THE presence of six alleged war criminals in Britain is a serious and emotional. matter. The issue raises important questions, not least about how they arrived and what should be done with them if they are identified as perpetrators of genocide. Why has it taken until 1987 to bring this issue forward in this country especially since the search for war criminals has been proceeding apace in the United States for at least a decade and in the USSR for considerably longer.
Since Bitburg, the desire of governments and politicians to brush over the evidence of the Nazi past has become all too obvious. This is, however, nothing new. As far back as 1948, the British government sent a private communique to seven Commonwealth countries, stating that it was terminating its prosecution of Nazi war criminals. The Dominions were requested to do the same on the grounds that “it was now necessary to bury the past”. This hitherto secret document only came to light following investigation by the Canadian Commission of Enquiry on War Crimes in 1985.
Even before World War II, the British government was reticent to formally detail Nazi crimes. When evidence in government files was eventually published as a White Paper, it explained that “even after the outbreak of war His Majesty’s Government felt reluctant to take action which would have the effect of inspiring hatred”. Following the early reports of atrocities in occupied Poland, the Foreign Office was forced to think about a public reaction.
A form of words had to be found that expressed condemnation and sympathy but avoided anything that could be construed as a commitment to future action . . . the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, thought that something about “righting wrongs” sounded best, thought it carried an unfortunate undertone of obligation. There was a consensus, according to one official, Roger Makin, that it would be inadvisable to “single out the barbarities inflicted on the Jews for special mention and it was agreed that it was essential to avoid committing Britain to the “same trouble as after the last war about drawing up lists of criminals who were to be personally punished” (from Tom Bower, Blind Eye to Murder (1979)
Official procrastination and obdurate insensitivity was gradually diluted by the roaring pain of the afflicted. It was not, however, eradicated.
In September 1944, the War Crimes Commission proposed that the extradition of war criminals between countries should be ratified by treaty. The US State Department rejected this, commenting that “in view of the rigid control exercised over the entry of aliens into the United States, the entry of war criminals and traitors into the United States . . . is most unlikely”.
Thirty years later, this was shown to be a fatuous and vacuous pronouncement. Many East European participants in mass murder and genocide entered the United States from DP camps and obtained American citizenship even after disclosing their true identities. This took place despite the fact that copious details of their horrendous crimes were already documented by the Paris-based Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects.
The War Crimes Commission, in the five years of its existence, documented a list of some 40,000 suspected war criminals of which 24,500 were assigned an “A” rating. When the Commission closed down, the files were transferred to the newly-created United Nations whose Secretariat quickly stipulated that access to them was limited to governments. For the next forty years, these files were effectively secreted away in a UN archive on Park Avenue South in New York. The few nongovernmental organizations and individuals who wished to research the information were denied access. Last year, after some loosening of the bureaucratic embrace, it was discovered that Kurt Waldheim’s name was on the “A” list. When Jewish organizations began to press for open access to the files, most of the original seventeen member countries of the Commission, including the United States, preferred to reserve judgement and “to study the facts”. The reasons for such sluggish behaviour soon became apparent.
Several diplomats quietly confirmed our suspicions. They reminded us that after World War II, some governments had knowingly hired [and, indeed, in some instances, competed against each other for the services of] Nazi war criminals in order to enhance their capabilities in such fields as scientific research and intelligence gathering. Thus, some officials now fear the potential of embarrassing disclosures. (Dr Harris Schoenberg, B’nai B’rith UN Affairs).
In their determination to stem the tide of Communism, the Americans employed former Nazis whose zeal to eradicate Bolshevism had propelled them into prominent positions during the Hitlerite years. The US controlled Klaus Barbie, the “Butcher of Lyons”, for four years, to the extent of directing him to spy on French intelligence which they feared was infiltrated by Communists.
