VIENNA, Austria – Former U.N. chief Kurt Waldheim, who was barred from the United States for two decades after revelations he belonged to a German army unit that committed World War II atrocities, died Thursday. He was 88.
Although it was never proved that Waldheim personally committed war crimes, he left public life beneath a cloud of disgrace and died with his name still on a watch list prohibiting foreigners considered undesirables from visiting the U.S.
State broadcaster ORF said he died Thursday afternoon of heart failure at his home in Vienna, with family members at his bedside. He had been hospitalized late last month with an infection and a high fever.
Waldheim’s legacy as U.N. secretary-general from 1972-81 – and his later tenure as Austrian president from 1986-92 – was tarnished by his secretive wartime past in the Balkans.
The details did not become common knowledge until five years after he left the world body. But the revelations led to a bruising controversy at home – one that ultimately damaged Austria’s reputation abroad. During Waldheim’s six-year term as president, the country was largely shunned by foreign leaders, and he never honored his pledge to be a strong leader.
His backers saw him as an innocent victim of a smear campaign, while opponents clamored for his resignation.
His past began surfacing early in his campaign for president, when he published a memoir that did not mention his service for the Nazis. In his official biographies, Waldheim initially said he had been wounded at the Russian front in 1941 and had returned to Austria to continue his studies.
Only after being confronted with documents showing his unit had killed partisans and civilians, along with allegations that the victims included thousands of children, did Waldheim gradually revise his official resume.
In April 1987, the Justice Department put Waldheim on the list prohibiting him from entering the United States – an embarrassment no other Austrian public figure had ever experienced.
The following February, a government-appointed international commission of six historians investigating his wartime service said it found no proof that Waldheim himself committed war crimes. But it made clear his record was far from unblemished: The panel declared that Waldheim was in “direct proximity to criminal actions.”
Its report said Waldheim knew about German army atrocities in the Balkans and took no action to prevent or oppose them.