Elisabeth Waldheim’s Legacy and Rebuilding Austria’s National Reputation

Laying to rest a companion to controversy in Austria’s struggle with its national socialist past.

As Elisabeth Waldheim was laid to rest in the presidential crypt in front of St. Karl Borromäus Church in Vienna’s central cemetery on Mar 9, mourners threw red roses onto her coffin.  It marked the end of an era in Austrian history, one that saw the horrors of Nazism as well as an unprecedented postwar economic and cultural boom. It was Austria not only as the “first victim of fascism” but also as a victor in the Cold War, a modern-day Alpine Republic and a bastion of democracy and freedom in central Europe. Like many things in Austria, Elisabeth Waldheim’s passing was quiet but important – a milestone in coming to terms with the country’s past.

The flowers and framed photograph in front of Mrs. Waldheim’s casket at St. Karl Borromäus Church were like any other Roman Catholic funeral in Austria, but the prominent mourners, including Austria’s new Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen and his predecessor Heinz Fischer, were not.

Unusual too was the officiant, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna. Mrs. Waldheim had “turned away from God in her youth,” he noted, a reference to her own association with national socialism, but in later years had “rediscovered her faith.” It could have been a description of Austria itself.

Thirty years earlier, on March 2, 1986, it was revealed that Austria’s leading candidate for federal president, Kurt Waldheim, had been a member of a Sturmabteilung cavalry troop at Vienna’s Diplomatic Academy following its takeover by the Nazis.

The story swept the international news. It was not so much about Waldheim’s SA membership, but more about him having left the war years out of his post-World War II biography. His statement “I only did my duty” did not help matters, as the story unfolded around him. Throughout, his wife stood by him.

At the time, the Waldheims had been married for 42 years. Kurt Waldheim had been Austria’s foreign minister, ambassador to Canada and secretary-general of the United Nations – a long and illustrious diplomatic career. He was now a candidate to become Austria’s president.

In the end, Waldheim was elected anyway; many Austrians were all too familiar with lives of impossible compromise.  But his treatment internationally was extremely cold. The U.S., Soviet and Israeli ambassadors all demonstratively stayed away from his inauguration in 1986, and in April 1987 Waldheim had a personal travel ban placed on him by the U.S. government, the so-called Watch List.

Results of the Waldheim Affair?

First, Austrian politicians were finally compelled to begin a discussion of national socialism they had long avoided. Second, negotiations began for restitution of property that had been stolen or appropriated under the Nazi regime. In Germany, this process had begun almost immediately after the war ended.

The controversy surrounding the president affected his entire family, who were subjected to harassment and disparagement. Even after he left office in 1992, the waves of criticism continued to influence Austria’s restitution and reconciliation policies for years.

Kurt Waldheim’s war record is still controversial but Austria as a republic has moved forward in the face of criticism. Restitution agreements with the United States were signed in 2001, and Austria’s Future Fund and the National Fund have sent important signals of reconciliation, helping to heal old wounds.

With one eye on the past and the other looking to the future, Austria has found its place again in the international community. Elisabeth Waldheim’s life and funeral are a marker of the changes that have taken place over the past decades.

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Gregory Weeks
Dr. Gregory Weeks is the Founder of HSI, The Human Security Initiative in Vienna, Austria. The Human Security Initiative is an academic platform for research and publication on the concept of Human Security. It touches on the main aspects of Human Security with articles published by students and scholars of International Relations.

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