The Nazi Hunters exchange, part 3: The Wiesenthal effect

Shmuel Rosner

Andrew Nagorski is an award-winning journalist and author who spent more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek. Nagorski started working for Newsweek Internationalin 1973 as an associate editor. He later served as assistant managing editor and Asian regional editor, and he then became Newsweek's bureau chief in Moscow, Warsaw, Bonn, and Berlin. From 2000 to 2008, Nagorski served as senior editor for Newsweek International. In addition, Nagorski has worked as a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1988 and as adjunct professor at Bard College's Center for Globalization and International Affairs. Nagorski was also vice predisent and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of several books, including the highly successful Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.

The following exchange will focus on Nagorski’s new book The Nazi Hunters (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Parts one and two can be found hereand here.


Dear Mr. Nagorski,

One of the most interesting chapters of your book is dedicated to the incredible story of the Kurt Waldheim scandal and the bitter internal war it sparked between two prominent Nazi Hunters.

According to your book, there were some serious accusations going on between the World Jewish Congress and perhaps the most famous Nazi-Hunter of them all, Simon Wiesenthal. After finding out about the former UN Secretary General’s Nazi past, Eli Rosenberg and the WJC decided to go public in a way that Wiesenthal found to be dangerously aggressive for several reasons (igniting anti-semitism, the local Jewish community). During the affair the WJC claimed that Simon Wiesenthal was whitewashing Waldheim, and Eli Rosenberg continued to issue “impassioned attacks on Wiesenthal and his record” long after that.

Since Wiesenthal is probably the first name that pops into most heads when the term ‘Nazi Hunter’ is used, I’d like to ask you what you’d like your book, and your description of the Waldheim affair in particular, to show about the dominant centrality of Wiesenthal in the annals of Nazi hunting.   

I'd like to thank you again for the book and for the exchange.




Dear Shmuel,

You’ve touched on one of the most difficult subjects I grappled with in my book. The story of the Nazi hunters is not simply one of good guys (the hunters) vs. bad guys (the Nazi perpetrators); it’s also a story of hunters vs. hunters. There were the usual personal jealousies and tensions that you might expect in any group of highly driven individuals.

In many of those conflicts, Wiesenthal was a central character, as you point out. As a freelance Nazi hunter, someone who operated independently and was not constrained by any official function, he skillfully attracted media attention to his efforts to expose or bring Nazi criminals to justice. At the same time, this attracted attention to himself, allowing him to quickly emerge as the most famous Nazi hunter.

Some of the other Nazi hunters, particularly those in official positions who could not talk so openly about their work, claimed that he exaggerated his accomplishments. For instance, Isser Harel, the head of the Mossad when Eichmann was kidnapped, was furious when he felt that Wiesenthal took credit for his operation—at a time when Harel could not speak publically at all about it.

As mentioned earlier, thrillers and movies like The Boys from Brazilpainted Wiesenthal as a larger-than-life figure. That Hollywood-inspired swashbuckling image colored the perception of him throughout his life.

All of those tensions came into play during the Waldheim affair. That was a complicated saga, which I describe in detail in my book. It was one I covered closely, and I believe that there were a lot of supercharged emotions at play that also highlighted the tensions between American and European Jews on such issues as how to handle anti-Semitism in Europe.

I interviewed Wiesenthal many times while covering that and other stories related to Nazi hunting and the quest for justice. There’s no doubt in my mind that Wiesenthal was a fascinating character who was firmly committed to the notion that Nazi criminals had to be brought to justice—or at least exposed—in  order to teach young people about the Holocaust. Even his fiercest critics concede that he played a critical role in keeping the push for justice alive when the start of the Cold War meant that both the victors and the vanquished wanted to forget about it altogether.

And this push for justice was far from solely about punishment—in fact, that was often a secondary consideration. In the late 1950s, at a time when right-wing Austrians were claiming that Anne Frank’s diary was a fraud, for instance, he set out to track down the Gestapo officer who had rounded up Frank and her family in Amsterdam. The officer, who was working for the Vienna police when Wiesenthal found him, was never charged with a crime. But the fact that he admitted what he did, even if he continued to insist he had done nothing wrong, was critical to countering those who were trying to question the authenticity of Anne Frank’s diary.

This was exactly what Wiesenthal wanted to accomplish. After the officer confirmed what had happened, the diary was never seriously questioned again. To this day, it remains one of the most powerful personal testimonies about the Holocaust, educating successive new generations of schoolchildren.

There are many other stories about Wiesenthal I recount in my book. I have no doubt that he fully deserves his place of dominant centrality, as you put it, in the narrative of the Nazi hunters. There were many myths and misperceptions about him, but his real accomplishments were impressive enough.

Many thanks for this exchange, Shmuel. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.