The year 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and other concentration camps that produced the most “astronomical body count in history.”
In June, former Auschwitz guard Reinhold Hanning, 94, was convicted of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in prison. During the four-month trial in Germany, several Holocaust survivors gave testimonies of the horrors they faced at the death camp. Given the passage of time, this will be one of the last such cases. The era of the Nazi hunters is coming to a natural close and Andrew Nagorksi has now told the full saga for the first time.
Author Nagorski is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than three decades as a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek. He was born in Scotland to Polish parents who emigrated to the United States shortly after he was born. He attended school overseas because his father was in the foreign service. His previous books include “Hitlerland” and a novel “Last Stop Vienna.”
In the cast of characters in the beginning of “The Nazi Hunters,” he lists the hunters, including William Denson, the U.S. chief prosecutor at the Dachau trials, who prosecuted 177 people and won guilty verdicts for all of them, and Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who was in charge of the commando unit that kidnapped Adolph Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. The hunted included Martin Borman, Hitler’s personal secretary, and Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyon,” the former Gestapo chief who was captured in Bolivia. Nagorksi focuses on the small band of men and women who refused to allow the crimes of the Third Reich to be forgotten and who were determined to track down Nazi war criminals.
According to Nagorski, 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. Simon Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor himself, was the most famous hunter in the second category. At first, the Nazi hunters wanted revenge, but soon their story was transformed into a relentless struggle for justice. Nagorski’s book is an odyssey that researched stories in Germany, Poland, France, Israel and the United States.
At the end of “The Nazi Hunters,” Nagorski writes, “The story of the Nazi hunters is almost at an end, at least the part that involves trying to track down surviving war criminals. But their legacy endures.” In the last chapter, called Full Circle, the author quotes Simon Wisenthal, “Survivial is a privilege that entails obligations. I am forever asking myself what I can do for those who have not survived.”
What inspired you to write this book?
During my stints as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Bonn, Berlin, Warsaw and Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s, I often examined the legacy of the war and the Holocaust. I found myself particularly fascinated by the Nazi hunters who dedicated their lives to making sure there was some measure of justice. 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. Of course, the era of Nazi hunting is now coming to a natural end because soon there will be no more Nazi war criminals still living. Now this story can be told almost in its entirety. As a writer, I saw this as an opportunity to weave a narrative spanning the whole postwar era.
What type of research was involved?
Luckily, I had interviewed Simon Wiesenthal, the most famous Nazi hunter, many times before he died in 2005. I had also covered other stores about how Germany and others have tried to deal with the horrors of the Third Reich, Once I started this project, I traveled to Germany, France, Poland and Israel, along with reportage here in the United States, to meet the surviving Nazi hunters and get their stories — or, in the case of those who had already died, reconstruct their stories from new research and, at times, interviews with those who knew them. I soon discovered that the connections among those individuals, who often engaged in truly daring actions, were far more extensive than most people realize.
How would you describe your writing process?
It usually takes me about three years from start to finish on a book project like this. First, there’s the hunting and gathering stage where I’m reading all the published and unpublished source materials and conducting interviews. That takes the most time. Once I have organized my notes enough to start writing, even if I still have to plug some research holes later, I set a rough timetable to make sure I will meet my publisher’s deadline.
The actual writing of this book took a bit less time than a year. I was so enthralled by the stories I discovered about my main characters that I have to say I was always eager to write about them. The hardest part is often deciding what to leave out, since you can never include everything.
What do you hope readers get out of the book?
The Nazi hunters forced the world to focus on what happened during the Holocaust again and again. Without their efforts, our current understanding of the enormity of those crimes, and the moral issues they raise, would be nothing like it is today. The ensuing trials and publicity firmly established that it’s not an acceptable excuse for someone to say that he was just following orders that are clearly immoral. The people I write about demonstrated how a small group of determined individuals can have a huge impact on history.
Who is your favorite author?
That’s a tough one, but I’d say Graham Greene for his early novels like “The Heart of the Matter” and “The Quiet American,” and the first volume of his autobiography, “A Sort of Life.” He has a way of capturing a mood or a scene with masterful understatement; something I can only envy.
Anything else we should know?
Now that I live in St. Augustine, I welcome comments from local readers. If anyone wants me to sign a copy of the book, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If anyone wants to read about my books and background, they can find my work online at andrewnagorski.com