The Kenyatta Affair

What Kenya and its allies can learn from Austria’s Nazi legacy.


NAIROBI — For now, Uhuru Kenyatta is the president-elect of Kenya. On Saturday, March 9, after a week of suspense following voting, he bested his main rival and former boss, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who’s challenging the results in court (and now claims, without furnishing much evidence, that he won). This is causing a lot of handwringing among allies of Kenya’s who make human rights a centerpiece of their foreign policies, because Kenyatta is facing trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the violent wake of the last election, in 2007, ICC prosecutors allege, Kenyatta helped organize death squads.

Before this election, U.S. and European officials let out vague minatory noises about what would be done if Kenyatta won. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson warned, in what may have been the most embittering and most meaningless phrase of the campaign, that "choices have consequences." Kenyans have chosen. Now those consequences have to be defined. What they may entail, beyond making a point of not phoning Kenyatta to congratulate him, no one has said publically, but it’s commonly agreed that the situation is unprecedented. The West has had to deal with reprobates already in power, but never has it suffered the anxiety of watching a man accused of crimes against humanity run for and then win the highest office in a friendly nation (and with British counsel). The journalist Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker that "Kenyatta might well become the first democratically elected alleged criminal on that scale in history."

That’s not entirely true. A quarter-century ago, the United States and Europe faced a similar diplomatic tribulation. This one, closer to home, involved Nazis. Peculiarly Mitteleuropean though it was in tone, it provides an instructive precedent for what might be called "The Kenyatta Affair."

In 1986, Kurt Waldheim ran for the presidency of Austria. Waldheim, who’d served as his country’s foreign minister and then secretary general of the United Nations, was vain and unburdened by excessive intelligence (he once used his U.N. diplomatic pouch to send soft American toilet paper back to Europe) but otherwise seemed innocuous. Austrians, and most of the rest of the world, believed he came with a reasonably clean bill of history. Waldheim had always maintained that after Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, he’d been conscripted into the army, sent to the eastern front, invalided by a grenade, discharged, and then returned to Vienna, where he sat out the remainder of hostilities studying law and rubbing his shattered ankle. He claimed he’d never even bothered to join the National Socialist party. (To see how well-practiced the story was, watch this 1974 television interview.)

But for years, rumors circulated that Waldheim was lying. In the U.N. archives sat a file, opened by its War Crime Commission in 1948, which said that Waldheim was connected with a massacre of prisoners in the Balkans and was wanted there for war crimes. The file was mysteriously closed when Waldheim considered running for a third term as secretary general in 1980. As he readied his presidential bid in Austria six years later, however, the file reappeared, along with other files from other archives indicating that Waldheim had not just been a Nazi, but one hell of a Nazi. He’d joined a Nazi youth organization three weeks after the Anschluss, then the Brownshirts, and then served on the staff of a general involved in the Final Solution, who was later hanged in Belgrade. In addition to the Balkans massacre, for which Waldheim was decorated, he was, the evidence indicated, involved in the deportations of Greek Jews.

The first people to connect the dots were Waldheim’s opponents in Austria’s Socialist party. They contacted a Vienna magazine, which printed the revelations. No one in Austria much cared. So the World Jewish Congress, an international advocacy organization, sent its general counsel to Vienna to investigate, and he brought his findings to the New York Times. Confronted by the paper, Waldheim slipped into the exculpatory-yet-incriminating ungrammar that would constitute his responses to the allegations for the rest of his life. "I regret these things most deeply," he told the reporter, and "it is really the first that I hear that such things happened."

