Disgraced UN chief and Nazi war
criminal Waldheim, dies aged 88
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- -- -So the old rogue is dead. That
is all I could say when I heard yesterday that Kurt Waldheim had
reached the end of his days at 88.I spent months, years,
investigating his dark past in what we now call Bosnia, when he
- let us not be coy about this - was part of the Bosnien-Kampfgruppen of Wehrmacht Army Group E of General Löhr,
fighting "terroristen" (yes, indeed, the Nazis called them
terrorists, just as they talked about the "RAF
Terroristenfliegen") in the Balkans. Waldheim had been secretary
general of the UN, had lectured UN officers in Lebanon on the
lessons of "terrorism" and, well - as was later to ruminate - he
knew about that, didn't he?
I remember, when Waldheim was President of Austria - stamps were
issued, heaven spare us; no mention of course of 1943 or 1944 or
1945 - how he turned up in Jordan where the Plucky Little King
Mark One (King Hussein, who liked to rule a British Jordan) met
him on the apron. I was at Amman airport when this outrageous
little man snapped to attention in front of the Jordanian guard
of honour, clicked his heels just a little too quickly, I
thought, much as he must have done when he saluted his masters
in Yugoslavia during the Second World War.
Waldheim - how his friends would prefer that they didn't read
these words this morning - was based at a town called Banja
Luka, a market town where Serbs and Jews and communist Croatians
were murdered en masse, hanged like thrushes from mass gallows
or raped to death in the nearby Jasenovac extermination camp.
Waldheim would have us believe that he knew nothing of all this,
that he was a mere intelligence officer for Army Group E of the
Wehrmacht, whose commander, Löhr, just happened to be tried for
war crimes after the Second World War.
It was an Austrian journalist who alerted me to Waldheim, a
reporter whose father had fought in the Wehrmacht, who had
survived the evacuation of north Africa ("I do hope I didn't
kill him," the "Enigma" cryptologist said to me when I told her
of his attempt to escape by air - his plane got through the
Allied net). "Look for the letter W," the Austrian journalist
said, the letter W after each debriefing, each Allied commando
captured by the Gestapo, each prisoner to be extinguished by "nacht
und nebel" - by night and fog.
No, Waldheim didn't order their deaths. He didn't even interview
the captured British commandoes, or so he said, but merely
"collated" their reports. His junior officers did the
interviewing (let us not contemplate what that meant). Then the
British prisoners disappeared into night and fog.
I recall finding the German interrogation papers of a young
Briton who had been caught trying to escape from Yugoslavia
during the war. They lay in the files of the Public Record
Office at Kew (now known as the National Archives) and they were
pitiful proof of what the Nazis could do. Yes, he admitted he
was a British agent, yes he was wearing British uniform, and yes
- there it was, in all its symmetry, the "W" - he was
interviewed by Waldheim. And then he was taken away and
executed, and Waldheim - whose colleagues (no secretary
generals, they) had saved the lives of British prisoners -
didn't give a fig about their souls.
I remember how I visited Bosnia in 1990 to investigate
Waldheim's past. He had written a PhD thesis, he told the world,
in the last years of the war; he knew nothing of the Nazi
subjugation of the Balkans. He had been wounded on the Russian
front. But there was a certain manipulation of the truth. He had
been sent to Yugoslavia. He was an intelligence officer for Army
Group E. He was based at Banja Luka and - years before the town
became the Bosnian Serb capital in the outrageous war between
Muslims and Christians - I visited his former headquarters,
where the Serbs showed me his files, still cloaked in the
see-through parchment of the Wehrmacht.
I even visited his interrogation office, next to an execution
pit wherein Serbs and Jews were massacred daily. Did the rifle
shots not disturb Kurt Waldheim's concentration? Oh, what it
must have been to have the peace and quiet of the UN
headquarters on the East River.
Monty Woodhouse was the top man for SOE - Special Operations
Executive - in Greece during the war, and he pursued Waldheim
for years afterwards, along with an immensely brave Jewish
academic. Waldheim published a "White Book" claiming to prove
his innocence of war crimes (he was later based in the Hotel
Angleterre in Athens). He didn't know, he said. And his friends
noted quietly that it was his wife who was the Nazi party member
in Austria in the 1930, not himself; that Waldheim was merely a
civil servant, one who - in the damning words of the Jewish
academic - "helped to give the wheel a push."
So what memories did Waldheim carry with him to the grave?
During the war, Woodhouse's Greek partisans captured a Gypsy who
was spying on his comrades for the Italians. Woodhouse decided
that he should be hanged.
I asked him what it felt like to do such a thing - to commit
what, I suppose, we would call a war crime, were it Waldheim
whom it had been proved had done it. Woodhouse replied to me -
and I have his words in my own handwriting as I write this: "It
was terrible - I felt terrible. I still bring the scene back to
me from time to time. He was a wretched youth. He didn't say
anything really - he was so shaken. He was a sort of halfwit. I
was at the hanging. He was hanged from a tree. They simply
pulled a chair from beneath his feet. I don't think it took long
for him to die. I don't know exactly how long. We were only a
hundred men or so - it was the early days of the occupation. If
we had let him go, he would have told the Italians... After
that, I told Zervas not to take any prisoners."
When I left Bosnia in the summer of 1988 in the aftermath of my
Waldheim investigations, I called my foreign news editor, Ivan
Barnes of the The Times, to tell him that I saw so many
parallels in modern-day Yugoslavia with Lebanon on the eve of
conflict in 1975 that I believed a civil war would break out in
Bosnia in the near future. The local Serbs even abused me for
driving to Waldheim's ex-headquarters with a Croatian driver.
"We'll report it if it happens," Barnes roared down the phone at
me. In 1992, I did report the Bosnian war - for The Independent.
And what of Waldheim? The Austrian state defended him. He
appeared on postage stamps. He went to the opera. He was
forbidden entry to the United States - long after he ever needed
to go there. He produced a "White Book", supposedly proving he
knew nothing of war crimes.
His former United Nations colleagues clucked and re-clucked over
his hypocrisy. And I well remember his number two at the UN
telling me how he always knew that "KW" was a "crook" - this
just three days before I came across a second-hand copy of
Waldheim's memoirs in Waterstone's bookshop in Piccadilly with
the very same man's warm appraisal of Waldheim as a "man of
principle" in the frontispiece.
In 1987, King Hussein took Waldheim to the heights of Um Queiss
to overlook the Israeli-occupied West Bank and awarded him the
Hussein bin Ali medal - named after Hussein's grandfather. The
Plucky Little King praised Waldheim for his patriotism,
integrity, wisdom and "noble human values". General Löhr, I
should add - Waldheim's superior officer in Yugoslavia - was
hanged as a war criminal.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited
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