It has been more than a half-century since the Nazi rise to power; in that time, the Nazi ideology, its adherents, and its titular leader, Adolph Hitler, have come to be known in a stylized, somewhat exaggerated way. This is not to say that such opprobrium is any way undeserved; while the Nazis may not have been the most imaginatively cruel men to have murdered in the 20th century (regimes such as Pol Pot come to mind), the sheer scale and enthusiasm of their extermination of more than six million noncombatants1 has made them the favorite secular devil of the popular mind. Hence things like Godwin’s Law and the constant comparisons of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Hitler (the former because, I suppose, he’s apparently a warmonger? and the latter because he apparently wants to gas your grandmother).
Needless to say, Nazis hold a certain place in the popular imagination, and for much of the civilized world, we desire nothing more than the application of justice to the outstanding iniquity of the Holocaust. That’s why figures such as Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi-hunter, are so revered, and why books about the topic sell so well.
I mention Wiesenthal specifically because Guy Walter’s new book, Hunting Evil, does not treat the man well at all. If I were to summarize Walters’ depiction, in fact, it would be this: Wiesenthal is a pathological liar and braggart whose actual contributions to the capture of fugitive war criminals amount to some tiny fraction of those he claims in his many memoirs2 This sounds harsh, and as Walters himself notes, it is a dangerous thing to say about a man who became an icon of the Jewish community and therefore a frequent target of anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers and other cranks of the worst sort. But, as Walters prefaces and readers come to understand, Wiesenthal’s role in the several-decade hunt for fugitive Nazis was important not because he was personally involved in the capture of Adolf Eichmann (which he claimed, but which is not true), for instance, but because his prominence turned the notion of bringing war criminals to justice into a cause célèbre, when previously it had suffered from governments too cash-strapped or uninterested (read: distracted by the threat of Communism) to devote many resources.
Walters excoriates Wiesenthal frequently in the book, but this is generally a product of Walters’ (impeccable, it must be said) research having to deal with the disparity between apparent fact and Wiesenthal’s popularized fiction. It seems as though every story Walters tells necessarily butts heads with some statement Wiesenthal made either in his memoirs or in a periodical. For this reason, Hunting Evil occasionally seems to vilify Wiesenthal more than seems indicated, but the criticism is usually the same: Wiesenthal exaggerates (or fabricates from whole cloth) his involvement in an event or his knowledge of a situation in order to stroke his ego and boost his fame.
Rats from a sinking ship
No one denies, however, that Wiesenthal was in at least six concentration camps; he was a victim of the Holocaust, to be sure, and his thirst for vengeance was neither unanticipated or unsympathetic. Most of the German officers anticipated reprisal, too, albeit from occupying governments and not vigilante Nazi hunters, so when the war was lost for Germany, a great many SS officers went into hiding, among them Adolf Eichmann (the “architect” of the Final Solution), Josef Mengele (the “Angel of Death”, a doctor who performed gruesome experiments on camp inmates), Klaus Barbie (the “Butcher of Lyon”, a high-ranking Gestapo leader in France). These men were icons of a much larger group of war criminals—a classification which included a lot of officers but few rank-and-file soldiers—some of whom were caught immediately and prosecuted and some of whom fled to South America with the help of a sympathetic network of Germans (especially women), the Catholic Church (especially associated with the fascist Catholic Ustaše regime of Croatia), and some undiscerning Hispanic countries, especially Argentina under Juan Perón.
