After a 15-year hiatus away from the big screen, the greatest adventurer of all time — Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford still cracking the whip at 80) — is once again on the trail of an ancient artifact with supernatural properties in Dial of Destiny.
The first Indy outing produced by Disney, which acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 to the tune of $4 billion, the film (opening in theaters everywhere June 30) takes place in the summer of 1969 against the backdrop of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Indiana Jones enters the Space Age
Having spent more than a decade teaching archaeology to slack-jawed university students at New York’s Hunter College, a rather curmudgeonly Professor Henry Jones Jr. is now on the verge of academic retirement, his golden days of swashbuckling far behind him.
All of that changes when his goddaughter, Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), shows up out of the blue, asking for his help in locating the Antikythera, a fabled dial built by Archimedes that can allegedly pinpoint fissures in time.
And in true Indiana Jones fashion, they’re not the only ones looking for it. The villain this time around is an old nemesis from World War II, Doctor Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), a “former” Nazi working as a lead physicist for NASA.
Aided by neo-Nazi lackeys like Klaber (Boyd Holbrook), Voller plans to use the Dial to correct “all” of Hitler’s many wartime mistakes — presumably by going back in time to ensure a German victory.
Chilling stuff and a proverbial slap in the face to Doctor Jones, who spent two whole movies working against the Nazis’ plans for world domination. But that’s very much the point: Jones has become something of an obsolete relic in a new age where astronauts walk on the moon and soldiers wage a senseless war in Vietnam. The demarcation line between good and evil is not as clear-cut as it once was.
“That’s an interesting aspect that I think deserves to be looked at as opposed to telling the same story of heroes and villains over and over again,” says Chris Weitz, director of Operation Finale (the 2018 dramatization of the Mossad’s capture of Adolf Eichmann).
Owing to the fact that Steven Spielberg vowed never to make light of the Nazis again after his work on Schindler’s List and the Shoah Foundation, the franchise reigns were handed over to Logan director James Mangold (Spielberg remained on board as an executive producer with George Lucas).
Still, it’s a comfort to see Indy doing what he does best — punching fascists in the face. As Matthew Orton, screenwriter of Operation Finale, puts it: “They are such obvious bad guys.”
But how can this be? How is our favorite fedora-wearing hero still battling rabid acolytes of the Third Reich more than three decades after the so-called “Master Race” met its downfall? Well, here’s the thing: people like Voller really did exist.
Nazis given asylum by the United States after WWII
“The idea that there could have been Nazi scientists brought over to America after the war may seem like Hollywood fantasy, but it really happened,” says Eric Lichtblau, author of The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men. “It's a shameful chapter in post-war history, and it seems somehow fitting that Indiana Jones will close out his film career against the Nazi scientists after all these years spent fighting the Nazis during the war.”
While Dial of Destiny is a fantasy-adventure project first and foremost, it does lean into the very real topic of Project Paperclip.
Sometimes called “Operation Paperclip” in popular media (such as Amazon’s Hunters television series), the once-classified government program had one goal and one goal only: to recruit as many Nazi scientists, doctors, and engineers as possible and bring them to America in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
“There was a race by both the Soviet Union and the West, particularly the United States, to grab the scientists who could help in the arms race and the space race. Nobody wanted to look at [their wartime records],” explains Andrew Nagorski, author of The Nazi Hunters. “They knew that these people had served the Nazi regime, but no one wanted to examine that too closely.”
Howard Blum, bestselling writer of Wanted! The Search for Nazis in America, notes that the program also sought the best minds in espionage and intelligence. “We were able to recruit any Nazi spies that we could to work for us in the central intelligence agencies. The past was passed — it was all about winning the next World War.”
It was certainly a plus that these men were staunch anti-communists in a time when the growing fear of Soviet supremacy (“Better dead than Red,” went the famous slogan) began to overshadow the importance of bringing war criminals to justice.
President Truman handed down the green-light for Paperclip on the strict condition that no “ardent Nazis” be recruited. But when it became apparent that many of them were not only fanatical followers of Adolf Hitler, but had also participated in horrific war crimes during the Holocaust, the administrative bodies in charge of the operation (including the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the CIA) found a devious workaround.
“Officials at the War Department whitewashed the records of many when they brought them to America, making it appears that they were Nazis in name only,” Lichtblau explains.
“The State Department had its hands tied and had to let them in,” adds Eli Rosenbaum, former director at the Office of Special Investigations (a branch of the Justice Department established to seek out Nazi war criminals living in the United States and strip them of citizenship).
Despite the fact that only a handful of German specialists were to be employed by the government, “there were ultimately 1,600 Nazis brought over,” Lichtblau says, citing Hubertus Strughold (aka the “Father of Space Medicine”) as one of the most sickening examples. Strughold’s invaluable aeromedical know-how, which kept the Apollo astronauts alive on their trip to the moon, was rooted in gruesome high-altitude and freezing experiments conducted on Dachau inmates.
