Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Austria: `Waldheim affair' lingers. Casts shadow over parliament elections

Austria's ``Waldheim affair'' will not go away. Just as it played a part in the Austrian presidential election earlier in the year, for many Austrians it has also cast its shadow over next Sunday's parliamentary elections.

Conservative Kurt Waldheim defeated Socialist candidate Kurt Steyrer in last spring's presidential election amid a welter of allegations from the World Jewish Congress and Israel that Dr. Waldheim was concealing an active Nazi past.

About these ads

Neither candidate won outright on the first ballot in May, but Waldheim succeeded in a June runoff vote. Austrians, and foreign observers, believed his ultimate win was less on merit than out of a resentment here to what was seen as an effort by outsiders to dictate Austria's internal affairs.

Subsequently the international fuss over Waldheim was moderated, though not forgotten. As campaigning for this parliamentary election got under way, charges were again made that Waldheim had been active in the Nazi Army. Allegations that he was involved in the 1942 Kozara operation in which 13,000 Yugoslavs were killed surfaced in the Western and Jewish press. Once again, Austrian news media responded angriliy.

The new furor prompted Chancellor Franz Vranitzky to recall the Austria's ambassador to Israel. It was stressed that this was done only ``for consultation.'' There was no hint that the envoy's return would be delayed unduly, but he has not yet gone back.

The Israeli ambassador here left Austria immediately after Waldheim was elected, without making the visit to the head of state that is customary before such departures. That omission further fueled resentment here.

Austrian feeling over the issue was further fueled when, at the opening of the Helsinki review Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) here Nov. 4, all but eight of 34 foreign ministers shunned protocol meetings with Waldheim.

There was no official Austrian comment. But the snub by United States Secretary of State George Shultz and leading West European figures rankled many Austrians.

Those who are upset are not necessarily conservative Waldheim partisans. Many are middle-class Austrians, born during or just after World War II, who are highly critical of the ambivalent and evasive attitudes Waldheim displayed when questions about his wartime record were first raised. But they also believe that evidence is quite lacking that he was either an active or complicit participant in the crimes of the Nazi Army units to which he belonged as a junior staff officer.

About these ads

In this parliamentary election, the Socialist chancellor has been clearly concerned that the xenophobia he sees lurking under the surface here could militate against his own party's prospects, just as it helped defeat its presidential candidate last spring. Mr. Vranitzky made it clear that his recall of the ambassador was aimed at ``clarifying'' relations between Israel and Austria. He also voiced the wish that the matter of Austria's presidential choice not affect normal diplomatic representation nor preclude good relations between the two countries.

The generally conservative mass-circulation tabloid Kronen Zeitung recently ran an editorial saying that if Israel and the World Jewish Congress continue to ``interfere so massively'' in Austria's domestic affairs, they will ``achieve only the opposite result from what they want, as they should realize from the Waldheim case.''

Whether the Israeli government or the World Jewish Congress would like to see a Socialist Party win in the coming election is a moot point - for them, Waldheim himself is the issue. But there is still enough feeling here against outside interference to ensure that votes may well be swung again at the coming polls. The presence of many human rights and Jewish emigration groups for the CSCE review meeting here demonstrated their resolve that the Waldheim issue not be overlooked.

The issue plays into concerns of the Austrian authorities for their country's international image, as well as into concerns of the political parties - the Socialists especially - that it may become a voting factor.

There were, doubtless, many Austrians who switched last May not only because they disliked ``outsiders telling us how to vote,'' but also because they felt the dark colors in which the nation at large was painted were unjust.

Austrians were not alone in this. Many outside observers also saw it as manifestly unfair that the country's record in postwar humanitarian action should be called into question in this way. It was, for example, just at this time 30 years ago that Austria opened its doors to the first of some 200,000 Hungarians fleeing after the collapse of their 1956 uprising, who later found sanctuary here or were helped in transit elsewhere.

A veteran member of Vienna's resistance to the 1938 Nazi occupation has just published a small volume on ``Another Austria,'' describing the men and women from all facets of political party and religious life, Jewish included, who perished in standing up to the Nazis. No fewer than 2,700 Austrians, the book documents, were executed as resistance fighters. Some 16,000 died in concentration camps and 16,000 in Gestapo prisons.

This new flurry in the Waldheim case is so far a first lively note in an otherwise lackluster election.

In only a few months, Vranitzky has impressed Austrians with his sober, almost non-party approach to the country's current economic ills. And his youthful image seems also to be attracting voters to the Socialist Party.

Alliance with the tiny Freedom Party, which has just elected an extreme rightist leadership, is unlikely appeal to either main party should there be a hung election.

A ``grand coalition'' of Socialists and conservatives is seen as the still likely option.

But that will leave dissatisfied most of a generation alienated from the increasingly ``tired'' look of these two established parties and the debilitating effect of their traditional hold on politics and patronage. This mood may help the chancellor, particularly with young people and with the so-far undecided voters.

The race between the two big parties could be so close that the small Greens ``alternative'' party could, if it can snatch a few seats, emerge to weight the balance.

In his latest interview, the chancellor indicated his willingness, if need be, for a coalition with the Greens.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.