Political Memoirs and Negative Rhetoric: Kurt Waldheim's in the Eye of the Storm and IM Glaspalast der Weltpolitik.(In the Glass Palace of World Politics)(Critical Essay)

By Vansant, Jacqueline | Biography, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Political Memoirs and Negative Rhetoric: Kurt Waldheim's in the Eye of the Storm and IM Glaspalast der Weltpolitik.(In the Glass Palace of World Politics)(Critical Essay)


Vansant, Jacqueline, Biography


The publication in 1985 of Kurt Waldheim's in the Eye of the Storm, and the corresponding German version Im Glaspalast der Weltpolitik [In the Glass Palace of World Politics], coincided with Waldheim's bid for the Austrian presidency. This timing can be seen as a strategic move to highlight his diplomatic career both at home and abroad, and as a way to enhance his position as a candidate for national office. (1) The Austrian reader could take pride in Waldheim's contribution to world peace as Secretary General of the United Nations (1972-1982), and consider him a candidate who could hold his own in the world arena. The non-Austrian, English-speaking audience could view Waldheim as an Austrian statesman who saw beyond the borders of his own country.

As George Egerton notes in "Politics and Autobiography: Political Memoir as Polygenre," political memoirs--"where history and politics are narrated in personalized form"--have attracted "readers across many centuries and cultures" (221). Because of the genre's great appeal as the "most popular form of historical literature," the memoirist, as Egerton suggests, "has major advantages over the more academic competition; these advantages relate to the readership targeted and engaged" (221, 234). The appeal of the political memoir as a personalized narration of history and politics was certainly not lost on the former Secretary General of the United Nations, and although the controversy over omissions concerning his years in the German Wehrmacht was not the desired reaction, Waldheim's bid for the presidency was nonetheless successful. Waldheim was elected president on the second ballot, as 53.9 percent of the electorate voted for him despite-- or perhaps in part because of--the controversy surrounding the parts o f his past left out of his memoirs. (2)

My interests lie not with the controversy surrounding Waldheim's election, but with the rhetoric of his memoirs, and in particular with the ways in which he writes about the years 1918-1945. Viewing the political memoir as a rhetorical act, which Karlyn Kohrs Campbell defines as "an intentional, created, polished attempt to overcome the obstacles in a given situation with a specific audience on a given issue to achieve a particular end" (7), I will explore the importance of the influence of audience in shaping these political memoirs. I also intend to show that Waldheim's attention to rhetoric illustrates as well that regardless of the truth or falsity of his claims, which has been studied in depth, he engages in what Lynerre Hunter calls "negative rhetoric," which unlike "positive rhetoric" does not invite the audience into an activity of choices, but rather seeks to impose "submissive acceptance" on it (15).

My argument will follow merging trajectories. I will begin with a look at Waldheim's reflections concerning the genre of In the Eye of the Storm and Im Glaspalast der Weltpolitik, and at his comments on the differences between the two versions. Then after briefly outlining public and semi-private victim discourse in Austria, I will examine Waldheim's rhetorical construction of victimhood, highlighting the differences between the English and German versions. In his political memoirs, Kurt Waldheim exploits the authority invested in the memoir form, and combines rhetorical strategies of the memoir with other narrative strategies found in public and private discourse in Austria since the forties, to construct both himself and Austria as victims of National Socialism.

WHEN IS A MEMOIR NOT A MEMOIR, AND A TRANSLATION NOT A TRANSLATION?

In Die Antwort [The Answer, 1996], an appropriate name for a response to attacks on his character resulting from omissions in his memoirs, Waldheim claims that Im Glaspalast der Weltpolitik is neither memoir nor autobiography, but rather a narrative devoted to his experiences as Secretary General of the United Nations (97). …

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