Schwarzenegger's Nazi problem.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 7 2003 6:46 PM

Arnold's Nazi Problem

Why won't he repudiate Kurt Waldheim?

A slight Waldheim problem
A slight Waldheim problem

Here's a question Jay Leno forgot to ask Arnold Schwarzenegger when he announced his candidacy for governor of California on last night's Tonight Show: "Will you renounce your support for Kurt Waldheim?"

A little refresher course may be in order. Kurt Waldheim, a widely esteemed former secretary general of the United Nations, was running for president of Austria in March 1986 when it came to light that he had participated in Nazi atrocities during World War II. Waldheim had always maintained that he had served in the Wehrmacht only briefly and that after being wounded early in the war, he had returned to Vienna to attend law school. In fact, Waldheim had resumed military service after recuperating from his injury and had been an intelligence officer in Germany's Army Group E when it committed mass murder in the Kozara region of western Bosnia. (Waldheim's name appears on the Wehrmacht's "honor list" of those responsible for the atrocity.) In 1944, Waldheim had reviewed and approved a packet of anti-Semitic propaganda leaflets to be dropped behind Russian lines, one of which ended, "enough of the Jewish war, kill the Jews, come over." After the war, Waldheim was wanted for war crimes by the War Crimes Commission of the United Nations, the very organization he would later head. None of these revelations prevented Waldheim from winning the Austrian election, but after he became president, the U.S. Justice Department put Waldheim on its watch list denying entry to "any foreign national who assisted or otherwise participated in activities amounting to persecution during World War II." The international community largely shunned Waldheim, and he didn't run for re-election. (This information comes from the1992 book Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Kurt Waldheim Investigation and Cover-Up, by Eli M. Rosenbaum and William Hoffer.)

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One month after these revelations began to splash across the front pages of newspapers worldwide, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver held their wedding reception * at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass. Schwarzenegger, a native of Austria, had invited Waldheim to the wedding, which of course can't be held against him because the invitations surely went out well before the war crimes story broke. (Schwarzenegger, who held dual citizenship in Austria and the United States, had also endorsed Waldheim.) Waldheim didn't attend, but he sent a gift—a statue of Arnold, in lederhosen, bearing off Maria, who wore a dirndl. Admiring it, Schwarzenegger offered a tribute that stunned the assemblage into shocked silence (this is reported in Arnold: An Unauthorized Biography, by Wendy Leigh):

My friends don't want me to mention Kurt's name, because of all the recent Nazi stuff and the U.N. controversy, but I love him and Maria does too, and so thank you, Kurt.

Schwarzenegger's name remained on Waldheim's campaign posters. After Waldheim was elected, Schwarzenegger paid him a visit and was photographed with him. According to the New York Post's "Page Six" gossip column, Schwarzenegger was seen sitting beside Waldheim as recently as 1998, when the two attended the second inauguration of Waldheim's successor as president, Thomas Klestil.

In 1988, Schwarzenegger was asked in a Playboy interview what he thought of Waldheim. He replied:

I hate to talk about it, because it's a no-win situation. Without going into details, I can say that being half-Austrian and half-American, I don't like the idea that these two countries that mean so much to me are in such a disagreement. Austria is a very important place for Americans, because it is a neutral country. With a little bit of good will, the problem will be straightened out. I think it's well on the way.

Why on Earth didn't Schwarzenegger take this opportunity to speak out against Waldheim? It surely isn't because Schwarzenegger himself had any Nazi sympathies (though during the filming of the documentary Pumping Iron, he reportedly once made a foolish comment praising Hitler). Rather, Schwarzenegger was likely playing politics—to be more specific, Austrian politics and family politics. For years it was rumored that if Schwarzenegger didn't run for governor of California, he would run for president of Austria. Because Austrians have long resented what they see as Waldheim's pointless scapegoating, any firm denunciation would have ruled the latter possibility out. In addition, Schwarzenegger's mother had for many years lived with Alfred Gerstl, a prominent Austrian politician who rose to the top post in the upper house of Austria's parliament. Schwarzenegger reportedly addressed him as "Uncle." (Schwarzenegger's father, who died three decades ago, was a police official who had belonged to the Nazi party.)

Rather than confront his Waldheim problem head-on, Schwarzenegger has proclaimed his disgust for Nazism, raised money for education about the Holocaust, traveled to Israel (where he met with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin), and given generously to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which in 1997 bestowed on him its National Leadership Award. "He wants no truck with … Waldheim," the Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Marvin Hier told the Jerusalem Post. "He probably did not have any clue as to the seriousness of the allegations against Waldheim at that time [i.e., 1986]. To suggest that Arnold's an anti-Semite is preposterous. He's done more to further the cause of Holocaust awareness than almost any other Hollywood star."

Clearly, though, that won't be enough. If Schwarzenegger doesn't renounce Waldheim in a highly public way, he can forget about ever becoming governor of California.

Correction, Aug. 11, 2003:An earlier version of this piece stated incorrectly that Schwarzenegger and Shriver "exchanged wedding vows" at the Kennedy compound. In fact, they exchanged vows at a nearby church, then held their wedding reception at the Kennedy compound, where the scene described above took place. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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