The irony of the situation seemed to be lost on intelligence officers who, together with the Vatican, aided Barbie in his flight to the comparatively safe haven of Bolivia. Now well into his seventies, Barbie awaits trial, charged with the killing of French partisans, Catholic priests and the deportation, to the transit camp at Drancy en route to Auschwitz, of scores of Jewish children—many of them orphans—from a sanctuary in the village of Izieu-Ain. Many East European fascists also worked for Allied intelligence. Ante Pavelic, head of the Croatian Ustashi, reportedly more brutal than the Nazis, worked for the British in post-war Austria. He was then assisted by the Vatican and the US Counter-Intelligence Corps to escape to Argentina disguised as a monk. The Ustashi in their zeal to catholicize Croatia murdered 600,000 Serbs and 78,000 Jews. John Loftus in his book The Belarus Secret asserts that the entire leadership of the Nazi-sponsored Byelorussian puppet regime emigrated to the United States.
The growing awareness of the existence of war criminals in the United States catalysed the establishment of an Office of Special Investigations in the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice in 1979. Hundreds of cases have since been examined but legal action has only been taken against a fraction due to the paucity of information after such a long period. The options open to the OSI are denaturalization and deportation to a country willing to accept the accused. ‘Thus Arthur Rudolph, a designer of the Saturn-5 rocket which took astronauts to the moon, left the United States rather, than face an American jury. In Nazi Germany, he was the production manager of a factory which used slave labour at Nordhausen. An estimated 30,000 prisoners succumbed to the “industrial” conditions. Rudolph who was brought to the United States under the notorious Paperclip project was deemed to be “100 per cent dangerous type, security threat” by his interrogator in 1945 who recommended internment.
The Pentagon in its enthusiasm to utilize its war booty of Nazi scientists sanitized and even eradicated details of the crimes which some had committed in serving the Führer. The US Air Force even mounted a public relations campaign extolling the brilliance of these scientists in contributing to the military aspect of the American dream.
On von Braun’s insistence, members of the favoured circle earned higher salaries than the real scientists and their way of life made a mockery of the army’s pronouncement that they were under “limited custody”. As early as the summer of 1946, some owned cars, drove unescorted with local girls into Mexico and were fussed over like heroes. (from Tom Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy (1987) ).
Some countries of origin refuse to accept deported war criminals despite noisy propaganda to the contrary. Archbishop Valerian Trifa, a mentor and inciter of the anti-Semitic Iron Guard, had been sentenced to death in absentia yet the Rumanian authorities still refused to accept him. Instead, he was able to spend the rest of his days in Portugal where he died peacefully a few weeks ago.
There was also some ambivalence in Israel before the government agreed to press for the extradition of war criminals. Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel is, surprisingly, the first of a suspected war criminal since that of Adolf Eichmann. Inevitably, Israel could become a “dumping ground” for such untouchables as other nations do not wish to rake up the past; but it is also clear that many in the Diaspora and countless non-Jews look to Israel to pursue this matter. Both Canada and Australia have followed the lead of the United States in establishing official bodies to investigate war criminals.
Many of the persecutors, like their victims, have passed away. The passage of time blurs the memory. Some will ask why bother with a few old men when contemporary problems are so much more urgent. Is it only for the sake of the survivors, as some have argued? It is, perhaps, more than this. Justice involves an element of retribution, demonstrating contempt for insidious attempts to revise recent history and counteracting the politics of expediency which are used to gloss over even more recent horrors. For example, the Alfonsin government’s controversial Punte Final law to cease prosecution of those involved in the atrocities of Argentina’s “dirty war”. This has raised many heart-searching questions in terms of coping with and neutralizing the threat of military power in Argentina. But Sophia Epelbaum, one of the Madras de Plaza de Mayo, whose three teenage children were taken away in 1976 and never seen again, does not see this in terms of the realpolitik of the labyrinthine politics of Argentina. She demands answers.
Some may quietly suggest that current interest in faded Nazis will be viewed as Jewish vengeance and patently “unchristian”. Others may interpret it as a guilt-ridden post-war generation trying to chase the ghosts of the past. But the question which the children of the Holocaust generation will undoubtedly raise is a simple one—why were those who connived and acquiesced in the construction of the Third Reich rewarded with a good life? More than forty years after the end of World War II, a few answers are breaking through the surface. Both governments and politicians now have to face unpalatable facts and to act upon them. In the words of the Midrash: “Truth is heavy, therefore few wear it.”
Jewish Quarterly Spring 1987