A definitive explanation for how the project got its name remains unclear. Lichtblau states that the “Paperclip” title arose from the practice of paper-clipping “old Nazi files together with their new American papers.”
Annie Jacobsen’s book on the subject — Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America — presents a slightly different answer: “Army Intelligence officers reviewing the ... security reports of certain scientists could discreetly attach a paperclip to the files of the more troublesome cases. Those files would not be presented to the State Department right away.”
Details of the program eventually leaked out in 1946, prompting a modicum of public outcry and some truly magnificent spin doctoring.
“The defense establishment in this country launched [an initiative] to portray this program as one that hired apolitical scientists and engineers,” Rosenbaum explains. “The government’s portrayal to the public was that they were on the wrong side of World War II, but they were just doing their apolitical engineering and scientific work.”
Paperclip’s most infamous recruit
One of the most infamous individuals recruited via Project Paperclip was Wernher von Braun, the face of Hitler’s deadly V-2 missile program, father of the American space program, and the clear inspiration for Dial of Destiny’s central antagonist.
In the film, Voller hides behind the pseudonym of “Dr. Schmidt,” an Alabama-based scholar with a direct line to the president and the resources of the CIA at his disposal.
“Alabama” is one of the key words here: the Southeastern state served as ground zero for the nascent space program once the military moved von Braun and his band of rocket specialists to Redstone Arsenal (eventual site of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center where the Saturn V rocket was built) just outside the city of Huntsville. It’s worth noting that von Braun is still celebrated there as a hero to this day.
Clever, handsome, and multitalented, von Braun was a ruthless opportunist “with a Hollywood panache,” Lichtblau adds. Throughout the mid-1950s, his face was broadcast into homes throughout the country by way of Disney’s television programs on humanity’s efforts to reach the stars.
“He was a mercenary when it came to space science. Whoever paid the bills — Nazis or Americans — it was worth it. ‘Working in a dictatorship can have its advantages, if the regime is behind you,’ he once said of the Nazis.”
Beyond his fickle sense of loyalty, the man also had a terrible secret — a secret tied to the production of the V-2s that rained down upon England, France, and Belgium.
Hitler’s so-called “wonder-weapons” were built at an underground factory in Thuringia known as Mittelwerk, where thousands of slave laborers culled from the Dora-Nordhausen concentration camp met their deaths from a combination of abysmal working conditions, disease, malnutrition, and Nazi punishment.
Anyone who tried to revolt, for instance, was hung from a crane, meant to serve as a warning to the others. Per Lichtblau, von Braun “was well aware of the atrocities” committed at the factory, as was one of his top deputies, Arthur Rudolph, another Paperclip recruit, top engineer on the Saturn V rocket, and the very man who recommended using slave labor to build the missiles.
In early 1969, a mere six months before the Apollo 11 mission, von Braun was asked to give testimony at a West Berlin war crimes trial against three SS guards at the Dora missile factory, who stood accused of hanging “at least 70 slave laborers from a building crane,” wrote The New York Times.
“NASA was none too happy about this and they finally agreed that he wouldn’t go to the courtroom in Germany,” Rosenbaum says. “But his testimony could be taken by the German consulate in the United States. And rather than take the testimony in a logical place where Germany had a consulate, like Washington or Houston, they sent him out to New Orleans, where no one would notice anything. His testimony was taken there and everything was kept quiet.”
America wakes up to a serious Nazi infestation
These men lived freely in America for decades, enjoying the benefits of US citizenship, fat military pensions, and, in the case of Wernher von Braun, the notoriety and influence of helping America reach the moon ahead of the USSR.
That is until 1973 when a mysterious whistleblower with connections to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) came to see Democratic New York Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman with incredibly troubling news.
“They had a list of 53 Nazi war criminals,” she recalls of an encounter that feels ripped from the pages of bestselling political thriller. “My first reaction was it made no sense. The man sounded very reasonable and normal, but the allegation made no sense because the US fought Hitler in World War II. What were we doing allowing his henchmen to remain in the United States?”
Holtzman, who sat on the Immigration Subcommittee, corroborated the informant’s claim with the Immigration Commissioner. “I almost fell off my chair because I certainly didn’t expect him to respond that way. And then I asked him, ‘Well, what are you doing about this list of alleged Nazi war criminals?’ I got this bureaucratic gobbledygook [in response] ... I went to New York and looked at the files and saw that the Immigration Services were making no serious effort to question or investigate.”
“It was a combination of bureaucratic inertia, misplaced political priorities, and bad legal precedent,” Lichtblau explains, citing the failure to deport Andrija Artuković — “a cabinet minister in the Nazi puppet state in Croatia implicated in the imprisonment and deaths of some 600,000” — in the early ‘50s as the thing “that discouraged the INS from pursuing such cases.”
