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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 June 2007, 13:12 GMT 14:12 UK
Obituary: Kurt Waldheim
Kurt Waldheim
Kurt Waldheim: distinguished diplomat who fell from grace

After a distinguished diplomatic career, culminating in 10 years as UN Secretary General, Dr Kurt Waldheim found himself embroiled in bitter controversy over his war record more than 40 years after the end of the World War II.

It was to damage his reputation for ever.

Born in a small town in lower Austria, Kurt Waldheim entered his country's foreign service in the autumn of 1945, and, during the next 25 years, held a succession of senior posts.

His career with the United Nations started before Austria became a member of the organisation; in 1955 he was sent to New York as United Nations observer, and later, after conducting the negotiations for Austria's entry, became head of his country's delegation.

Overshadowed by Kissinger

He was elected secretary general in 1971, in succession to U Thant of Burma.

During his first year in office, the war in Vietnam and the continuing tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours were matters of deep concern to him, though he found it hard to intervene directly in either.

In the mid-1970s, in the Middle East especially, he found himself overshadowed by the spectacular diplomacy of the US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

Still, the calm and judicious way Dr Waldheim handled a thankless job helped to ensure his unanimous election to a second five-year term in December 1976.

Ayatollah Khomeini
Ayatollah Khomeini refused to see him
In 1980, Kurt Waldheim flew to Iran in a vain attempt to negotiate the release of the American hostages held in Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeini refused to see him.

While he was there it was announced that a plot to kill him had been foiled. In 1981 he was anxious to continue for another term, but this was vetoed by China.

The most turbulent part of Dr Waldheim's life was still to come. In November 1985 he was nominated for the Austrian presidency. Four months later, the World Jewish Congress accused him of concealing a Nazi past.

It claimed he had been an officer attached to a German Army command which sent more than 42,000 Greek Jews from Salonika to their deaths, and was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Yugoslavs in the Kozara mountains.


At first, Dr Waldheim said the allegations were an attempt to discredit his presidential campaign.

The emergence of this picture proved explosive

But later he had to admit the fact that he was serving with the German Army in 1942-3, when, according to his 1977 autobiography, he had been invalided out after being wounded on the Russian front.

And a 1944 picture emerged which showed him in uniform with other officers. In spite of the allegations, he was elected president of Austria, but then found himself internationally ostracised by all but a handful of countries.

Dr Waldheim resisted all pressure to resign even after a report of the international commission of historians was published. It found that he was more than just a lowly bureaucrat and had done nothing to delay or counter injustices of which he was aware.

Dr Waldheim said his accusers had lied and faked evidence. But his support in Austria dropped.

A further allegation against him concerned the execution of a group of British commandos at a German headquarters where he was serving as a junior officer.

He denied having had anything to do with questioning them.

In 1988 it became known - apparently for the first time - that he had been given an honorary knighthood by the Queen in 1969, when he was Austrian foreign minister.

Questions still remain unanswered as to why the security services of the major powers apparently failed to find any hint of war crimes when they, presumably, checked Dr Waldheim before he was appointed United Nations secretary general.

Or, if they did know his full record, why the appointment still went ahead.

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