a member of the Wehrmacht, I did what was necessary to survive the day, the system, the war – no more, no less,"  says in a quote from Waldheim’s autobiography, The Answer.

And even though Waldheim was UN Secretary General  for ten years, from 1972-1982, and president of Austria for six, from 1986-1992, he will be most remembered for his secrecy regarding his National Socialist past.

When Waldheim was nominated for the Austrian presidency in 1986, the press and the World Jewish Congress claimed Waldheim had been an officer attached to a unit of the Wehrmacht which was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Yugoslavs in the Kozara mountains. Waldheim’s denial of the allegations and his defense that he was only doing his duty, caused international outrage and he was forbidden to visit the United States for the rest of his life. But despite all this negative press, he was elected president. Perhaps many Austrians, like Waldheim, had cooperated with the Nazis ‘just to stay alive’.

The Waldheim Affair, as it was later called, forced Austrians to admit that they were not all passive victims of Nazi Germany as the Moscow Declaration had stated. Only recently has Austria begun paying reparations to Nazi victims and returning confiscated land and goods.

It didn’t need to have been Waldheim; it could just as easily have been someone else. Austria was doomed to pay its dues sooner or later.

But when you read Austrian history, it becomes clear that ever since Austria has been struggling to find a new identity. They are still searching, which is understandable in a cultural and divided country as Austria is.

Maybe that is why they market their cultural things to such great extent, so their former politics will stay in the shadow.

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