Friday, June 15, 2007

Full text of Farewell Then Kurt Waldheim

Here's the full text of the Guardian CiF piece

So farewell then, Kurt Waldheim

Kurt Waldheim exemplified the banality of bureaucracy: he was one of the greyest eminences ever to grace the world stage.
Ian Williams

June 14, 2007

In general, the big powers want a safe, anything-but-boat-rocking bureaucrat to head the United Nations. Their perfect choice would be Pontius Pilate, but he did not apply, so they got Kurt Waldheim, one of the greyest eminences ever to grace the world stage.

It would be a stretch to believe that the various permanent members had not had their spooks do due diligence on him and discovered his war record with the Nazi military. The thought that they all had this eminently suitable blackmail material to hang over his head could have been very reassuring for them.

The process of appointing Secretaries General is so mysterious that one cannot resist speculation. For example, almost certainly the first one elected, Trygve Lie, was acceptable to the Soviets because in 1936, as Norwegian justice minister, he had given the exiled Leon Trotsky the bum's rush from Oslo and so sent him to Mexico for his date with destiny and the sharp end of an ice pick. The honeymoon did not last. Joseph McCarthy denounced Lie for hiring "disloyal" Americans while the Soviets refused to recognise him because he supported the Korean war.

In contrast, the dapper Waldheim managed two terms, from 1972 to 1982, without ruffling anyone's feathers, and would have made a third were it not that the Chinese were in a third-world-ist phase and told him - nothing personal - that they wanted a diplomat from the developing world to get the job.

The UN veteran Sir Brian Urquhart, who worked with him, confirms that no boats were rocked during his tenure. He was a hard-working bureaucrat who kept the ship afloat and avoided waves. In fact, Sir Brian recalls a classic bureaucratic moment after an interminable meeting on whether to issue a statement about the American bombing of North Vietnam. Waldheim, challenged to make a decision, declared: "There will be no decision. That is the decision."

He scarcely deserves the infamy that has been heaped on him since. Even in his criminality he was not outstanding. Firstly, he was economical with the truth. His first autobiography was going to skip blithely from 1938, when the Nazis took over, to 1945, when he joined the foreign service. In anticipation of Basil Fawlty, he did not mention the conflict at all, telling Sir Brian that "no one is interested in the War".

Of course everyone was, and he continued skimping veracity by only describing his war career up the gates of Moscow.

Afterwards, during the election campaign for the Austrian presidency, his service in the Balkans - for which his commanding officer was later executed - was revealed, not to mention his membership in the Brownshirts.

But it probably helped him win the presidency, since Waldheim was the Ur-Austrian. Despite some very honourable armed resistance against Engelbert Dollfuss and the homegrown Nazis in 1934, most Austrians were not happy with the Versailles-enforced independence. Even the Nazis' enemies supported Anschluss in 1938, and while Hitler, the local boy made good, was winning there was no great independence movement.

In 1945, it suited the Allies to go along with the newly assumed Austrian posture of aggrieved innocence. They were the first victims of German expansionism and occupation, and so they never really bothered with de-Nazification, war crime trials and all the German sort of stuff. No wonder Austrians supported Waldheim in an act of collectively self-absolving amnesia.

As a gesture, a lot of fair weather friends took him off their invite lists - except the Vatican, which made him a papal knight. Presumably he had confessed and been absolved.

But you can see why no one really pursued the former Nazi officer on a global scale. A commission of inquiry decided that he had not committed war crimes, but had only witnessed them and done nothing to prevent them.

No one was going to get too excited about that, since almost every statesman in the world shares some similar guilt. Just look at Iraq, Darfur, Gaza, Lebanon, Rwanda, and many more instances of ineffectual clucking while pretending not to see. There are a lot of politicians who firmly decide not to make decisions in the face of barbarity, and almost as many deciding to commit crimes, so it seems unfair to single out Waldheim just because he was on the losing side.

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