What transpired next still astounds. Waldheim’s opponents assumed that their exposures would provoke international condemnation and force Waldheim to drop out of the race (the World Jewish Congress gave him three days to fold). They were half right. Countries from Canada to Britain got in a lather. But they underestimated Waldheim’s glibness, and overestimated the national conscience. His opponents failed to appreciate that Austrians, Hitler’s real Landsmänner, had never seen the point in the paroxysms of guilt suffered by his adopted countrymen the Germans. Many Austrian politicians of Waldheim’s generation had been proud Nazis, some with more appalling résumés than his. The president of parliament, Friedrich Peter, had served in an S.S. extermination unit and had probably personally killed hundreds. As late as the 1980s, Austria was lousy with Hitler nostalgists. These weren’t thugs in black nylon and crew-cuts, either, but everyday people, the satisfied children of historian Daniel Goldhagen’s willing executioners, if not the executioners themselves. In 2010, I interviewed Neal Sher, who was at the time of the Waldheim Affair, as it came to be known, the chief prosecutor in the Office of Special Investigations, the U.S. Justice Department division that investigates war criminals. Sher recalled a pair of old Austrian women who, having seen his picture in the newspaper, approached him in a Vienna café. He smiled and greeted them. "Judenschweine!" they hissed back. 

Waldheim’s campaign managers, on the other hand, understood Austria perfectly. Even while he denied the charges, they designed campaign posters that looked like National Socialist propaganda. They warned crowds of a Jewish plot emanating from New York. (At the same time, because of his years at the U.N., Waldheim chose as his campaign theme song "New York, New York.") It worked. The Socialists realized that every time they brought up the war, they didn’t win voters, but lost them. Someone, maybe from Waldheim’s campaign, maybe just a fed-up citizen, posted flyers announcing "We Austrians Will Vote For Whom We Want!"

Nor was the indignation limited to nationalists. In her account of the Waldheim Affair in the New Yorker, Jane Kramer recorded that the mother of the magazine journalist who exposed Waldheim — a resistance fighter interred at Auschwitz — actually voted for Waldheim, because "of the hypocrisy of the whole campaign" against him. Jews voted for Waldheim, too, including, probably, Bruno Kreisky, the popular chancellor who had included Holocaust-collaborators such as Peter in his government. Kreisky was the soul of pragmatism: if he excluded competent one-time Nazis from posts, he pointed out, he wouldn’t have much to work with. Kreisky was also tired of hearing about the past, just as most Austrians, including Jews, were tired of hearing about the past — just as most Kenyans are tired of it today. (And if they had to hear about it, they certainly didn’t want to hear about it from the Americans, who in the late 1940s, it was well known, had recruited Nazis, including some prominent Austrians, to use against the Soviets.) No less than Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal came to Waldheim’s defense.

Waldheim won the presidency handily. This presented a headache in Washington, which, it was easy to forget, he’d often gone out of his way to help. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, he’d acted as a shuttle between Israel, Egypt, the White House, and the Kremlin (eliciting from Henry Kissinger the most un-Kissingerian sentence of his career: "Thank god for the United Nations"). In 1979, Waldheim had flown to Tehran to try to negotiate the release of American hostages, and for his troubles was abused by the Ayatollah’s drudges.

Unluckily for him, however, World War II was an inviolable canon for then president Ronald Reagan. (Unlike Waldheim, he hadn’t fought in it.) When the Justice Department reached its conclusions — that Waldheim had "assisted or participated in the transfer of civilian prisoners to the SS for exploitation as slave labor, the mass deportation of civilians to concentration and death camps" and "the utilization of anti-Semitic propaganda; the mistreatment and execution of Allied prisoners; and reprisal executions of hostages and other civilians" — Reagan, whose sense of humor was always undervalued, did two things: He sent Waldheim a congratulatory note on winning the election; then he added his name to a list of people barred from entering the United States.

It was the strongest international rebuke. Israel merely recalled its ambassador. Nevertheless, Moscow denounced the Washington-Zionist axis, as did Arab League nations; never particularly interested in Austria before, they now extended effusive invitations to Waldheim. Pope John Paul II not only met with Waldheim but, bizarrely, conferred on him a papal knighthood. He was followed by Vaclav Havel, who, as usual, stole the show. Invited by Waldheim to address the Salzburg Festival in 1990, the Czech president agreed, defying a tacit boycott of Austria by European leaders. Havel spoke on the redemptive powers of confronting one’s past.