Curiously, some didn’t go into hiding right away; Barbie worked for several years as a spy for the CIC (U.S. army intelligence), where his lack of punishment was viewed as secondary to the value he brought to the intelligence organization’s fight against the looming Communist threat. It is easy to be shocked at the apparent callousness of this—placing anti-Communist strategy above the fight for justice with respect to the Holocaust—but one must also remember that in the period immediately following the war, the extent and detail of the Holocaust was not well understood; hindsight lends us a great deal of clarity. In any case, the CIC soon disposed of Barbie, but helped him flee to Argentina, and later to Bolivia. It was not until 1983 that he was extradited to France (where the bulk of his crimes against humanity occurred), convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The hunt for these criminals was a mixed success; in some cases, they were caught and put on trial; in others, such as that of Mengele, they managed to evade capture and prosecution for the rest of their miserable lives. To some degree, this reflects that haphazard approach to Nazi hunting that marked those decades: a rather unspirited attempt by most governments (including, it must be said, the United States) was eclipsed by private Nazi hunters such as the Klarsfelds and the aforementioned Wiesenthal (the latter in enthusiasm, if not in results), and in some cases handled by Mossad, the Israeli secret police, who were the responsible party in the case of Adolf Eichmann.
Slightly less than novel
Followers of Wiesenthals books are accustomed to no shortage of noir-style sleuthing and derring-do; to this general category of fantastical (if not downright fictional) publications, add a whole subgenre of Nazi thrillers, kickstarted by Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File. Much of it revolves around fugitive Nazis and underground movements, not least of which is ODESSA3, perhaps the most infamous of Nazi networks.
As Walters shows, not only is the ODESSA network purely a myth, but the process of Nazi hunting was not nearly as exciting or novel as its popularizers made it out to be. The rate of success was relatively low, and that usually done with tedious paperwork and requests through diplomatic channels. Perhaps only Eichmann’s abduction from Argentina breaks this mould. Though little known immediately after the war, Eichmann become one of the most sought-after Nazis once his role in the Final Solution came to be known, and Wiesenthal began writing about him at length, and was the only fugitive Nazi tried by the state of Israel after his kidnapping by Mossad. Only Martin Borman captured the popular imagination more, and only then because he actually died in 1945 and became the Nazi “Elvis”, spotted just about everywhere.
It becomes almost too easy, when Walters writes about Eichmann’s life in Argentina, to forget that he is an escaped Nazi and one of the masterminds behind the slaughter of more people than I can realistically visualize. He has a family, after all, a wife and children; he works several jobs; he has health problems. He is only brought to justice once entire decades separate his crimes and his capture. It wouldn’t be fair to say that one begins to sympathize with him, but one feels lulled into a false forgetfulness abruptly terminated by a trial long overdue (Eichmann is ultimately found guilty and hanged, the only man to receive the death penalty in a civil case).
There are two questions that arise from Hunting Evil, one of which Walters more or less asks, and one which he doesn’t. The first is the notion that when Walters writes his book, any remaining Nazi fugitives are now oct- or nonagenarians. Efraim Zuroff, Wiesenthal’s spiritual successor, says “The truth is we have maybe five or six years left to get these former Nazis before they are all dead”. To some, that means an evasion of justice for their crimes, however distant; to others, it represents a large investment of manpower and money to apprehend ailing senior citizens who may die before ever being tried. One may sympathize with this latter viewpoint more if it hadn’t been the popular viewpoint when the fugitives were younger, too.
The second question is one implicit, I think, to all discussions of the Holocaust, and it is raised most famously by (whom else?) Simon Wiesenthal, in his book The Sunflower. Ostensibly, he (a prisoner in a concentration camp) to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who asks his forgiveness for having killed some three hundred Jews in a single day. According to Wiesenthal, he was so disgusted he walked out without saying a word. Given Wiesenthal’s track record with tall tales, such an event may or may not have occurred, but the book is famous for asking a tremendously difficult question: can you forgive a Nazi? One assumes that the Nazi must regret his crimes; certainly Barbie and Eichmann never appeared to4, and so Hunting Evil doesn’t enter into that debate, but I think any reader doing any research into the Holocaust is obliged to read both books.
- Not counting the number of soldiers killed in combat operations.[↩]
- The two major memoirs cited frequently by Walters are The Murderers Among Us (1967) and Justice Not Vengeance (1989). [↩]
- Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, or “Organization for Former SS Members”[↩]
- One doubts that such men were actually slavering, red-eyed devils, but one cannot deny their apparently extraordinary capacity for evil.[↩]