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Controversial former U.N. chief Waldheim dies

Kurt Waldheim, former United Nations secretary-general and Austrian president, died on Thursday aged 88 after a short but severe illness, the Austrian presidency and a family spokesman said.
(FILES) This file picture taken in March
This file photo from March 1972 shows then-U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim during an official visit to Vienna. Waldheim died Thursday at the age of 88.- / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary-general and Austrian president who became tainted by revelations that he hid his past in Nazi Germany's officer corps, died Thursday aged 88.

The Austrian presidency and a Waldheim family spokesman revealed his death, saying it came after a short illness. The domestic APA news agency said he had died of heart failure, quoting Waldheim's son-in-law.

Waldheim admitted concealing his service with Hitler's Wehrmacht in the Balkans but always denied knowing of Nazi war crimes committed there at the time, including deportations of thousands of Greek Jews.

Most Austrians did not believe Waldheim was linked to Nazi atrocities. In fact, the accusations boosted his poll ratings as president. But they also made him persona non grata in many countries and he made almost no state visits during his tenure.

Forced Austrians to face up
Waldheim said later the furor around his 1986-92 presidency had a worthwhile impact in forcing Austrians to face the fact that they were not all passive victims of Nazi Germany, which annexed Austria virtually without resistance.

A significant number of top Nazis were Austrian, including Adolf Hitler.

"If my life story has contributed to a new approach to history (in Austria), then it is positive — of course at the price of damage to me personally," Waldheim said in an interview with Austrian daily Der Standard in January 2006.

He said the intelligence services of major powers certainly knew about his past when he was UN leader in 1971-82, but that his economy with the truth was in retrospect "certainly a mistake," while reiterating that he was fundamentally innocent.

Until 1986, Waldheim was largely seen as a somewhat aloof, bland statesman without skeletons in his closet, a man who had served a decade as U.N. secretary-general after a career in Austria's diplomatic service dating back to 1945.

During Austria's 1986 presidential election, newsmagazine Profil published his old military registration card with stamps suggesting he had belonged to the Nazi Brownshirts, Hitler's paramilitary street force, before World War II.

Profil said it had also found evidence Waldheim had served in the Balkans in 1942-45, much of this under General Alexander Lohr, who was executed for war crimes in 1947.

Omitted other information
Waldheim's published accounts of his life had implied his Wehrmacht career ended in 1941 after he was wounded on the Russian front and that he then devoted himself to studies at the Consular Academy of the University of Vienna.

Waldheim said he had omitted other information from his wartime curriculum vitae because he had been unfit to serve on the front and served only as a junior staff officer or liaison officer with responsibility for compiling reports on enemy forces. He said had not wanted to bore his readers with unimportant detail.

Waldheim denied knowing that thousands of Greek Jews were deported from the port of Thessaloniki, just four miles from where he was based for many months.

Asked by Austria's government to investigate, an international historians' commission concluded in February 1988 that he knew about war crimes although was not involved in them.

Waldheim said his conscience was clear and he had only done wartime duty like hundreds of thousands of fellow Austrians.

But the United States added Waldheim's name to its immigration "watch list" of people to be refused entry to the United States because of past associations with Hitler's regime.

He became unwelcome in many countries and undertook virtually no state visits, except the Vatican — where he went twice during his term — and Arab countries.