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.
Dear Mr. Nagorski,
A recurring theme in your book is the general lack of interest the Nazi Hunters faced in their attempts at bringing the Nazi criminals of WW2 to justice – from post-WW2 societies and their governments. Virtually all of the heroes of your book had to overcome different degrees of reluctance to prosecute the perpetrators of genocide.
What do you feel is the biggest thing we today can take away from these individuals' refusal to yield to public apathy and let war criminals off the hook? Is there any current-day equivalent of this need for individual dissent in the name of justice, or is the Nazi hunters story too much of an anomaly to draw comparisons with?
First of all, now that the era of the Nazi hunters is coming to a natural end since soon there will be no perpetrators of the Holocaust and other crimes of the Third Reich left alive, we can come to some conclusions about what they accomplished. If you look at their legacy simply on the basis of how many Nazi war criminals were brought to justice, it is easy to conclude that the results of their efforts were disappointing. After all, given the scale of mass murder, only a tiny fraction of the murderers ever paid any price for their crimes.
But I would argue that this is an overly narrow view. Every time that a perpetrator was caught and put on trial, or his or her crimes were even exposed, the world learned new lessons about the historical record.
Look at what happened in West Germany. After the war, most Germans wanted a quick end to the war crimes trials and all reminders about the horrific record of Hitler’s regime.
But Fritz Bauer, a German judge and prosecutor from a secular Jewish family who had returned from exile, refused to go along with this conspiracy of silence. That is why I consider him one of the most important Nazi hunters whom I profile in my book. He provided the Israelis—not his own government, which was still riddled with former Nazis—the tip that ultimately led to the Mossad’s capture of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. He then also orchestrated the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial a few years later that forced his countrymen to confront their recent history.
Such developments triggered the revolt of those who were dubbed the 68ers—the young people who began questioning their parents in the 1960s about what they had done during the Nazi era, culminating in the huge protests of 1968. While the protests of that year took place in many countries, they were sparked elsewhere by such issues as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. In West Germany, the central issue was the role so many people had played in the crimes of the Third Reich.
West Germany—and now a united Germany—is a truly democratic society today, I would maintain, because it has gone further than any other country in conducting a moral reexamination of its recent past and trying to learn lessons from it. (I’m deliberately not mentioning East Germany since, like all Communist states, it never attempted to come clean about its history.) That has steadily strengthened Germany’s democratic institutions and mores. Unfortunately, that kind of discussion never took place in Japan, where the Allies also held war crimes trials. Japan, of course, did develop into a democratic country as well, but it continues to be in denial about much of its wartime record.
More relevantly, contrast Germany’s performance with Russia’s failure to deal with the monstrous crimes of the Stalin era when millions perished. There were attempts in the late 1980s and 1990s to set the historical record straight, but under President Vladimir Putin that process has been deliberately reversed. As a result, democratic institutions have never had a chance to take root, allowing arbitrary rule to continue to be the norm.
Individual dissent in the fight for justice is always needed, whether it is in Russia, Iran, North Korea or within Muslim communities where terrorists seek recruits for mass murder. It takes tremendous courage to dissent in any way in those situations, and we admire those who do so. But we should also make the point that Fritz Bauer did when he successfully prosecuted Otto Remer, a former Nazi general and leader of a post-war West German far-right party, for defamation in 1952. Bauer was incensed that Remer had claimed at a rally that those Germans who had tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944 were traitors; he brought charges against him so that he could prove in court that the plotters were the true patriots.
That’s the kind of history lesson we need to teach as often as possible, demonstrating that we should all aspire to follow higher standards than the dictates of any tyrannical regime or bloodthirsty movement.