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"Nazi Hunters" And The Search for Justice After the Holocaust

Andrew Nagorski spent three decades as a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek. Mr. Nagorski is the author of Hitlerand and several other non-fiction books. 

Q: Why do you feel now is the right time to tell the story of the Nazi hunters?

AN: As a foreign correspondent in Germany, Poland and Russia, I often found myself examining the legacy of the war and the Holocaust. Again and again I was startled by the number of untold, incomplete or even erroneous stories that were out there, and how much more there was to discover. 

The efforts to bring Nazi criminals to justice did not end with the Nuremberg trials, even if the victors quickly lost interest in that pursuit once they became preoccupied with the Cold War. I was fascinated that, at a time when much of the world was only too eager to forget about the past, a relatively small group of men and women, those who were known as “Nazi hunters”, dedicated their lives to this endeavor.  The hunted, those who participated in mass murder, are always a subject of morbid fascination.  But I feel strongly that the hunters also deserve our attention. 

The era of Nazi hunting is coming to a natural end because soon there will no more Nazi war criminals still living. As a result, the story of the hunters and the hunted can now be told almost in its entirety, with a beginning, middle and almost an end. As a writer, I saw this as an opportunity to weave a narrative spanning the whole postwar era.

Q. You write about a lot of myths surrounding the Nazi hunters. What would be a good example?

AN: One of the most persistent myths was that the Israelis were on the trail of Nazis everywhere after the war, seeking vengeance. Of course there was the spectacular kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960, but, as I explain in my book, this was far more the exception than the rule. In fact, when I interviewed Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who was in charge of the commando unit that seized Eichmann, he stressed how the new state of Israel had to focus on its own survival early on and how reluctant his superiors were to expend much time or energy on the hunt for Nazi war criminals. The Eichmann case had to almost fall into their lap before they took action on it.

What really brought that point home was when Eitan described how he first set foot in West Germany as a young Mossad agent in 1953. I was certain he was about to tell me something about his hunt for Nazis. In fact, his trip had nothing to do with that. As he explained, his mission was to meet with the Mossad agents charged with monitoring the Jews arriving from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union who were then proceeding to Israel. The new state needed the immigrants, but also knew the KGB and other East bloc intelligence services were planting agents there who would provide information that would be useful to the Kremlin and its Arab allies. Nazi hunting would have to wait.

Q: Some of the Nazi hunters you profile achieved international fame, and yet some key players are far less known.  Who are some of the figures you bring to the forefront in your book?

AN: Although they came from a variety of backgrounds, there were two main types of Nazi hunters: those who operated in an official capacity as investigators and prosecutors, and those who operated on their own, in effect as freelancers, seeking to pressure governments to act. 

The most famous hunter in that latter category was Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal in Vienna. He died in 2005, but I had interviewed him often. He was a fascinating, complex and controversial character. Then there was Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the French-German couple who were responsible for some of the most daring—and seemingly reckless—actions. In 1968, Beate slipped by security guards and slapped West German Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger who had been a member of the Nazi Party. Serge stuck an unloaded gun between the eyes of the former chief of the Gestapo in Paris, Kurt Lischka. Those were meant to be symbolic gestures, but they could have ended very badly.

I was equally intrigued by some of the people who were working in official capacities and are often overlooked—for instance, William Denson, the U.S. Army chief prosecutor at the Dachau trials after the war. Fritz Bauer, a German judge and prosecutor from a secular Jewish family, provided the key tip to the Israelis that led to their capture of Eichmann. There was also Jan Sehn, a Polish investigative judge whose family was of German descent. He interrogated Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss before he was hanged, coaxing a written confession from him that was published as his autobiography. It is one of the most chilling documents of the Holocaust. 

Q: One of the most fascinating characters in your book is Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor in “the biggest murder trial in history” at Nuremberg, as the AP put it.  What surprised you about him?

AN: When I met Ferencz in Delray Beach, Florida three years ago, he was already 93, and I was astonished by his energy and passion. In describing how he tried and convicted the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen, the special squads that conducted mass killings of Jews, Gypsies and other civilians on the Eastern Front before the gas chambers were in operation, he still exuded a sense of wonder that he was put in charge of such a momentous case at age 27. But once he told his story, it was clear that the case would never have happened if he hadn’t insisted that the newly discovered evidence about those killings had to be acted on. 

This underscored a larger point that I make in my book: there was nothing inevitable about the exposure and prosecution of many of the Nazi war criminals. Determined individuals, many of them who were very young at the time, were responsible for making such trials happen and often for tracking the Nazis down in the first place. Remember the old question: Does history make the man or does the man make history? In the case of the Nazi hunters, the men andwomen made history, not the other way around.

Q: You researched the stories of Nazi Hunters in several countries – Germany, Poland, France, Israel, and the United States.  What connections were you able to draw between them?

