The Nazi Hunters

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Andrew Nagors­ki, a for­mer bureau chief for Newsweek and the author of Hitler­land and Last Stop in Vien­na, among oth­er works of non­fic­tion, deliv­ers a com­pre­hen­sive and riv­et­ing account of the rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of men and women who sought to bring Nazis to jus­tice after the end of the Sec­ond World War. The efforts of rec­og­nized Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesen­thal, Tuvia Fried­man, Eliz­a­beth Holtz­man, Beate and Serge Klars­feld, as well as less famil­iar names— Ben­jamin Fer­encz, Fritz Bauer, William Den­son, Michael Mus­man­no, and Jan Sehn — are told by Nagors­ki in a book that is nev­er dull and com­plete­ly absorbing.

Fol­low­ing the end of the war, the Allied gov­ern­ments were engaged in pre­vent­ing the spread of Sovi­et Com­mu­nism. The cre­ation of West Ger­many became an impor­tant bar­ri­er as well as a show­case in the ever evolv­ing Cold War. A num­ber of Nazis, how­ev­er, who nor­mal­ly would have been tried as war crim­i­nals now became vital resources for the West in the strug­gle against Com­mu­nism — and from the oppos­ing side, as well. Nagors­ki notes that at the end of the war there were about eight mil­lion Ger­mans who were mem­bers of the Nazi par­ty, lead­ing the Allies to con­clude that it was almost impos­si­ble to try all of them, espe­cial­ly since many of them were use­ful in the strug­gle against the Sovi­et Union. The deci­sion was made, there­fore, to bring only the top tier of Nazi lead­ers to tri­al. Nagors­ki cites a memo, a secret telegram sent from the British Com­mon­wealth Rela­tions office in Lon­don to Com­mon­wealth mem­bers, which ratio­nal­ized the response to pur­sue a lim­it­ed num­ber of Nazi war crim­i­nals, In our view pun­ish­ment of war crim­i­nals is a mat­ter of dis­cour­ag­ing future gen­er­a­tions than of met­ing out ret­ri­bu­tion of every guilty indi­vid­ual[…] we are con­vinced that it is now nec­es­sary to dis­pose of the past as soon as possible.”

Not every­one in or out of gov­ern­ment agreed with this pol­i­cy: Nagors­ki describes the work of those Nazi Hunters” who worked to con­vince their gov­ern­ment to pur­sue sec­ond and the third tier of Nazi war crim­i­nals — result­ing in the Auschwitz tri­als and the tri­al of the Ein­sazt­grup­pen — as well as the work of the Unit­ed States Office of Spe­cial Inves­ti­ga­tions (OSI), whose estab­lish­ment by Con­gress was made pos­si­ble by the per­sis­tence of Con­gress­woman Eliz­a­beth Holtz­man. The book also address­es non-gov­ern­men­tal Nazi-hunt­ing orga­ni­za­tions — such as the World Jew­ish Con­gress, which exposed the Nazi past of Kurt Wald­heim — and indi­vid­ual efforts, like those of the Klarsfeld’s pur­suit of Klaus Bar­bie. Nagors­ki also describes the con­tro­ver­sial work of Simon Wiesen­thal in pro­vid­ing Israel with infor­ma­tion that led to the cap­ture of Adolf Eich­mann, and much more.

Some sev­en decades after the end of the war against Nazi Ger­many, there remains only a hand­ful of those war crim­i­nals who escaped jus­tice. The full his­to­ry of how the Nazi hunters tracked those who per­pe­trat­ed the crimes of the Third Reich is told in full in this indis­pens­able book.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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