Waldheim died in 2007, never having come clean about his war record, even after more revelations emerged. Before expiring, he was, amazingly, invited to Israel. He went, and without actually telling the truth, apologized for not being more truthful.

What can Kenya’s allies learn from the Waldheim Affair? One lesson is that diplomatic isolation makes a nation’s internal neuroses worse, not better. After Waldheim, Austria went from being unremorseful about its history to aggressively conflicted. It twice elected Nazi apologist Jörg Haider to a governorship, and then imprisoned historian David Irving for denying the Holocaust. Something similar may already be coming to pass in Kenya, where, after inviting in scores of international observers and media organizations to cover the election, the government, unhappy with the coverage, is threatening to expel foreign journalists. (Uhuru Kenyatta has accused the British government of trying to deny him the election.)

Another lesson is that while a proud nation can endure its own shame, it won’t abide the shame of others. That Kenya received $875 million in U.S. assistance in 2012 doesn’t make Kenyans feel any more obliged to Washington’s best hopes for them. Nor does the fact that Kenya is a signatory to the International Criminal Court, while the United States is not. After Carson made his remark about choices and consequences, there was much talk about the new Kenyan friendships with China and Russia. Kenyatta’s sworn-enemy-turned-running-mate, William Ruto, who’s facing charges at the ICC for backing the Kalenjin gangs that battled Kenyatta’s Kikuyu gangs, responded to Carson by saying "We know that you have a stooge, a puppet. But now that you have realized your stooge is going nowhere, you have resorted to threats." He was referring to defeated Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and, though exaggerating for effect, he was essentially right. Odinga was the candidate of the West, as well as of the Kenyan intellectual classes, not just because he isn’t indicted — though, according to Kenyan reports, he probably should have been — but because he represented, they felt, Kenyans’ only chance to confront their past. Imprisoned and tortured in the 1980s for his efforts to reform Kenya, Odinga evokes the tragic strain in its history. He sees himself as an essential lump in the national throat, offering liberation through truth, if only Kenyans would agree to weep.

But most Kenyans don’t want to weep. They want to forget the past, as this election shows, not confront it. They didn’t care to hear, again, about the murders and evictions that accompanied the 2007 election, nor about the decades of grief that came before. Kramer wrote of Austrian Jews in the 1986 that they "liked the euphemistic surfaces of Austrian life," and the same can be said of Kenyans today. A nation of aspiring entrepreneurs (and, like Americans, lifestyle-aspirants in the ballot booth), they preferred to recall the theme of success in Kenyan history. Perhaps the most telling summary of this election that I heard was a ten-second FM radio service announcement that aired a few weeks before voting: "It’s important the youth remember Kenya is a brand," the DJ purred, "a brand people are comfortable investing in." Nobody symbolizes the comforts of investment like Kenyatta, maybe the country’s r
ichest man, through little effort of his own. His family is the premier brand in Kenya.

What Kenyatta’s foreign critics, like Waldheim’s, failed to concede — this may be the most valuable lesson — is that countries will confront their pasts, or not, only on their own terms. In post-conflict societies, many public figures have blood on their hands. Kenyans are as aware of this now as Austrians once were. They can take it. What they don’t want is sanctimony. They’d far rather see defiance, even if it entails a certain sadistic hypocrisy. So, like the Auschwitz survivors who voted for Waldheim, Kenyans who saw family and friends killed after the last election voted for Kenyatta, though they knew he may have ordered those deaths. No, because he may have ordered those deaths. He allied with Ruto not to avoid these dark imputations, but to drive them home. Though tribe was the watchword of this election, their alliance, and their victory, was nationalistic, not tribal — just as Waldheim’s was. Their unspoken but resounding message was this: Yes, we killed. We killed for you, for Kenya. And we’d kill again. It’s the most seductive platform in politics.

James Verini is a writer in New York and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.