Austrian diplomat who served two terms as the fourth secretary-general of the United Nations, from 1972 to 1981. He was the elected president of Austria from 1986 to 1992.
Waldheim’s father, a Czech by ethnic origin, changed his name from Waclawik to Waldheim. Kurt Waldheim served in the Austrian army as a volunteer (1936?37) before he began to study for a diplomatic career. He was soon conscripted into the German army, however, and served on the Russian front until 1941, when he was wounded. Waldheim’s later claims that he spent the rest of the war studying law at the University of Vienna were contradicted by the rediscovery in 1986 of documents suggesting that he had been a German army staff officer stationed in the Balkans from 1942 to 1945.
Waldheim entered the diplomatic service in 1945. He led Austria’s first delegation to the UN (1955) and subsequently became Austrian minister (1956?58) and then ambassador to Canada (1958?60). After a period as director general for political affairs in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, he became his country’s ambassador to the UN (1964?68, 1970?71). During 1968?70 he served as Austrian foreign minister and was an unsuccessful candidate for Austria’s presidency on the conservative People’s Party ticket (1971).
Waldheim’s UN secretaryship beginning in 1972 was characterized as efficient and ministerial but rather less dynamic than that of some of his predecessors. Waldheim nonetheless oversaw effective and sometimes massive relief efforts in Bangladesh, Nicaragua, and Guatemala and peacekeeping operations in Cyprus, the two Yemens, Angola, Guinea, and the Middle East.
Waldheim was not reelected to a third term as UN secretary-general in 1981. He ran as the People’s Party candidate for president of Austria in 1986. His candidacy became controversial when rediscovered wartime and postwar documents pointed to his being an interpreter and intelligence officer for a German army unit that had engaged in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav partisans and civilians and that had deported most of the Jewish population of Salonika (Thessaloníki), Greece, to Nazi death camps in 1943. Waldheim admitted that he had not been candid about his past but disclaimed all knowledge of or participation in wartime atrocities. He won election to the Austrian presidency in June 1986 for a six-year term. Owing to the controversy over his wartime past, however, he became a somewhat isolated figure on the international scene.
“Waldheim, Kurt” Encyclopædia Britannica