Andrew Nagorski is the author of the new book The Nazi Hunters. His other books include Hitlerland and The Greatest Battle. He was Newsweek's bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw and Berlin, and was vice president and director of public policy of the EastWest Institute. He is based in St. Augustine, Florida.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Nazi hunters, and how did you research the book?
A: As a foreign correspondent, I often found myself examining the legacy of the war and the Holocaust. After the Nuremberg and Dachau trials, the victors in World War II were quick to turn their attention to the Cold War and largely lost interest in bringing Nazi criminals to justice.
Defying that trend, a relatively small group of men and women known as Nazi hunters dedicated their lives to making sure that there was some measure of justice—and fought against forgetting.
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. They are the ones who made Germans and so many others acknowledge and deal with their recent past, which is the first step towards learning the lessons of history.
Of course the era of Nazi hunting is coming to a natural end soon because 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. As a writer, I saw this as an opportunity to weave a narrative spanning the whole postwar era.
To do so, I needed to meet the surviving Nazi hunters in Europe, Israel and the United States and get their first-hand stories—or, in the case of those who had already died, reconstruct their stories from new research and, at times, interviews with people who knew them. The connections between these individuals and their often daring actions were far more extensive than most people realize.
For instance, 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 Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. I was also able to interview Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who was in charge of the commando unit that seized Eichmann.
Jan Sehn, a Polish investigative judge whose family was of German descent, interrogated Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss before he was hanged. He then cooperated with Bauer in gathering evidence for the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in the 1960s, which forced many Germans to confront the crimes committed in their name for the first time.
The French-German couple Serge and Beate Klarfeld tracked down Nazi officers who were responsible for crimes in occupied France, and soon the U.S. government came under increasing pressure to deal with those war criminals who had slipped into this country and who looked, at first glance, like model citizens. As you can see, it’s a long list with an intriguing interplay of stories.
Q: You write of the Nazi hunters that "they have not been anything like a group with a common strategy or basic agreement on tactics." Why did circumstances develop that way, and what were some of the differences among the various people you write about?
A: 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 big differences in the way they operated.
Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, for instance, could be almost recklessly confrontational at times. 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. Most Nazi hunters worked in more traditional ways and would never resort to such tactics.
There were also 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 Simon Wiesenthal—the most famous freelance Nazi hunter—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: Of Wiesenthal, you write, "Among the many myths that developed about Nazi hunters, none is more off the mark than the portrayal of Wiesenthal as an avenger who was eager to confront his prey directly..." What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Wiesenthal?
A: 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 Wiesenthal-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 that kind of swashbuckling image colored the perception of him throughout his life.
I interviewed Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, many times while I was based in Europe. He was a fascinating, complex and controversial person. But he certainly was not an avenger. His memoir was entitled Justice Not Vengeance for a reason. He firmly believed that Nazi criminals had to be brought to justice—or at least exposed—in order to teach young people about the Holocaust.
That’s why, for instance, he tracked down the Gestapo officer who had rounded up Anne Frank and her family in Amsterdam. The officer, who was working for the Vienna police after the war, 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.
Q: What is the legacy of the Nazi hunters?
A: The Nazi hunters forced the world to focus on what really happened during the war and the Holocaust again and again. The trials and even the publicity they triggered were an essential 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.
All of these cases have firmly demonstrated that it’s not an acceptable excuse for someone to say that he was just following orders. We all have a responsibility not to follow orders that are clearly immoral and in contravention of all the international norms of justice and human rights.
The most recent trials in Germany of Auschwitz guards also 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 provide about the importance of individual accountability. That’s a lesson that can never be taught too often.
Many people ask how it was possible that so many mass murderers went unpunished despite those efforts. That’s perfectly understandable. 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.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m in that early stage called preliminary research so I don’t want to give the impression that anything is set in stone yet. The project I’m exploring is London during that critical period between the fall of France in May 1940 and Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
For most of that period, England stood largely alone against Nazi Germany, whose armies had overrun almost all of continental Europe. We know about the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, which of course are a big part of that story.
But less explored is the degree to which London became the gathering point for all those people from the newly occupied countries who wanted to keep on fighting, many of whom created governments-in-exile there. Even when London looked alone, it wasn’t entirely alone. In fact, it was becoming a very international outpost.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love to get feedback from readers, so anyone who has something to say about The Nazi Hunters is most welcome to contact me through my website, www.andrewnagorski.com. I will be posting updates there on where I’ll be speaking about the book.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb