The Journal of Historical Review

Book Reviews

WALDHEIM, by Luc Rosenzweig and Bernard Cohen. New York: Adama Books, 1987, 183 pp., $17.95, ISBN: 1-55774-010-0.

Reviewed by John M. Ries

Waldheim is the first book in English to deal with the controversy surrounding Austria's current President. It has much that is thought-provoking, but, unfortunately, it contains too many errors to justify any pretensions it may have to credibility. The omission of details, the proliferation of factual discrepancies, the frequency of non sequiturs, and the abundance of what could be typographical errors force one to question how this book, in its present condition, could have gotten by its publishers.

Waldheim's unforgiveable sloppiness of style aside, what of the substance of the book? It seems that the book's main objective is to determine the rationale for Kurt Waldheim's propensity for withholding certain episodes in his past. To accomplish this a rather intensive historical investigation is undertaken to show that Waldheim's repeated bouts of amnesia are only symptomatic of an equally chronic memory lapse on the part of his native Austria (for also failing to come to terms with its past), and, amazingly, of a good portion of the Western world as well.

If this sounds like a reappearance of the collective-guilt notion, it certainly is, here employed to induce a sense of shame in those nations who, for various reasons, failed to take this "last" opportunity provided by the Waldheim affair, "to attempt a critical review of that period during which Western values degenerated into barbarism." Why this is the "last" opportunity is never explained, and what could have been done to atone properly for such a pervasive memory failure on the part of the international community remains unclear.

It is also interesting to note that Israel is seriously criticized for showing "in a deliberate way . . . a suspect complacency with regard to this man . . . " How the Israelis, the principal guardians of the world's conscience with respect to the "Holocaust," managed to avoid their responsibilities is too complicated to relate adequately here. But it inevitably raises the key question of this book namely, how seriously must the memory lapses of Kurt Waldheim be taken if the state of Israel refused to make an issue of them?

Authors Rosenzweig and Cohen's grasp of Waldheim's prewar Austrian milieu is no less shaky. In attempting to describe the extent of anti-Jewish feeling in Austria during the inter-war period, the authors introduce what could have been a most important and interesting section of the book, entitled "The Tradition of Anti- Semitism," with the passage: "Austria between the wars was also the European country which displayed the most varied range of anti-Semites and the most diverse forms of anti-Semitism." Unfortunately, however, they fail to mention one example of anti-Semitic activity proper to Austria during this period. Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna around the turn-of-the-century, and Hitler are included, neither of whom had anything to do with anti-Semitism in Austria during the inter-war years. Lueger had died in 1910 and Hitler's career is proper to German history following the First World War, at least from the standpoint of the scene of his political activity and triumphs.

As mentioned earlier, the numerous flaws in the text of this book require that any discussion of it must deal with the question of credibility. To point them all out in any detail would be beyond the scope of this review, so I shall cover some of the more important ones.

A key section of this book deals with Waldheim's so-called "hidden years," that portion of his past he omitted from his biographies, including his service as a Wehrmacht officer in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945. Since the purpose here is to show that Oberleutnant Waldheim was not dallying away his time putting the finishing touches on his doctoral dissertation, as he had previously claimed, a great deal of attention must be paid to exactly what he was doing. His duties included acting as a translator when the Italians were allied with Germans in their mutual operations in the Balkans, and serving as a deputy intelligence officer (03) when the Italians when the Italians were no longer allies. Information from the Yugoslavian War Crimes Commission report on Waldheim is used to show that during the retreat of the German army between mid-October 1944 and May 1945, Kurt Waldheim's "job at headquarters was sufficient to prove that the reprisals [against Serbian partisans] were conducted on his recommendation."

No "smoking gun" is found, however, and when one believes Oberleutnant Waldheim is near Kosovska Mitrovica in Yugoslavia "organizing reprisals," suddenly he's back in Greece surveying "gang activity" in a zone south of Heraklion in Crete. This abrupt shift is indicative of the confusion characteristic of this section of the account, for if the activities of Waldheim in Yugoslavia are under investigation here, why are his involvements in Greece suddenly tossed in? The fact is, the reader of this book cannot always be sure precisely where this highly elusive individual is to be found.

Waldheim's alleged involvement in the deportation of the Jews of Salonika is the source of some rather confusing anomalies. The precise problem is to determine his role (if any) in this grisly affair. The heart of the confusion lies in the dates given for the deportations. At one point it is said that they began on March 15, 1943. However, the communities involved at this time are given as Florina, Verria, and Langada, respectively. Salonika is not specifically mentioned. Earlier the text says that Waldheim "arrived at his new posting at Arsakli [near Salonika] two weeks after the Jews of Salonika had begun to be sent to concentration camps [sic]." The date given for his arrival is March 31, 1943. So far so good. Yet at this point the text says that historical evidence is lacking to establish what he was doing the first two months of his new assignment. "The gap is worrying, because it coincides with the start of the deportation operations against the Jews of Salonika." But if these began two weeks before Waldheim arrived at his new posting, then he could not have possibly been involved in them at the outset.

The confusion, however, does not end here. The chronology at the back of the book lists the deportation of the Jews of Salonika as taking place from July to August 1943. It also says Oberleutnant Waldheim arrived at Arsakli in July of that year. These dates are, it need scarcely be said, at variance with those given in the text.

One final note on the deportations, although this has no direct bearing on Waldheim's activities. A figure of 800,000 is given for the total number of Jews deported from Greece during World War Two. This number was taken from A. Kedros, La Résistance grecque, Robert Laffont, pp. 316-318. According, however, to the minutes of the conference of German leaders held at the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, where, among other things, demographic figures of the Jewish population of Europe by individual country were discussed, a total of 69,600 was given for Greece. Other reliable sources confirm that there were fewer than 100,000 Jews living in Greece in the early 1930s. Where this 800,000 figure was acquired is problematic, but in any case the authors of this book must be criticized for not confirming its veracity.

Some rather irritating misspellings, such as Schoñerer Zukunft for Schönerer Zukunft, an influential periodical in Austria during the 1930s, and wrong dates, e.g., 1920 as the date for the Revolution of the Councils of Bavaria, all detract from the credibility of this book.

The overall effect of these and the other problems adverted to earlier is comparable to that of a news account hurriedly prepared to meet a deadline and lacking adequate proofreading. Since this is the first book to deal with the Waldheim affair in English, there is still hope that a more sober and accurate rendering, free from the passions of the event itself, will be forthcoming. We await that possibility with great anticipation.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 219-221.


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