Friday, June 15, 2007

Robert Fisk: Disgraced UN chief and Nazi war criminal Waldheim, dies

While I'm no admirer of Robert Fisk, this piece should be read:

from the Belfast Telegraph [Published: Friday 15, June 2007 - 10:19]

So the old rogue is dead. That is all I could say when I heard yesterday that Kurt Waldheim had reached the end of his days at 88.

I spent months, years, investigating his dark past in what we now call Bosnia, when he - let us not be coy about this - was part of the Bosnien-Kampfgruppen of Wehrmacht Army Group E of General Löhr, fighting "terroristen" (yes, indeed, the Nazis called them terrorists, just as they talked about the "RAF Terroristenfliegen") in the Balkans. Waldheim had been secretary general of the UN, had lectured UN officers in Lebanon on the lessons of "terrorism" and, well - as was later to ruminate - he knew about that, didn't he?

I remember, when Waldheim was President of Austria - stamps were issued, heaven spare us; no mention of course of 1943 or 1944 or 1945 - how he turned up in Jordan where the Plucky Little King Mark One (King Hussein, who liked to rule a British Jordan) met him on the apron. I was at Amman airport when this outrageous little man snapped to attention in front of the Jordanian guard of honour, clicked his heels just a little too quickly, I thought, much as he must have done when he saluted his masters in Yugoslavia during the Second World War.

Waldheim - how his friends would prefer that they didn't read these words this morning - was based at a town called Banja Luka, a market town where Serbs and Jews and communist Croatians were murdered en masse, hanged like thrushes from mass gallows or raped to death in the nearby Jasenovac extermination camp. Waldheim would have us believe that he knew nothing of all this, that he was a mere intelligence officer for Army Group E of the Wehrmacht, whose commander, Löhr, just happened to be tried for war crimes after the Second World War.

It was an Austrian journalist who alerted me to Waldheim, a reporter whose father had fought in the Wehrmacht, who had survived the evacuation of north Africa ("I do hope I didn't kill him," the "Enigma" cryptologist said to me when I told her of his attempt to escape by air - his plane got through the Allied net). "Look for the letter W," the Austrian journalist said, the letter W after each debriefing, each Allied commando captured by the Gestapo, each prisoner to be extinguished by "nacht und nebel" - by night and fog.

No, Waldheim didn't order their deaths. He didn't even interview the captured British commandoes, or so he said, but merely "collated" their reports. His junior officers did the interviewing (let us not contemplate what that meant). Then the British prisoners disappeared into night and fog.

I recall finding the German interrogation papers of a young Briton who had been caught trying to escape from Yugoslavia during the war. They lay in the files of the Public Record Office at Kew (now known as the National Archives) and they were pitiful proof of what the Nazis could do. Yes, he admitted he was a British agent, yes he was wearing British uniform, and yes - there it was, in all its symmetry, the "W" - he was interviewed by Waldheim. And then he was taken away and executed, and Waldheim - whose colleagues (no secretary generals, they) had saved the lives of British prisoners - didn't give a fig about their souls.

I remember how I visited Bosnia in 1990 to investigate Waldheim's past. He had written a PhD thesis, he told the world, in the last years of the war; he knew nothing of the Nazi subjugation of the Balkans. He had been wounded on the Russian front. But there was a certain manipulation of the truth. He had been sent to Yugoslavia. He was an intelligence officer for Army Group E. He was based at Banja Luka and - years before the town became the Bosnian Serb capital in the outrageous war between Muslims and Christians - I visited his former headquarters, where the Serbs showed me his files, still cloaked in the see-through parchment of the Wehrmacht.

I even visited his interrogation office, next to an execution pit wherein Serbs and Jews were massacred daily. Did the rifle shots not disturb Kurt Waldheim's concentration? Oh, what it must have been to have the peace and quiet of the UN headquarters on the East River.

Monty Woodhouse was the top man for SOE - Special Operations Executive - in Greece during the war, and he pursued Waldheim for years afterwards, along with an immensely brave Jewish academic. Waldheim published a "White Book" claiming to prove his innocence of war crimes (he was later based in the Hotel Angleterre in Athens). He didn't know, he said. And his friends noted quietly that it was his wife who was the Nazi party member in Austria in the 1930, not himself; that Waldheim was merely a civil servant, one who - in the damning words of the Jewish academic - "helped to give the wheel a push."

So what memories did Waldheim carry with him to the grave? During the war, Woodhouse's Greek partisans captured a Gypsy who was spying on his comrades for the Italians. Woodhouse decided that he should be hanged.

I asked him what it felt like to do such a thing - to commit what, I suppose, we would call a war crime, were it Waldheim whom it had been proved had done it. Woodhouse replied to me - and I have his words in my own handwriting as I write this: "It was terrible - I felt terrible. I still bring the scene back to me from time to time. He was a wretched youth. He didn't say anything really - he was so shaken. He was a sort of halfwit. I was at the hanging. He was hanged from a tree. They simply pulled a chair from beneath his feet. I don't think it took long for him to die. I don't know exactly how long. We were only a hundred men or so - it was the early days of the occupation. If we had let him go, he would have told the Italians... After that, I told Zervas not to take any prisoners."

When I left Bosnia in the summer of 1988 in the aftermath of my Waldheim investigations, I called my foreign news editor, Ivan Barnes of the The Times, to tell him that I saw so many parallels in modern-day Yugoslavia with Lebanon on the eve of conflict in 1975 that I believed a civil war would break out in Bosnia in the near future. The local Serbs even abused me for driving to Waldheim's ex-headquarters with a Croatian driver. "We'll report it if it happens," Barnes roared down the phone at me. In 1992, I did report the Bosnian war - for The Independent.

And what of Waldheim? The Austrian state defended him. He appeared on postage stamps. He went to the opera. He was forbidden entry to the United States - long after he ever needed to go there. He produced a "White Book", supposedly proving he knew nothing of war crimes.

His former United Nations colleagues clucked and re-clucked over his hypocrisy. And I well remember his number two at the UN telling me how he always knew that "KW" was a "crook" - this just three days before I came across a second-hand copy of Waldheim's memoirs in Waterstone's bookshop in Piccadilly with the very same man's warm appraisal of Waldheim as a "man of principle" in the frontispiece.

In 1987, King Hussein took Waldheim to the heights of Um Queiss to overlook the Israeli-occupied West Bank and awarded him the Hussein bin Ali medal - named after Hussein's grandfather. The Plucky Little King praised Waldheim for his patriotism, integrity, wisdom and "noble human values". General Löhr, I should add - Waldheim's superior officer in Yugoslavia - was hanged as a war criminal.
© Belfast Telegraph

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