AN: When I began my research, I wasn’t sure how some of those events in different countries would connect, if at all. In fact, I found that both the events and some of the people involved connected more directly than I had expected. Fritz Bauer and Jan Sehn, for instance, cooperated in gathering evidence, despite the fact that West Germany and Poland had not even established diplomatic relations at that point. Eichmann’s high-profile trial in Jerusalem helped trigger new interest in these issues in West Germany, leading to the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial orchestrated by Bauer in the 1960s. Taken together, those trials generated pressure from young Germans to force their elders to end their silence about what had really happened under Hitler’s rule—and to account for their own role in those horrors. 

Once that silence was broken, the U.S. government came under increasing pressure in the 1970s to deal with those war criminals who had slipped into this country and who looked, at first glance, like model citizens. As a result, the Justice Department ended up creating the Office of Special Investigations that began identifying such people and seeking to deport them. All of those events were related.


Q: You write about how the postwar Nazi trials were meant not just to punish the guilty, but to also establish the historical record. Can you elaborate on the significance of this?

AN: In the immediate aftermath of the war, many Germans and Austrians were in denial about the scale of the horrors that had been carried out in their name. One reason for the Nuremberg trials was to make them face that reality. Everything that happened at those and other trials was part of that process: the presentation of documentary evidence, the eyewitness testimony of survivors, the showing of film footage of the liberation of the death camps and the mounds of skeletal bodies that were found there. The first step to learning the lessons of this dark chapter in history is to face what really happened. Then it was to establish, as many of the trials conclusively did and continue to do until this day, that it’s not an acceptable excuse for someone to say that he was just following orders. We all have a responsibility notto follow orders that are clearly immoral and in contravention of all the international norms of justice and human rights. 

Now that the Holocaust survivors and other eyewitnesses are dying out along with the perpetrators, the need to do both of those things—maintain a clear historical record and define what kind of human behavior can never be excused—is just as important. But in some ways, it will be harder to do. There is nothing more powerful than the voice of a living witness.

Q: You recently wrote an op-ed about the trial of Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard charged as an accessory to the murder of at least 117,000 people.  Why is it so crucial that he be held to account?

AN: For the reasons I just explained, and also to demonstrate that living to an old age should not provide automatic absolution for all crimes, no matter how monstrous. In such trials, the punishment itself may never be carried out, but the key point is to pass judgment. We owe the victims no less than that, and we still need every lesson we can still provide about the importance of individual accountability. That’s a lesson that can never be taught too often.


Q: To what extent has Hollywood sensationalized the story of Nazi hunters over the years? 

AN: Plenty of books and movies blurred the line between fact and fiction about Nazi hunters. Or were pure fiction. One of the most popular hits was The Boys from Brazil, a thriller turned into a blockbuster film about a Simon Wiestenthal-like character personally tracking down Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death.” The two then face off in a life-and-death confrontation on a farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Of course nothing like that happened, and the real Wiesenthal was not that kind of character. But he could take satisfaction from the fact that some of the Nazi fugitives—even those who, like Mengele, got away—came to believe that Wiesenthal or the Israelis really were the mythical avengers who were hot on their trail. At least that meant they did not live out their final years in peace. Perhaps that provided some measure of justice.

Q: You write about how – even though they were working towards the same goal – there have been serious rivalries among the Nazi hunters. What fueled those conflicts?

AN: Most people assume that the story line is always “Nazi hunters vs. Nazis.” But part of the story I tell in this book can be called “Nazi hunters vs. other Nazi hunters.” There were differences on tactics, along with the usual personal jealousies and conflicts that you might expect in any group of highly driven individuals. 

One example: Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad when Eichmann was kidnapped, was furious when he felt that Wiesenthal was taking credit for his operation. Harel could not publicly say anything about his role at that point, and many of the press accounts immediately assumed Wiesenthal was behind the tracking down of Eichmann. While Wiesenthal declared he had only provided one piece of the “mosaic” of information about Eichmann, he certainly did not protest when the media cast him in a starring role. 

Q: Beyond seeking justice, the hunters also explored the nature of evil and deeply troubling questions about human behavior.  How did you incorporate those aspects into the narrative?

AN: This is a subject that keeps coming up in the book, from the Nuremberg trials to Jan Sehn’s interrogation of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss—and especially during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, when philosopher Hannah Arendt triggered a huge debate by propagating her thesis about “the banality of evil.” I examine those debates, but, perhaps more importantly, I describe the personal interactions between the hunters and the hunted. Thus, you can read about Höss’s cooperation with Sehn, and about how Eichmann dramatically changed his behavior once he realized that his captors were not going to execute him immediately. 

The hunters constantly grappled with the questions that haunt all of us: how could human beings be capable of such monstrous behavior? Or did this mean the perpetrators were monsters themselves? These are not easy questions to answer.

Q:  What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn when reading your book?

AN: Many people ask how it was possible that so many mass murderers went unpunished. Fair enough. But my book explains why the quest for justice was soon largely abandoned by many political leaders, which makes it all that more impressive that the remaining Nazi hunters accomplished as much as they did.