At the end of a controversial campaign marked by allegations that he had participated in Nazi atrocities during World War II, former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim is elected president of Austria, a largely ceremonial post.
After the annexation of his country by Nazi Germany in 1938, Waldheim was conscripted into the Germany army and served on the Russian front until 1941, when he was wounded. Waldheim claimed that he spent the rest of the war studying law in Vienna, but in 1986 documents were discovered showing he had been a German army staff officer stationed in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945.
After World War II, Waldheim entered diplomatic service and was later appointed Austrian ambassador to France and Canada. When Austria entered the United Nations in 1958, Waldheim was a member of its first delegation. Appointed Austria’s permanent representative in 1965, he joined his country’s cabinet in 1968 as Austrian foreign minister. In 1971, he ran for the Austrian presidency but lost. However, that same year, he became U.N. secretary-general. In 1976, he was reelected, but in 1981 a third term was blocked by a Chinese veto. During his tenure as head of the U.N., he attempted, with little success, to end the Iran-Iraq War, the Sino-Vietnam War, and to gain the release of American hostages in Iran.
In 1986, he ran for Austrian president again, but the campaign was heavily tainted by reports that he had been an interpreter and intelligence officer for a German army unit that committed war crimes during World War II. The unit, stationed in the Balkans, engaged in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported most of the Jewish population of Salonika, Greece, to Nazi death camps. Waldheim admitted that, contrary to earlier statements he made about his past, he had indeed served in the Balkans during the war, but denied any involvement in war crimes. On June 8, 1986, he was elected Austrian president, or head of state. Waldheim was guilty in many people’s eyes, and the United States banned him from entering the country in 1987. His tenure as Austrian president was marked by a period of international isolation, and he chose not to run for reelection in 1992.
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