Kurt Waldheim’s Past

Gitta Sereny

A very disturbing thing has happened to journalism, to the writing of history, and even to justice. In anything to do with the Nazis, whose doings continue to preoccupy us 45 years on, any attempt at detachment is considered suspect, any degree of objectivity reprehensible. Somewhat obsessed with the subject myself, I have a good deal of personal experience of this phenomenon. Over the past twenty years I have spent some thousands of days, I suppose, talking to one-time Nazis, to those who suffered under them and those who fought them. I have written about the unpopular Nazi-crime trials in Germany – and was criticised for praising the Germans for their tenacity in going on with them. I have written about the so-called ‘revisionists’, who obscenely wish to deny the existence of the gas-chambers – and was criticised for upholding their right to voice these irrational opinions. I have battled in print against people like David Irving (Hitler’s War), who misuse history to advance their dangerous ideologies, and, at the other end of the scale, men like Martin Gray (For those I loved), who use these appalling events for self-aggrandisement. Interestingly, nobody minds much about Irving, but attacking Gray causes wrathful indignation among Holocaust dogmatists. I sought to learn from men who became monsters, such as Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka (about whom I wrote in Into That Darkness) and was severely taken to task by the same kind of fanatics, who feel that it is not only pointless but immoral to engage in dialogue with such men.

The Hitler Diaries scandal ended in a disgraceful trial and prison sentences for the little forger-crook Kujau and the Hitler-bedazzled Stern journalist Heidemann. Eight months’ research into the background proved to me that there were very different political forces and psychological motivations behind this deplorable episode from what had been assumed: but the idea was generally unacceptable. The two dupes had had their just deserts; the public – in Germany and America most of all – got the laundered story it appeared to want; and the people who had really conceived this disgusting whitewash of Hitler are sleeping soundly in their beds.

And then in 1987 we had Klaus Barbie. Let me hasten to add – before I am accused of carrying a flag for criminals – that there is no doubt that Barbie, a carefully-trained Gestapo officer with a real penchant for torture, was a particularly unpleasant specimen whom many people have reason to remember with horror, and who – like many others – should not die peacefully in bed. But the roll-call of horror is long and infinitely varied, and nothing that has emerged about Barbie (except that his field of wartime activity was France) can explain the inflated media reaction or the judicial handling of his case.

Thus the much-praised Lyon court appeared untroubled by the disappearance of the principal witness for the defence, whose hiding-place in Alsace was found with ease by journalists, but who remained ‘introuvable’ by the French Police. Is it conceivable that this was because the witness might have disproved the involvement of Barbie in the most heinous crime of which he was accused, the only one that clearly came under the heading of a ‘crime against humanity’, which, since ‘war crimes’ were barred under the statute of limitations, was the only one he could still be tried for? This was the deportation to Auschwitz of the Jewish orphans of Lisieux. Quite apart from the missing witness, whose evidence could have been that Barbie was not present when they were rounded up by the Gestapo, the court also blithely ignored unequivocal documentary proof (of which I have a photocopy in my files) that it was not Barbie but a group of Eichmann’s henchmen in Paris who made the decision to send the children to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

The final mockery of justice in the Barbie case was the delivery of the judgment – on an indictment of over three hundred points – precisely on the schedule announced five days before: grotesquely, less than five hours after jury and judge had retired.

It is true that the perception that not only the Nazis but every violent society produces men such as Barbie (see Algeria, Vietnam, Cambodia, the West Bank and finally Ireland) is gaining ground. Barbie’s counsel, Maître Jacques Vergès, based his whole defence on the premise that a French court was not qualified to sit in judgment on a German who had done the same in France as the French, unhampered by public or judicial censure, had done in Algeria (where his wife underwent torture). Monsieur Vergès considered the Barbie case so unwinnable in Lyon that he made the deliberate decision to use it for polemical purposes (however honourable). While it is certainly true that the principle of holding men individually responsible for crimes against humanity in war or ‘on the back of war’ has to be applied equally to all men and all nations, this in itself does not disqualify any particular court from trying such men, and it most certainly does not exempt Nazi criminals from being tried wherever a court represents those against whom they offended. The problem of such trials, however – aside from the logistical one of the age, health and memory of the accused and witnesses – is the atmosphere in which they take place. The real significance of the Barbie case was that the court allowed itself to become involved in trying a symbol. The significance of the Demjanjuk case in Israel is that there the judges have attempted, despite immense handicaps, to try an individual.

As matters stand at present, those called to account – by the media rather than by the courts – for their actions under the Nazis fare very differently from soldiers who can plead provocations we can sympathise with, or men from civilisations other than ours. By unspoken accord, objective assessment is withheld from anyone who did anything, or left anything undone, under the Nazis. There is at present no one to whom this applies more than the President of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, to whose alleged deeds and moral flaws the world press has devoted millions of emotive words over the last two years. What is it about this essentially rather simple man that arouses such violent passions?

‘Why do they go on so about me? Do you understand the reasons?’ he asked me, sounding honestly puzzled rather than self-pitying, when, during the week leading up to the Anschluss commemorations in Vienna, I spent several hours with him in the Hofburg, where the Emperor Joseph II’s huge golden office is now his. Our meeting had been planned as an informal talk on questions of faith and morality, rather than one more inquisition, of which he had by this time undergone dozens.

His face alight, he lovingly explained a magnificent painting in the corner where we sat down to tea, of an amateur operatic performance at the Palace of Schönbrunn in 1765, to mark the Crown Prince Joseph’s marriage to Maria Josepha of Bavaria. On stage were the four daughters of the Empress Maria Theresia; in the audience the huge Imperial family and their suite. And had I been shown the little altar built into a bit of movable wall next door, in what had been the Empress’s bedroom?

‘Even the British Queen thought our Hofburg extraordinary,’ said his personal assistant, 37-year-old Ralph Scheide, who sat in on our conversation.

‘He knows more about me than I do,’ Waldheim joked. Scheide, who took on this difficult job six months after Waldheim had been elected, addresses him as ‘Du – Herr Bundes-präsident’.

The lack of antipathy Waldheim aroused in me is echoed in the above books, which belong to the two ends of a spectrum. Waldheim, by two French journalists, Luc Rosenzweig and Bernard Cohen, is more of a tract than a historical examination, whereas Waldheim: The Missing Years is by an American historian. Herzstein was the first researcher to be commissioned, by the World Jewish Congress, to look into Waldheim’s past, and the Austrian President – who finds it difficult to hide his feelings about that body, though he tries – will be hard put to believe that anyone so selected could think or write anything positive about him. Nevertheless, only Herzstein’s prologue – in which he dramatically recounts hearing of the discovery of an ‘old faded document on microfilm’ in which the Yugoslavs charged Waldheim with murder as a war criminal – panders to public expectation. The remainder of the book, barring a few forgivable speculations, is a very meticulous and even sympathetic analysis of claims and counter-claims.

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