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Analysis: Kurt Waldheim's legacy

By WILLIAM M. REILLY, UPI U.N. Correspondent

UNITED NATIONS, June 14 (UPI) -- Kurt Waldheim, the fourth U.N. secretary-general and a former president of Austria, has taken details of his time in the German Army during World War II with him to the grave.

The allegation that he knew of atrocities committed by the unit in which he was an intelligence officer in the Balkans cast a shadow over his memory, even though he had been officially cleared in an Austrian inquiry.

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Waldheim died Thursday in Vienna. He was 88. The 192-member U.N. General Assembly was to pay tribute to him in a plenary meeting Friday.

Revelations of his wartime activities came to light after he served two terms as secretary-general of the world organization, from Jan. 1, 1972, to Dec. 31, 1981, when he was followed by Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru.

"The secretary-general learned with sadness of the passing of Kurt Waldheim," said a statement issued Thursday by Michele Montas, spokeswoman for the eighth U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

"The secretary-general notes that Waldheim served the United Nations at a crucial period in the history of the organization," she said. "The secretary-general extends his condolences to Waldheim's family, as well as to the Austrian government and people."

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Waldheim's tenure as head of the United Nations saw him unsuccessfully trying to end the Iran-Iraq war, the border clash between China and Vietnam and to obtain the release of the American hostages held in Iran following the 1979 revolution.

In 1986, he was elected president of Austria, despite the scandal that erupted during the campaign caused by revelation of his wartime service. Waldheim denied any knowledge of the atrocities.

An international investigation headed by the Austrian government cleared him of complicity, but there were still many people who felt he had to have known about more than he admitted.

However, he was widely isolated in the office, apparently because of questions about his past. He did not run for a second term.

In 1988 The New York Times, citing a "newly discovered German Army dispatch" found by a U.S. historian, Robert Herzstein of the University of South Carolina in Columbia, reported Waldheim "knew of and criticized Nazi reprisal killings in Greece in 1944."

The report suggested he knew more than he ever admitted about German atrocities.

The Times story said Waldheim appeared troubled by the killings, but also suggested he knew the war was coming to an end and wanted to distance himself from such atrocities.

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Herzstein said the dispatch he found was of unquestionable authenticity, regardless of Waldheim's motive.

The Times said the dispatch was included in "underlying documentation" provided in advance of the March 1988 publication of Herzstein's "Waldheim: The Missing Years."

"Herzstein concludes that enough evidence has emerged to implicate Waldheim as 'an accessory to the commission of crimes against humanity,'" the newspaper said. "But he adds that the charge that Waldheim ordered the execution of prisoners was 'a politically motivated fabrication' by the Yugoslavs designed to embarrass the Austrians in key postwar talks."

Waldheim always said publicly he had served only briefly in the Wehrmacht before he was wounded and evacuated to Vienna, where he then studied law.

After getting his degree, he went into the diplomatic corps, first serving in Paris, then the Foreign Ministry in Vienna, later representing Austria in Canada and as an observer at the United Nations.

When Austria joined the United Nations in 1955, he became the nation's first permanent ambassador to the organization. He returned to the foreign ministry, subsequently holding a number of posts before returning to the United Nations again as Austria's permanent representative from 1964-1968, when he became minister of foreign affairs, returning to the U.N. post in 1970.

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He unsuccessfully ran for the presidency of Austria in 1971 and resumed his role as Vienna's envoy to the world organization until his election as secretary-general in late 1971.

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