Holtzman describes those previous efforts as “very haphazard” and woefully ill-equipped. “The people in the unit had difficulty getting paperclips. They had no real support and the Immigration Service, as we know, is not the most efficient and well-organized operation. It wasn’t then, either.”
Along with Pennsylvania Congressman Joshua Eilberg, the congresswoman began to draw the American public’s attention to what their government had done. “It was a travesty of justice and I called for a whole variety of measures to be taken.”
Around the same time, New York Times NYT +1.3% investigative reporter Ralph Blumenthal was also looking into the matter after interviewing a pair of immigration agents — Vincent Schiano and Anthony DeVito — who had received major pushback on their desire to investigate suspected war criminals living in the United States.
This stonewalling suggested CIA involvement and the two were ultimately “forced out of the agency,” Blumenthal says. The reporter was not dissuaded, however, and “did a whole series on Nazi war criminals hiding in America” — like Valerian Trifa (a Romanian bishop who encouraged violence against Jews during the war) — “and how they were facilitated by the government and, in some cases, nefariously so ... It was an awful scandal.”
“As Tony DeVito ... complained, the agency seemed more intent on trying to deport Communists and John Lennon for pot-smoking than Nazis,” Lichtblau says.
DeVito’s crusade to bring attention to the issue took center stage in the aforementioned Wanted!, which hit shelves in early 1976.
“I didn't know there were any Nazi war criminals in this country. I thought they'd all gone to Argentina,” Blum admits, conjuring up images of notorious Nazi fugitives such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele. “I started looking into some of these cases and when I started pulling the string, I discovered ... a cover-up in our government. That they were burying these cases; they were not taking any action on this. My next question was, ‘Why were they covering this up?’”
His bestselling tome (written in the style of “a real-life thriller”) pointed accusatory fingers at people like Tscherim “Tom” Soobzokov, a former member of the Waffen-SS living the quiet life of a county official in Paterson, New Jersey...as a protected asset of the CIA.
“[They] hired him to work with troops that they were training to invade the satellite states of Russia,” Blum explains.
An effort to legally strip Soobzokov of his citizenship was ultimately dismissed on a technicality, because he had disclosed his Nazi ties upon emigrating to the United States. “He hadn’t lied on his immigration papers. He told the government [about his connection to the Waffen-SS] in secret, so they got the case dismissed.”
Delayed justice, yet justice nonetheless
After decades of inaction, something was finally being done to weed out and prosecute war criminals who had either been invited by the government or slipped under the radar in the post-war chaos. “If it wasn’t for these individuals, there would’ve been no accounting, however imperfect the accounting was in the end, aside from those immediate post-war trials,” Nagorski proclaims.
First up on the agenda was the Holtzman Amendment, which retroactively made it illegal for Nazis and Nazi collaborators to enter the United States (astonishingly, that wasn’t against the law until the ‘70s). And then came the coup de grace at the very end of the decade with The Office of Special Investigations (OSI).
“It took almost five years for the government to act and it only acted in terms of setting up OSI because I threatened,” says Holtzman, who led the Immigration Subcommittee in 1979. “I said, ‘If you don't set it up voluntarily, I'm going to write it into law.’ They understood that was going to happen and they wanted to avoid that. So they set it up.”
Located within the Justice Department, OSI became a kind of anti-Paperclip, its job to expose Nazi offenders and kick them out of the country.
About to complete his final year at Harvard Law School, Eli Rosenbaum became one of the office’s first summer interns in the summer of ‘79 and later served as its longest director between 1995 and 2010.
As much as they would have liked to channel their inner Harrison Ford, OSI members could not punch alleged Nazis in the face. Nor were guilty parties served up on a silver platter, ready for trial (à la Eichmann).
The true — and equally important — work of sifting through documents and accumulating evidence might even be described as “mundane” by an outsider, but the end goal was just as satisfying. Rosenbaum, however, doesn’t much care for the term “Nazi hunter,” which conjures up vivid images of cloak and dagger operations.
“I think it seems unserious,” he says. “Hunting is a sport. This is not sport — it’s serious law enforcement work.”
“It’s not a romantic thing like in Raiders of the Lost Ark,” echoes Blumenthal. “A lot of the real work is very painstaking and research-oriented and methodical at libraries and [searching through] old newspapers. The people who have done the best work in this are the people who’ve really done it [as] a research project.”
Like most American children raised in the post-war years, Rosenbaum — whose own father witnessed the horrors at Dachau days after its liberation — Rosenbaum had accepted the sanitized story of the aerospace geniuses who helped the United States win the space race against the Russians. No mention of Project Paperclip and the government’s Faustian bargain with Nazis. “By the time the ‘70s rolled around, there was hardly anybody who remembered it,” he adds. “It was certainly new to me.”
