UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The 192-nation General Assembly paid tribute on Friday to Kurt Waldheim, the fourth U.N. secretary-general, without mentioning his tarnished legacy as an officer in Nazi Germany’s army in the Balkans.
But Waldheim had what he called the “last word” on the controversy in a two-page letter, published posthumously by the Austrian Press Agency, a day after he died in Vienna on Thursday at the age of 88.
Waldheim, president of Austria from 1986 to 1992, said he regretted that “under the pressure of monstrous accusations that had nothing to do with my life or thinking” he had taken an “unambiguous position far too late on Nazi crimes.”
Secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to the end of 1981, Waldheim had concealed his wartime service with brutal German units in the Balkans until press reports revealed it during his 1986 campaign for the Austrian presidency.
He acknowledged that he had erred in “dealing too late with the events” but linked this to the “hectic pace of an overloaded international life.”
“My merits and my mistakes now stand before a judge who alone knows the truth. I step up to him confidently in the knowledge of his justice and his mercy,” Waldheim wrote.
He expressed “bitter disappointment” that his “global experience” as U.N. secretary-general could not be applied as Austrian president. This was not because of political calculation or dubious convictions, he wrote, but rather a sense of slight and outrage over the accusations.
“I pay respect to all those who confronted me critically and ask them to reconsider their motives and, if possible, grant me reconciliation,” he said.
Waldheim will be given a state funeral on June 23 and buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery. The United Nations will be represented by Antonio Maria Costa, undersecretary-general in charge of the U.N. offices in Vienna.
In Friday’s General Assembly speeches by U.N. representatives of regional groups, Mexico mentioned Waldheim had grown up during a turbulent phase of his country and in Europe. And the United States, which barred Waldheim from entering the country, gave the shortest tribute of all, just two sentences.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who visited Waldheim in February, recalled that he came to know Waldheim personally, after his retirement from public life. Ban had spent two years as South Korea’s ambassador in Vienna.
“He was a man who had lived history,” Ban said.
Only Austria’s U.N. ambassador, Gerhard Pfanzelter, mentioned the final letter, noting Waldheim also said he “considered his service for the United Nations as the most challenging and rewarding period of his life.”
Waldheim served as an officer in German units that tortured and executed Yugoslavs and Greek Jews, although it was never proved that Waldheim committed atrocities. The revelations came during his successful campaign for the presidency.
Subsequently, it was revealed Waldheim’s record had been in U.N. archives for decades and was known to Yugoslavs, Russians as well as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna