Daily Review-Atlas (Monmouth, IL) 8-11-98

by William Urban

 One of more interesting events of my summer in Europe was seeing the Pope again. I had been introduced to him at Vatican-sponsored conferences in 1986 and 1987, back with John Paul II was yet relatively young and vigorous. We had even had a short chat about the conference. A very impressive man, with the softest hands, and the most amazing ability to seem interested in what each person had to say. I had heard that he would visit Vienna about the time my tour group would be there, but the Pope's schedule was not firmly fixed, both for health reasons, security, and a heavy schedule. The reason for the visit was the deplorable condition of the Austrian Church--sex scandals, declining attendance at worship, and so forth. The usual problems of European churches today. We were on our way to see the Hofburg palace when I heard that the papal caravan would be coming out the main gate in a few minutes. I suggested rather strongly that this was something the students would want to see.

The wait was longer than we would have wished, but it was not boring. Some nuns were singing, police motorcycles would run down the street, then come back, and protestors were waving little anti-clerical signs as though the Pope might actually be able to read them. Finally, a line of cars came through at a pretty good rate of speed. John Paul II passed by, maybe ten feet away. He was in a regular sedan, not the Popemobile. The cars were moving pretty fast. Still, it was clear that the Pope was now very frail.

As the crowd dispersed, we went on through the archways to the main square in front of the palace where John Paul II was to address the crowds the next day. As a gate opened up, a large number of churchmen filed out. I stopped for a minute, wondering if I would see one of the historians of the Teutonic Order I knew, when who appeared right in front of me but Kurt Waldheim.

That was a bit of a shock. Not that he would be there, but that he would be among the dignitaries invited to meet the Pope. No wonder the Austrian church was in trouble.

The name Kurt Waldheim is probably familiar. Secretary-General of the United Nations for two terms, an activist leader who sympathized with the Third World, especially with the Palestineans. Only later, after he decided to run for the Presidency of Austria, did we learn why it was so easy for him to be against America, even against the Soviet Union--Waldemar had been a Nazi. Not just any Nazi, either. He had served as an intelligence officer in Greece and Yugoslavia, charged with keeping the various commanders informed about what the others were doing. He held that position while the Jews were being rounded up in Greece and dispatched to Auschwitz.

Waldheim had kept this a very quiet secret by a very effective ruse--he lied about it, even providing forged documents that suggested he had been on the Russian front, then working as a scholar. Tito, however, knew the truth, and he apparently shared it with his "non-aligned" friends. Waldemar was pro-Palestinian because he was anti-Semitic and perhaps because of fear of blackmail. He still claims that he knew nothing about the murders.

Unlike John Paul II, Waldheim did not visit the US when he was president of Austria 1986-1992. If he had tried, he was informed, he might well be arrested and tried as a war criminal. Similarly, he was not welcome in most European states. It's only at home that he is honored. And invited to meet the Pope with the other members of the Diplomatic Corps. (He does collect a $103,000 annual pension from the UN.)

This could happen because Austria got a free ride after World War II on the grounds that it had been occupied by Hitler. But the occupation had been widely popular (see the Sound of Music again if you doubt that). Hitler was born in Austria, grew up there, and learned his hatred of Jews in Vienna. To this day one of the leading political parties holds rallies in the little village where Hitler was born, Braunau. Vienna is the only place in all my travels in German-speaking countries where I have met people who freely confessed to being Nazis. Startling occurrences, of course, because usually people waiting for a bus don't come right out with political opinions. In German, of course. That kind of person isn't smart enough to speak English.

Yet, in the complex way the world has of living with contradictions, this living Nazism is proof that Austria is a true democracy. In Vienna is also the office of Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter. Only a couple policemen are on duty on his street to watch for bomb planters. Ex-Nazis, Nazi-hunters, side by side.

Before the Pope's talk, the newspapers had been filled with the problems of the Austrian church. Afterward they were marveling at his determination and courage in speaking for Austria having a renewed activism in the world, especially as a bridge to East Europe; he spoke about Athe art of peace,@ Athe culture of life@ and the world village. Christ is served by actions as well as piety. The contrast of John Paul II's physical fraility and the vigor of his mind was inspirational.

I must confess that I would have been more inspired if John Paul II had taken a moment to speak out against the evils that Waldheim personified, but I'm not surprised that he did not. Not only would it have detracted from his message, but the official church takes a long-view of events. A few days later I took the students through Dachau, a concentration camp opened in 1933 for priests and ministers who objected to Hitler's murder of the mentally ill, then for many thousands of Polish priests. The Pope of those years, Pius XI, was silent, too. He had found it all too convenient to work with Mussolini and Hitler. Anyone who was anti-communist. It is rumored that shortly before his death he was working on an encyclical against nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism. It never appeared

Pius XII, who became pope in 1939, had a more ambivalent policy. According to David Alvarez, in his 1997 book, Nothing Sacred: Nazi espionage against the Vatican, the Nazis considered the Catholic church its most dangerous enemy. The Nazis suspected the Vatican of conducting espionage for the Allies, though the evidence does not support that. Pius XII did have a complex problem to deal with, but he was so worried about information reaching the Fascists and Nazis that he informed almost no one what he was doing. This made Pius XII a very controversial figure in all ensuing discussions of the Holocaust.

I assume that John Paul II knows what he is doing with Kurt Waldheim. Having followed his activities in overthrowing Communism, I know that John Paul II is a consummate politician. The newspapers in Austria say that he has not lost his touch. Waldheim may be one of those necessary compromises. I certainly hope so.