That naïveté completely shattered during a visit to a bookstore near the Harvard campus in his final year of law school. He was horrified to learn of the underground V-2 factory described in Jean Michel’s Dora: The Nazi Concentration Camp Where Space Techonology Was Born and 30,000 Prisoners Died. Rosenbaum’s outrage mounted when he then picked up The Rocket Team (written by Frederick Ordway and Mitchell Sharpe), “a hagiography of von Braun and his team” that contained a stomach-turning anecdote from none other than Arthur Rudolph.
“He told the story of being at a nice, warm New Year’s Eve party when the call came in that some heavy rocket parts had to be moved. And so, in this long indented quote, he said he cursed at having to leave the party and get some men together to move these parts. Now by then I realized, ‘Get some men together to move heavy parts,’ based on what I'd read in Michel’s book ... [meant] concentration camp inmates. I was offended that he would speak so cavalierly about this.”
Upon returning to the OSI as a full-time prosecutor, Rosenbaum asked then-director Neal Sher for permission to go after Rudolph.
“He said, ‘Eli, You know, those Paperclip cases don't don't ever go anywhere.’ I said, ‘Okay, but can I kind of look into it?’ And Neal, who became a dear friend, said, ‘Okay, but don’t spend too much time on it.’ Of course, I did spend too much time on it and we learned a lot about Rudolph.”
Rosenbaum interviewed a thoroughly unrepentant and brazenly vainglorious Rudolph on two separate occasions. The “ex”-Nazi was so assured in his status as an American hero, that he saw no need to bring a lawyer along.
“He had told us that he was shocked when he got to the factory and saw that they were using concentration camp inmates. Not shocked enough to withdraw somehow, but he wasn’t shocked because it was his idea.”
Archival documents unearthed in West Germany later proved that Rudolph not only knew about the slave laborers, but had actually been the one who suggested them.
“He got whatever experience he had working 22,000 people to death or more. What kind of experience is that?” Holtzman says. “We have American scientists who are plenty smart and got their experience without killing thousands of others. They should have been in charge of the space program, not him. And the same with Wernher von Braun ... I don't think he should have been used, either. It was not necessary. We have plenty of homegrown talent in the United States.”
Once it became clear that OSI did not share his warped view of history, however, Rudolph finally hired legal counsel. But by then, it was too late. They had successfully snared a leading and once-untouchable member of Project Paperclip, and Rudolph begrudgingly renounced his citizenship before he was unceremoniously deported back to Germany in 1984.
Rudolph’s attorney made an appeal for no publicity, to which Rosenbaum responded with one of the most badass lines ever.
“I said, ‘We don't make secret deals with Nazis. Take it or leave it.’ He took it and ... the Justice Department issued a press release that he was gone and had given up his citizenship. That was a big story on the front page of The New York Times. I’m biased, I’m a New Yorker. That means it's bona fide news to me.”
While von Braun died two years prior to the OSI’s formation at the age of 65 — his legacy pristine as polished ivory — Rosenbaum says “he would have been a person of interest” if he lived into the 1980s. “His name comes up on documents linking him to the use of slave laborers.”
Had that been the case, though, his far-reaching government connections may have gotten Rudolph off the hook. A true Nazi conspiracy.
“Wernher von Braun was the only member of that group who could literally just dial up a President of the United States,” Rosenbaum continues. “I think he would have called President Reagan and asked him to please intervene in this; that it would be embarrassing to him, to the space program, to the United States, and please just put the proverbial kibosh on it.”
“I really feel it’s a sordid chapter in American history that the more that comes out about this, the better,” Blumenthal adds. “The government made some awful decisions that were not open to public scrutiny … Though the truth is coming out, it’s kind of late because all these people are dead now. But some of them lived very happy lives in America, unfortunately, when they should’ve been brought up on charges.”
Like Weitz, Rosenbaum does go on to acknowledge the morally gray area occupied by Project Paperclip, whose aims serve as a wider reflection of how governments sometimes comprise ethics for the sake of national security by making deals with informants guilty of terrible crimes.
Put another way: “Nothing, even Project Paperclip, is simple.”
Getting back to the matter at hand, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’s decision to pit pop culture’s favorite archaeologist against goose-stepping ideologues feels thoroughly appropriate in a time when fascism has begun to rear “its ugly head here in a homegrown variety in the United States,” Holtzman concludes.
“It’s very dangerous and we have to oppose it, just as we opposed it during World War II. And I think Americans should understand that the US government, after the war did, something that was ugly, cowardly, and wrong by giving sanctuary to Nazi war criminals and playing footsie with them both here and abroad. But that ultimately something could be done to stop that and to bring the Nazi war criminals to justice. And that's what happened, so there's a good ending to this story. But the true ending of the story is whether the American people will continue to rise up against fascism as they did during World War II.”
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny hits the big screen Friday, June 30.
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