Speaking before television cameras in Vienna's ornate Hofburg Palace, Austrian President Rudolf Kirchschläger was at pains to select his words carefully. His aim: to render a balanced judgment for his 7 million countrymen about accusations that Presidential Candidate Kurt Waldheim, the former United Nations Secretary-General, had knowingly falsified his World War II record and was involved in Nazi atrocities.
Kirchschläger, who was once a judge, had closeted himself for ten days with more than 500 pages of documents from the U.N., the Yugoslav government and the World Jewish Congress that detailed Waldheim's activities as a lieutenant in the German army from 1942 to 1945. The first published reports about Waldheim's military service had shattered his pretense that he had been mustered out of the army after being wounded in 1941. Faced with evidence to the contrary, he has since admitted returning to active service as an army interpreter in Greece and Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, he maintains that he was not aware that Greek Jews were being deported to death camps or of the extent of Nazi massacres of Yugoslav partisans.
Waldheim, Kirchschläger declared last week, must have known about the brutal reprisals taken against the partisans by his army unit. But while the President mentioned a 1948 recommendation by the War Crimes Commission that Waldheim be prosecuted for his actions, he added, "I would not dare to file an indictment in a regular court. Do not expect & verdict from me."
Waldheim interpreted the hedged pronouncement as exoneration. "I am most grateful to the President," he said. "All charges are now refuted. Nothing remains in doubt." But even as he tried to put the matter behind him, his son Gerhard, 38, stirred up new embarrassment. At a news conference in Washington last week, Gerhard implied that Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the current U.N. Secretary-General, had accepted his father's explanation of his wartime record. Both Pérez de Cuéllar and Wiesenthal denied that they had formed a final judgment about the case. Potentially graver damage to the candidate's prospects came last week when it was revealed that an internal report from the Justice Department's office of special investigations recommended that Waldheim be barred from entering the U.S.
Coming just eleven days before the May 4 presidential election, Kirchschläger's cautious assessment did little to clarify matters for the 20% of Austrian voters who, according to private polls, are still undecided about the Waldheim affair. Both Waldheim, the standard-bearer of the conservative People's Party, and Socialist Candidate Kurt Steyrer, a onetime Health Minister, insist that the former U.N. chiefs wartime record should not be an election issue. In fact, the controversy has rallied support for Waldheim. Before the March disclosures that he had misrepresented his wartime service, most polls showed him trailing Steyrer by a narrow margin. After the allegations began to mushroom, polls put Waldheim 10 points ahead, but the gap has narrowed lately.