As Germany closes the book on Shoah-related trials, author Andrew Nagorski probes a seven-decade saga in his new book, ‘The Nazi Hunters’.
BOSTON — “One-third detective, one-third historian, one-third lobbyist,” is how Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff described his oft-romanticized “profession” in Andrew Nagorski’s “The Nazi Hunters,” published by Simon & Schuster this week.
aking readers beyond the iconic Simon Wiesenthal and misleading Hollywood depictions, Nagorski brings three decades of interviews with Nazi hunters and their associates to his sweeping account of how Holocaust perpetrators have — and have not — been brought to justice since the postwar Nuremberg Trials.
“If it had not been for the Nazi hunters, much of this effort to confront the past may not have happened,” said Nagorski in an interview with The Times of Israel.
“The fact that someone goes on trial, the evidence is presented, the case is demonstrated, means that you are achieving some measure of justice,” said Nagorski.
“The concept that ‘obeying orders’ is an adequate defense has been thoroughly discredited by this process,” added the author, whose book includes a helpful “cast of characters” with the major Nazi hunters and their prey.
At the heart of Nagorski’s book are the hunters’ motivations for bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. Impetuses ranged from enacting revenge on the murderers of their loved ones, to ensuring justice was served in the name of Hitler’s six million Jewish victims.
“There was real satisfaction with that sense of payback in some cases, because it became apparent there was no way you could try everyone,” said the Scottish-born Nagorski. “There were too many perpetrators,” he added.
In addition to probing the Nazi hunters’ motivations, Nagorski details the assortment of methods they used to draw public attention to their cause. Although Simon Wiesenthal became the best-known of the hunters, he was far from the most “theatrical” of the crew, as Nagorski put it. That title goes to Beate Klarsfeld, who — along with husband Serge Klarsfeld — took many risks to bring Shoah perpetrators to justice, including the occasional attempt at kidnapping.
Best remembered for her 1968 public slapping on the face of West German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi, Klarsfeld and her husband’s accomplishments included tracking down the SS men who oversaw the deportation of French Jewry. As with many hunters, the Klarsfelds’ mission was personal, with Serge’s father having perished in Auschwitz, and Beate’s father having served in the German Wehrmacht.
Horrified by the Klarsfelds’ envelope-pushing antics and Communist leanings, the conservative Wiesenthal preferred to meticulously gather evidence and confront suspects through proper channels. Despite laying groundwork for future hunters, Wiesenthal was often on the receiving end of other hunters’ enmity for embellishing his accomplishments, including his claim to have helped capture Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the genocide.
Calling Wiesenthal a “towering figure” who “deserves full credit for raising these issues,” Nagorski added that Wiesenthal’s PR-fueled reputation “overshadowed the others,” leading to sour grapes among the hunters.
As put by hunter Zuroff, “I’ve never met a single Nazi hunter who is willing to say a good word about another Nazi hunter. It’s jealousy, it’s competition, it’s all these things,” he said.
Nagorski devotes much ink to Fritz Bauer, the German judge and prosecutor who provided the key tip to locate Eichmann. Following worldwide interest unleashed by Eichmann’s 1962 trial in Jerusalem, Bauer organized the seminal “Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials,” and helped secure an end to the statute of limitations on when Nazi criminals could be prosecuted.
In addition to the trying of 22 former Auschwitz officials during the two-year Frankfurt trials, Nagorski credited the 1978 television miniseries “Holocaust” for helping Germans grapple with their painful heritage. Starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, the series “caught you up in the individual stories” of both victims and perpetrators, said Nagorski, who referred to the production as a “turning point” in “getting Germany to face up to its past,” he said.
“A lot of Germans tell me [the series] resonated with the broader population even more than the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial,” said Nagorski.
On the trail of Nazi perpetrators
The author’s interest in Hitler’s reign of terror began decades ago, when his father told a young Nagorski about his time in the Polish army. Following the German and Soviet attack on Poland in 1939, Nagorski’s father escaped to Britain via Yugoslavia and France. In Britain, he joined a Polish unit under British command, later returning to Europe for its liberation from Nazism.
“When they went into Germany they could not find a single Nazi,” said Nagorski, recalling his father’s encounter with a criminal nation claiming to be devoid of criminals.
As Newsweek’s bureau chief in Bonn and Berlin, the author observed Germany’s battle with its past first-hand. Calling some Germans’ relationship to the past “a little scattershot,” Nagorski realized “the story had not ended” while running Newsweek’s Berlin bureau in the mid-90s.
“When I was based in Germany, I often came across people who would talk about the past in tortured ways — their families’ past and what they did and did not know,” said Nagorski.
No stranger to backlash himself, the author was expelled from Newsweek’s Moscow bureau in 1982 by a Soviet government resentful of his frank reporting. A sort of vindication came almost three decades later, when Poland’s government recognized Nagorski for his coverage of the country’s Solidarity movement in the 1980s. Two years ago, former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa honored Nagorski “for dedication to the cause of freedom and writing about Poland’s history and culture.”
As with his reporting from the former USSR, Nagorski does not whitewash his Nazi hunter subjects, including several public icons. To the contrary, his portraits of more than one-dozen hunters hinge on difficult personalities and questionable tactics, and how the hunters’ work built on itself despite tense relations.
“This is far from an uncritical view of all the Nazi hunters,” said Nagorski. “There were petty jealousies and resentments that one person is getting more credit than the others. ‘Good guys versus good guys’ is the story here, not just good guys versus Nazis,” he said.
Historically, “The Nazi Hunters” is being published “almost at the biological end” of the task to bring Hitler’s most notorious killers and lesser known perpetrators to justice, said Nagorski. The book includes recent developments like “Operation Last Chance,” a campaign mounted in Germany by Zuroff, who has been called “the last of the Nazi hunters.”
Although “The Nazi Hunters” is peppered with recollections of wartime atrocities, the author gleaned hope from the long, sordid tale of bringing Shoah perpetrators to justice, even when most of the world wanted to move on.
“West Germany dealt with its past more openly than any country had ever done,” said Nagorski, who has served as the Polish-American Freedom Foundation’s chairman.
In his introduction, the author illustrates how bringing Nazi criminals to justice has been a counter-cultural pursuit, both immediately after the war and today. Generally living within simple means, the hunters knew their activities made them potential targets for foreign governments and former tormentors alike. Their work often went unacknowledged, not to mention uncompensated.
“[The Nazi hunters] demonstrated tremendous determination and courage as they kept up their fight even when the governments representing the victors and the rest of the world grew increasingly indifferent to the fate of the Nazi war criminals,” wrote Nagorski. “In the process, they also explored the nature of evil and raised profoundly troubling questions about human behavior.”