The death this month of Elie Wiesel left a gaping moral and historical void that widens daily as the ranks of the generation of Holocaust survivors continues to thin. But in The Nazi Hunters, Andrew Nagorski fills that void, blending key documentary evidence with over 50 interviews of central figures in a comprehensive treatment of the dogged men and women whose heroic efforts restored a measure of justice to millions of murdered souls.
The book begins with an examination of the postwar tribunals at Nuremberg and Dachau, where dozens of high-ranking Nazis were tried, and sometimes executed, mostly at the hands of the victorious Americans. Nagorski also ably documents the unlikely collaboration of Fritz Bauer, a German Jew, and Jan Sehn, a Polish Catholic, in locating and prosecuting some of the most notorious war criminals. Cooperating “across the Iron Curtain," Bauer and Sehn "viewed their mission as one of not only punishing the perpetrators but also setting out the historical record—providing the foundations for educating current and future generations."
Bauer confronted suspicion, before and after the war, as a disloyal Jewish German, a Social Democrat, and closeted gay man; but he built a judicial and prosecutorial legacy that only recently has gained proper appreciation. The orchestrator of the "Frankfurt Auschwitz trials" that revealed to the German public the full extent of Nazi depravity, Bauer also passed along a key tip to Israel's Mossad in 1957 that led to the capture in Argentina of Adolf Eichmann three years later. By telling the Israelis that "I won't reject the idea of your getting him to Israel in your own way," Bauer, by then an officer of the West German court, effectively green-lit what would become Operation Eichmann.
In retelling the riveting story of the location, identification, and capture of Eichmann—a tale of false pretenses, false identities, and false mustaches that stretched across three continents and entailed serendipities too numerous to recount—Nagorski relies on previously published accounts but adds his own flourishes. For instance, in a stirring interview, Mossad bigwig Rafi Eitan recounted the moment he physically lifted Eichmann off a Buenos Aires street into a waiting car. Having received a pep talk from his boss stressing that "for the first time in history, the Jews would judge their assassins," Eitan and his team stalked their quarry one May evening on a quiet Argentine street, distracted him with a few words in Spanish, and wrestled him to the ground, taking care to avoid injuring him while stifling his screams.
Nagorski deftly chronicles and assesses the conduct and fairness of the various Nazi trials, most prominently the prosecution of Eichmann in Jerusalem. There, while world opinion initially deplored Israel's efforts to abduct and try Heinrich Himmler's chief accomplice, the transparency and impartiality of the proceedings grudgingly won global approval. And along the way, Nagorski grapples with the age-old question first raised by Hannah Arendt: Were Eichmann and his ilk merely following orders, or did they harbor a murderous anti-Jewish animus that motivated their depredations?
After a careful reckoning with primary and secondary evidence, Nagorski concludes that Eichmann was "both a careerist in a totalitarian system, willing to do anything to please his superiors, and a virulent antisemite who reveled in his powers to dispatch his victims to their deaths, systematically tracking down anyone who sought to elude the Nazi net."
Nagorski also recounts his own research, in the 1980s for Newsweek, into the wartime conduct of Kurt Waldheim, the onetime U.N. secretary general whose successful campaign for the Austrian presidency was marred by allegations that he'd abetted Nazi atrocities. In addition, he devotes attention to several other (mostly non-Israeli) Nazi pursuers—notably Simon Wiesenthal, the dean of Nazi hunters whose sympathy for Kurt Waldheim flowed partly from his stringent anticommunism—whose objectives and personalities often clashed. As Nagorski explains, these characters "often have been at odds with each other, prone to recriminations, jealousies, and outright rivalries, [which] undoubtedly weakened their effectiveness."
Even so, the efforts of these tireless men and women struck many blows for justice the world over. And in the end, these Nazi hunters "demonstrate[d] that the horrendous crimes of World War II and the Holocaust cannot and should not be forgotten, and that those who instigated or carried out those crimes—or others who may carry out similar crimes in the future—are never beyond the law, at least in principle."
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Israel.