by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Arnold Schwarzenegger did the right thing by publicly retracting the toast he made to Nazi war crimes suspect Kurt Waldheim at Schwarzenegger’s 1986 wedding to Maria Shriver.
But will other public figures who gave Waldheim the red-carpet treatment in 1986 follow Arnold’s lead?
Waldheim’s involvement in a Nazi youth movement and his service in Hitler’s army “on the Eastern front” –scene of mass atrocities against Jews– was first exposed by The New Republic in 1980, when Waldheim was Secretary-General of the United Nations. U.S. Congressman Stephen Solarz immediately wrote to both Waldheim and the Central Intelligence Agency, demanding the truth. Instead, he got stonewalled. Waldheim replied that he had been wounded on the Eastern front in 1941 and incapacitated, and then resumed his law studies in 1944–hiding from Solarz the fact that he had returned to his army unit in early 1942, just as the Nazi genocide was shifting into high gear. The CIA, for its part, told the Congressman that it had no evidence Waldheim was responsible for any “anti-Jewish activities.”
It doesn’t seem that the CIA made much of an effort, however, because when World Jewish Congress researchers began looking into the matter in early 1986, they quickly found documents showing that Waldheim served as an officer in a Germany Army intelligence unit that committed atrocities against Jews and partisans in the Balkans. His unit organized the mass deportation of at least 70,000 Jews to Auschwitz, including the entire Jewish population of Salonika, Greece, one of the major centers of Sefardic Jewry in Europe.
A survivor of the Greek deportations later recalled that as the Jews in his town were being herded onto trucks by Waldheim’s unit, they “had to throw their money down in front of Waldheim–he would not take it from our hands–and whoever threw it down got struck hard by him in the head with a hard rod.” Waldheim’s commander was the infamous war criminal Alexander Lohr, who was later executed by the Allies for his role in the atrocities.
Schwarzenegger, a native Austrian, nevertheless invited Waldheim to his May 1986 wedding. Unable to attend, Waldheim sent Schwarzenegger and Shriver a wedding gift, and Arnold toasted him in absentia at the wedding reception.
In a recent editorial, Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, urged Schwarzenegger to “come clean on Waldheim … It may not be expedient, but it’s right.” Schwarzenegger responded by giving an interview to the Journal in which he publicly acknowledged for the first time that the toast “was a mistake.”
Indeed it was. But he was not the only one to make such a mistake.
In early 1987, the Reagan administration declared Waldheim persona non grata, by putting him on its official Watch List of war-crimes suspects, thus barring him from entering the United States. A desperate Waldheim cast about for friends who would help him regain respectability in the international community. He found them–in Rome, Amman, and Cairo.
In June 1987, Pope John Paul II invited Waldheim to the Vatican, becoming the first major international leader to meet with Waldheim since the revelations about his war crimes. The Pontiff compounded his mistake by bestowing papal knighthood on Waldheim in 1994, making him a “soldier of the faith”–an ironic designation for someone who had once been a soldier of Hitler.
Waldheim’s 1987 audience with the Pope was followed by a visit to Jordan, where King Hussein praised his “patriotism, integrity, and wisdom,” and “the noble human values for which he stands.” Early the next year, the King reciprocated by paying a visit to Austria, the same week that an international committee of historians issued a report confirming Waldheim’s involvement in war crimes.
After Jordan, Waldheim traveled to Egypt, where he was warmly embraced by President Hosni Mubarak. The Jerusalem Post protested, charging in an editorial that “when Arab leaders are engaged in a lovefest with Dr. Waldheim, [they] suggest that the Holocaust was a trifling matter, if not a figment of Zionist imagination.”
Afterwards, Waldheim held friendly meetings with leaders of the Soviet Union, West Germany, and Pakistan.
The embrace of Waldheim by the Pope, Jordan, Egypt and others was considerably more significant than the private toast Arnold Schwarzenegger offered at his wedding reception. The actions of these world leaders directly undermined efforts to persuade the international community to treat Waldheim as a pariah.
Schwarzenegger was rightly called to account and responded. The time is long overdue for the Vatican and the others who tried to sanitize Waldheim to come clean and publicly acknowledge that they too were wrong. It may not be expedient, but it’s the right thing to do.