VIENNA, Austria — Kurt Waldheim, whose legacy as U.N. secretary-general was overshadowed by revelations that he belonged to a German army unit that committed atrocities in the Balkans in World War II, died yesterday. He was 88.
Mr. Waldheim, who was hospitalized in Vienna last month with an infection, died at home of heart failure with his family at his bedside, state broadcaster ORF reported.
Austrian President Heinz Fischer expressed his "deepest condolences," and officials lowered the flag outside his office to half-staff.
"We have lost a great Austrian," Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer said.
Mr. Waldheim, who served as U.N. chief from 1972 to 1981, was first confronted with purported evidence of his personal implication in wartime atrocities when he ran for the Austrian presidency in 1986. He consistently denied wrongdoing, defending himself against disclosures made by his main accuser, the World Jewish Congress, and by foreign press.
But his initial denial of serving in the German army unit — and then assertions that he and fellow Austrians were only doing their duty — led to international censure and a decision by Washington to place him on a "watch list" of people prohibited from visiting the United States. That ban was never lifted.
Mr. Waldheim's ascendancy to the presidency led to a bruising controversy at home, and it damaged Austria's reputation abroad. During Mr. Waldheim's tenure from 1986 to 1992, Austria was largely shunned by foreign leaders.
In February 1988, a government-appointed international commission of six historians investigating his wartime service said it found no proof that Mr. Waldheim committed war crimes, but it also made clear that his record was far from unblemished.
The panel declared that Mr. Waldheim was in "direct proximity to criminal actions."
In April 1987, the Justice Department put Mr. Waldheim on a "watch list" of undesirable aliens that barred him from entering the United States — an embarrassment no other Austrian public figure had experienced.
In his official biographies, Mr. Waldheim initially said he had been wounded at the Russian front in 1941 and returned to Austria to continue his studies.
Only under pressure did he gradually revise his official resume to say that he was transferred to the Balkans in April 1942; went to Arsakli, Greece, as an interpreter that summer; and, in April 1943, became an assistant adjutant with Army Group E, Department I-C. Its commander, Gen. Alexander Loehr, was later executed in Yugoslavia for war crimes.
Born Dec. 21, 1918, in St. Andrae, a small town northwest of Vienna, Mr. Waldheim studied law at Vienna University and attended the Consular Academy, the nation's top diplomatic school. After the war, he entered the diplomatic service.
He served two five-year terms as secretary-general of the United Nations, but China vetoed his attempt at a third term. Although he traveled to many crisis areas, including the Middle East, Mr. Waldheim never gained the reputation of peacemaker that other U.N. chiefs have.
Mr. Waldheim is survived by his wife, Elisabeth, whom he married in 1944, and their three children.