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Kurt Waldheim & Franz Jägerstätter: Contrasting Austrian Responses to the Unjust War


By Gordon C. Zahn | November 1986
Gordon C. Zahn, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the author of German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. His now classic book, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter, has just been reissued by Templegate Publishers.

Kurt Waldheim is the new President of Aus­tria. However, the controversial issues raised by his candidacy have not been resolved and are not like­ly to be resolved without much deeper and far-ranging reflection than has been possible in the at­mosphere of an exceptionally nasty political cam­paign. Some of the points demanding such reflection are obvious enough. Others, perhaps the most important, are likely to escape notice.

Most immediately obvious is the personal tra­gedy of a public figure of international repute, a former General Secretary of the United Nations, suddenly exposed to worldwide criticism for what appears to have been peripheral involvement in Nazi war crimes. Then, as if this were not scandal enough, he chose to persist in a thoroughly uncon­vincing attempt to cover or distort the facts of that alleged involvement. His continuing disregard for truth provides justification enough for the serious doubts expressed as to whether he was worthy of the office he sought and achieved.

The challenges to the veracity of Waldheim’s denials and justifications will have to be dealt with before he can hope to be fully effective in his new position. Until they are honestly faced and over­come, they cannot fail to undermine the expecta­tions of basic personal integrity one should be able to associate with individuals chosen to fill the highest office of any land.

By seeking to bury and deny his wartime rec­ord, Waldheim has converted what could have been a relatively minor issue from the past into a scandal of major proportions. After all, even allowing for the fact that, as far back as 1948, he was regarded as a possible candidate for formal war crimes charg­es, it is still not certain that he bore major or even direct responsibility for the war crimes in which his military unit was involved. As a desk officer of ju­nior rank, he seems to have performed relatively routine duties — passing on orders and informa­tion, initialing reports, and doing all the things any ambitious young officer seeking to impress his su­periors would have done. And did them well.

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