Mediterranean Quarterly 13.1 (2002) 109-113
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The Waldheim Affair:
Harold H. Tittmann III: The Waldheim Affair: Democracy Subverted. Dunkirk, New York: Olin Frederick, Inc., 2000. 129 pages. ISBN 0-9672357-4-X. $22.95.
Perusing this succinct lawyer's brief, the old saying in advertising, "one picture is worth ten thousand words," comes to mind, but with a twist: one picture is worth ten thousand lies. In this case it is a photo snapped of Kurt Waldheim, not as the polished diplomat who was secretary-general of the United Nations, but as a lieutenant of the German Wehrmacht standing next to Gruppenfuehrer Artur Phleps, commander of the SS Prinz Eugen Division, on 23 May 1943 at an airfield outside of Podgorica, Montenegro. (The other principal figure in the picture was Italian general Escola Roncaglia, and Waldheim was serving solely as an interpreter.) The photo, emerging from an obscure archive in Vienna more than forty-three years after it was taken, became the principal piece of "evidence," shown again and again around the world, to support Jewish- American--and eventually U.S. government--accusations that Waldheim committed war crimes in the Balkans during World War II and deliberately covered up this part of his otherwise unblemished past.
Harold Tittmann has entered the passionate and still unresolved controversy surrounding Waldheim with a calm examination of the evidence, or better, lack of evidence, to establish that he did not do anything that would qualify as commission of a war crime.
Here it must be noted that for a man who rose to the pinnacle of world diplomacy, Waldheim was at the very least careless in dealing with his past, innocent of criminal acts as it was, especially considering his native Austria's role in Hitler's Third Reich from 1938 to 1945. Until the Waldheim affair began, his various autobiographical writings touched only very lightly on his Balkan days, or not at all. The chronicle compiled by Tittmann, a retired lawyer, was written because the author "began to wonder if an [End Page 109] injustice was being done, since it seemed to me unlikely that a young Wehrmacht staff lieutenant with no command authority could have been involved in the serious crimes of which he was accused."
As Tittmann recounts, Waldheim's wartime career originally became a subject of inquiry in January 1986 by the Social Democratic Party of Austria, which headed the government but whose pallid candidate in the looming presidential election seemed unlikely to win against the conservative Peoples Party's towering Waldheim. Fred Sinowatz, the socialist chancellor, decided that Waldheim should be "painted brown," --cast as a Nazi--to improve the Social Democrats' chances. The initial attempt, disclosing Waldheim's service in the Balkans on the staff of the Wehrmacht's Army Group E in the magazine Profil, fell flat. Austrians who after all had supplied tens of thousands of soldiers for service in the unruly Balkans in both world wars were unimpressed.
So the socialists enlisted a sure-fire ally, the small but influential World Jewish Congress (WJC) based in New York and chaired by Edgar Bronfman Sr. Within days, the WJC dispatched Eli Rosenbaum, its general counsel, to Vienna to meet a "secret informant" (according to Rosenbaum, this "informant" acknowledged ties to the Social Democratic Party) who provided documents alluding to Waldheim's Balkans service and possible Nazi associations as a student. Most important, the informant provided the Podgorica photograph, which electrified the WJC emissary.
Back in New York, the WJC launched a campaign against Waldheim that was, with ups and downs, to last eight years. Within a month, the WJC persuaded the New York Times to publish a front-page story implying that Waldheim had been involved in war crimes. The paper followed up with an interview in which the presidential candidate readily answered the reporter's questions, to the surprise and disappointment of the WJC. The article, headlined "Files Show Kurt Waldheim Served under War Criminal," was accompanied by the Podgorica photo. (Gruppenfuehrer Phleps, incidentally, was killed before he could be branded a war criminal...