Kurt Waldheim at EWU

Commencement Speaker, United Nations Secretary General, War Criminal

In 1982, Eastern Washington University set out to find a notable commencement speaker to celebrate their 100th anniversary.

Invitations to participate in the centennial celebrations went out to notable alumni, state and federal congressional representatives, prominent writers, artists, and political leaders. Eastern was able to get former President of the United States, Gerald Ford, to deliver the “Founders Day” address on campus, setting the bar extremely high for whoever would be the commencement speaker. EWU found exactly what they were looking for when Dr. Kurt Waldheim agreed to come to Cheney to give the address.

Born in Vienna in 1918, Waldheim served his home country of Austria in several political roles, including as the fourth Secretary General of the United Nations, making him one of the most respected diplomats in the world. Eastern Washington University was excited to host someone so prominent on the world stage and began advertising his arrival in The Easterner, the university newspaper.

At Eastern, Waldheim delivered a powerful commencement speech where he spoke to the recent graduates about preventing the current political tensions around the world from turning into another world war, “I do not believe that any government has any intention of letting us drift into a third world war, but unless we are prepared to learn from the past and to make our international political institutions work as they were intended to work, that danger will always exist.”

In addition to his rousing speech at the commencement ceremony, Waldheim took part in planting a ceremonial tree next to a plaque created in his honor that read, “Austrian Pine Commemorating EWU’s Centennial Commencement. June 11, 1982, Planted in Honor of Kurt Waldheim, 4th Secretary General of the United Nations.” Waldheim helped break ground with a painted golden shovel that he autographed while pictures were taken of the momentous occasion and the tree was planted. Overall, inviting Kurt Waldheim to take part in Eastern Washington University's centennial commencement had been a smashing success, or so everyone thought.

Just as plaques and monuments tarnish over time, so do people’s legacies. In 1991, The Easterner published an article titled “Waldheim Plaque to be Removed.” This decision, made by EWU President Marshall Drummond, was due to recent discoveries which uncovered that Kurt Waldheim was no longer permitted in The United States because he was suspected of committing war crimes as a Nazi during World War II.

Waldheim had always claimed to have served in the regular German army, the Wermacht, at the start of the war, but after being wounded on Russian front he had spent the rest of the war in law school. This was not true. Although there wasn't concrete evidence of Waldheim’s direct involvement in committing genocide, archival and eyewitness accounts prove that he was a Nazi intelligence officer attached to a unit that deported around 60,000 Greek Jews to Auschwitz, as well as committed atrocities in The Balkans. As evidence accrued over the years against Waldheim, his story continued to change up until his death in 2007.

Despite there being a large amount of EWU documentation surrounding the planning of the 1982 centennial commencement, there is nothing aside from The Easterner article that addresses President Drummond’s decision to remove the plaque, the whereabouts of the tree that was planted, what was done with the plaque, or how the University intends to handle the knowledge of Waldheim’s disturbing past. In fact, until recently the story of Waldheim's visit appears to have been concealed. Meanwhile, on campus there is still an autographed shovel, autographed invitations to a dinner gala, and a tree planted by former Lieutenant Kurt Waldheim of The Wehrmacht. As for the plaque, it almost assuredly lies dormant somewhere in the same memory hole that the rest of this story has hidden in for the last 30 years.