NEW YORK — Growing up a Jewish-American kid in the 1980s, there were three successive incidents that were a constant source of consternation: president Ronald Reagan at Bitburg, the murder of Leon Klinghoffer and the election of Kurt Waldheim as Austria’s president in 1986.
If you weren’t alive then, maybe you don’t know about Waldheim. After all, there have been plenty of anti-Semitic outrages between then and now to keep us busy.
Waldheim first came on the scene as the United Nations secretary-general in 1972. Being from Austria, a nominally neutral country during the Cold War, he was someone the two superpowers could agree on. After his time served he decided to run for president in his home country on a right-wing, “traditionalist” platform.
But an Austrian journalist discovered that his World War II military record was a little bit fudged: He wasn’t, as he claimed, someone who was essentially pressed into service, quickly wounded and then spent the remainder of the war getting his law degree.
The World Jewish Congress, headed by Edgar Bronfman Jr. and led by Israel Singer, dug further and discovered that Waldheim had a significant position as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht and was present during war crimes in Yugoslavia and Greece. He was stationed in Salonica (also known as Thessoliniki), which had a substantial Jewish population since the time of the Spanish expulsion. In 1943 it suffered one of the more devastating deportations of the entire war. (It is estimated that over 90% of the city’s Jews were killed.)
Waldheim claimed not to have been there. Then he said he was there, but before and after the deportations, and never noticed the disappearance of the city’s Jews. Then he said, “Why are you asking these questions?” Then he said, “In whose interest is it to dig up the past?” Then he said, “The World Jewish Congress is sticking their noses into Austrian affairs, are we going to let that happen?” Then he won the election.
I’ll allow you a moment to pause and throw up.
Back in 1986, Ruth Beckerman, a Jewish-Austrian filmmaker who lives in Vienna but has also worked in Israel, protested in the streets with her video camera. That footage, plus an avalanche of old news interviews, have been worked into her newest documentary, “The Waldheim Waltz.” It opens in New York City (at the Metrograph Theater) this Friday before expanding to additional cities, and has been selected by Austria as its submission for the Academy Awards.
I had the good fortune to speak to Beckerman, and below is an edited transcript of that conversation.
I wonder if younger people know this story?
Nobody knows about this story, except the people who are old enough and lived through it. I started the film because I watched the material that I shot years ago with young people. They were so shocked and asked so many questions, and they drew parallels to politicians who lie and to populism. That’s what got me interested in the project. There’s a feeling all over Europe – and even Korea, where I just visited – from people who don’t know about Mr. Waldheim, but see him as a very good screen. A screen for all kinds of projection.
People watch this film and talk about Trump. They talk about Viktor Orban in Hungary. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. It’s all about the context of when or where you see the film. I did not expect that.
Well, I watched it just as we in the United States were coming off the contentious confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. And there are some remarkable one-to-one comparisons you can make, almost as if this were a deliberate piece of satirical fiction.
What Waldheim’s supporters did was the same thing.
I mean, it’s important to make a distinction that Nazi exterminations and one person’s sexual predation are not equivalent, but the dramatis personae equate quite nicely. A very powerful man who is obviously lying, an accusation from the past, in this case the World Jewish Congress, and then the rabid followers blaming the victim, saying they are digging up old news to make trouble.
You find a group of people that already has prejudice against them — in Waldheim’s case, the Jews — then make a campaign against them. You can always win elections this way. These are the mechanisms of right wing populism. It always works.
The term “populism” is so strange to me. It sounds like it means “everyone” or “community” and yet it is just the opposite.
For the right wing it means xenophobia. Left wing, sure, it can mean class war, “Let’s be against the rich.” But in the right wing context it is anti-Semitism. “We are the patriots. We are the homogenous Austrians vs. the others.”
You’ve had this old footage for decades, did you always know it would some day be used for a film?
No. When I shot it at the time, it was not for my own use. It was because the official Austrian media ignored our group. We had a need to document our side, and our activities.
There is the journalist in the film, Hubertus Czernin, the one who first uncovers the initial military documents. I searched the Austrian TV archives and could not find one interview! The interview in the film is from America. The French and the British and Americans, they were interested in us as opposition, but not the official Austrian media.
Do you think the French and British may have been interested in this story to throw off the scent a little from their own behavior during the War?
Of course. Especially the Americans, they come off as the good guys in this movie. WWII was still a good war for them compared to the wars that came after.
It comes up in the film a lot that Austria likes to consider itself the first victims of Nazism –
Yes, definitely. And the Waldheim Affair was the big turning point. Only very old people still hold this view.
There’s more of an acceptance of complicity?
Yes, but until 1986 not at all. 1986 was the most important event in Austria since the end of the war. There was this taboo, you didn’t ever talk about the real victims — the Jews, the Roma, the homosexuals — because the whole country considered themselves victims.
Of course, there were some resistance fighters, but they were in the closet — along with the small Jewish community. During the Waldheim Affair it was the first time the Jewish community came out, gave a press conference. Because they were threatened.
People treated my friends and I as traitors. And not only the Jews — there are not many Jews in Austria — all of us were slammed by all this patriotism.
Waldheim didn’t have a shot at re-election after 1986, did he?
No, no. He was vain and aloof and arrogant by the end. He was so isolated, and nobody came to Austria. And no one invited him anywhere. Only some Arab countries and the Vatican. Not even the Swiss invited him!
Did this have an effect on the economy?
That I don’t know, but he was on the United States “watch list,” and the whole standing of the country was poor. He was old by then.
It seems like Austria has done a decent job of owning up to this history. The United Nations, as far as I can tell, has not. I know that Waldheim’s picture is still hanging there.
I told my distributer that we should have a screening at the UN. Just for the people who work there, you know? But it is hard to get into the cosmos of the UN.
When Waldheim and his team are defending themselves against the World Jewish Congress, one of their strategies is to suggest that the only reason the Congress found this information is because they disliked Waldheim, and they disliked the UN because of the way the UN rolled out the red carpet for Yasser Arafat and the “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution. This, I will confess, sounds like it has a bit of truth to it.
I am sure about it. I can not prove it, but I think you are correct. Because why should they be interested in an Austrian politician? They were interested in the politics of the UN. So many countries in the 1970s became independent. There was the wave of anti-colonialism. And Israel is a kind of colonial project in the perspective of many countries. And they voted for this strange resolution. So I think the World Jewish Congress did have a different agenda.
But they struck gold. It paid off.
Yes. And if the discovery had been only in Austria it would not have had the same impact. It came from America.
Then Waldheim calls them a small group with a lot of influence in the media, which has anti-Semitic connotations.
I don’t know if Waldheim himself was a true anti-Semite, but his party and his campaign managers used it, for sure.
Even when he was at the UN, as you show in the film, he’s the world’s top diplomat, visiting every country, then he goes to Yad Vashem and refuses to cover his head. What is he thinking?
This is a big enigma. I have no idea. A psychologist in Germany who saw the film suggested that maybe if he put on a kippah or hat it would be like he was admitting guilt to himself. I don’t know.
I am Jewish but if I am a tourist in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, which is lovely, by the way, I take my hat off. It’s what you do.
Yes, of course. So why do you think he did it? Nobody knows!
Well, this is the bigger question: you’ve been living with Waldheim for years –
I didn’t live with him.
I mean living with this film. He is in your life.
All he does is deny. He denies knowing about the Salonika deportations, one of the biggest in Eastern Europe. Does he believe his own lies?
Yes. I think he just forgot it. I am quite sure, after analyzing all this material, that he lied in 1947 when [Waldheim’s wartime superior] Alexander Löhr was hanged and then nobody spoke about it anymore. And by 1986 he had constructed a lie and he’d forgotten the truth. If someone asked him about the past, he’d just repeat the lie.
It’s amazing what the brain can do, I guess.
The deportation of the Jews in Salonika, which he claims he didn’t know about, he didn’t even look it up later. In the interview with the BBC, he says, “Why should I have looked into something I didn’t know?” I mean, I didn’t live through the Holocaust, but I have read many books about it.
And he’s also the Secretary General of the United Nations! An organization built to prevent future Nazi-like atrocities! He’s not just a sheep farmer somewhere!
Sorry for shouting, it can get frustrating.
There’s a phrase that comes up in the film, “Austrian Elasticity.”
Yeah, the turning around, another turn. That’s why I called it “Waldheim Waltz,” you turn and try to sneak out.
Austria at the time was fascinating because during the Cold War it was neither East nor West.
This is part of why Waldheim became General Secretary, it was a neutral country, okay for the Soviets and the Americans. Then 1986 comes and the Cold War is coming to a close, so no reason to spare Austria criticism.
It would appear that Austria is in support of your film, you’ve been submitted for the Academy Award.
Yes, it is done by a jury, from various film associations. I don’t exactly know how it works, I’ve never been interested in Oscars, but I think it is five people. But not the government.
With the heightened profile has there been some controversy?
Sure, some postings on the internet. Always from people who didn’t see the film yet. Germans and Austrians. “Why dig up the past?” and “The Wehrmacht was clean.” But anyone who sees the film is enthusiastic, especially young people. They want to know the logistics of how we protested, how it worked, they are fascinated by this. They have the desire to do something about the current government. And they are shocked with the bluntness of the anti-Semitism in the streets and with the politicians. At the time we were used to it.
Waldheim’s son is in the film, in old footage, and it is heartbreaking. He seems intelligent but just repeats his father’s position. Is he still alive?
Yes. And he knows about the movie, we tried to send him a DVD, but we couldn’t find his address. He lives in Germany.
The scene in Congress is flabbergasting, because he is working in America, as a banker at Citibank, which means he’s got Jewish co-workers, and he’s defending his father — how does he go to work on Monday?
He took a vacation for the campaign. After that I can’t say, I haven’t met him. But why defend the father at Congress. Why? Is he a good son? Why does he believe what Waldheim says? If you can track him down, ask him.
“The Waldheim Waltz” opens in New York City on October 19.