The US made many former Nazis welcome – but this study doesn’t ask ethical questions
Dec 20, 2014
The Nazis Next Door
In 1955 a native of the Circassian region of the USSR migrated to the United States. Tscherim Soobzokov settled in Paterson, New Jersey, where he became a US citizen in 1961. Nearly two decades later, in 1979, federal prosecutors sought to strip the naturalised American of his citizenship and deport him from the country.
Earlier that year the US justice department created a new unit: the office of special investigations (OSI). Its remit was special indeed: to prosecute Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the US.
In the immediate aftermath of the second World War, American prosecutors had tried and convicted hundreds of Nazis for war crimes before US military courts in occupied Germany. Now the OSI would be dealing with Nazis who had left their homeland for the comforts of the US.
Because domestic federal courts lacked jurisdiction over crimes committed overseas, the OSI was limited to bringing civil immigration charges: Hitler’s henchmen would be charged with lying on their immigration forms. Officials would have the power to strip ageing Nazis of their wrongfully acquired citizenship and deport them to a country that could prosecute them.
Tscherim Soobzokov looked like an inviting target for the fledgling OSI. Investigators had learned that he had served as an officer in the SS and allegedly participated in the roundup and mass killing of Jews.
The OSI dutifully filed charges against Soobzokov, only to encounter a rude surprise. In a sworn deposition, Soobzokov didn’t deny his service in the SS; rather, he insisted that American authorities had known about his wartime activities as early as 1954 – because he had told them.
OSI investigators dismissed the claim as an outlandish lie, until they contacted their colleagues in the CIA. Soobzokov was telling the truth. Worse still, the former SS officer had served as a spy for the CIA in the 1950s and later as an informant for the FBI. Appalled federal prosecutors had no choice but to quietly drop the case.
The Nazis Next Door is filled with such outrageous tales. Its author, Eric Lichtblau, a reporter with the New York Times, received a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, a study of how the George W Bush administration came to dispense with such niceties as the rule of law in aggressively prosecuting the “war on terror”. Common to both books is Lichtblau’s passionate interest in documenting how Washington’s obsession with perceived threats from abroad has led to treacherous moral compromises at home.
”The policy implications of this position were clear. “We will pick up any man who will help us defeat the Soviets,” wrote a CIA official, “no matter what his Nazi record was.” And so, months removed from fighting to liberate Europe and while still prosecuting Hitler’s minions before occupation courts, the US began recruiting Nazis and easing their passage into the country.By Lichtblau’s reckoning, as many as 10,000 former Nazis and collaborators settled in the US. These included 1,600 physicists, chemists, engineers and doctors transplanted as part of Operation Paperclip, the audacious project designed to put top Nazi scientists to work for the US.
The most famous of these was Wernher von Braun, chief designer of both the V2 rocket, which rained terror on London, and the Saturn V, which lifted American astronauts to the moon.
Another renowned Paperclip scientist was Hubertus Strughold, “the living sage of space medicine”, who had overseen horrific experiments on concentration-camp inmates.However unsavoury their pasts, these scientists were welcomed and feted by the US – provided they could help develop ballistic missiles and high-altitude bombers capable of reaching the Soviet Union.
US spy agencies made equally generous use of Nazis, recruiting perhaps 1,000 former acolytes of Hitler to help gather intelligence on the Soviets. These included small fish, such as Soobzokov, but also such prominences as the SS general Karl Wolff, Himmler’s former chief of staff, and Otto von Bolschwing, an SS officer who had worked closely with Adolf Eichmann on the Nazis’ “Jewish policies”.In the cool reckoning of Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, and in the hysterical imaginings of J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, even the most tainted Nazi could be enlisted in the fight against the red menace.
Thousands of other Nazi collaborators entered the US by simply lying on their immigration forms. Even here, however, cold-war politics played a decisive role.
The Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which in theory relaxed American immigration law in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Europe, essentially turned its back on victims of Hitler and extended its welcome to victims of Stalin. The law reserved tens of thousands of precious immigration spots for Ukrainians, Belorussians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, as well as the Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans expelled from their homelands by the Soviets. Collaborators, healthily represented in these immigrant groups, flocked to the US because Congress had extended a warm invitation.
Lichtblau tells this story of unseemly patronage and moral accommodation, providing a highly readable account edged with a justified tone of indignation. He does a particularly nice job of showing that many of those most willing to climb into bed with former Nazis were themselves closeted – or not-so-closeted – anti-Semites. (The belief that all Jews were communists was, of course, one of Hitler’s pet canards.)
And yet The Nazis Next Door is not without its shortcomings. As a book of popular history it is more a work of helpful synthesis than original sleuthing. As Lichtblau acknowledges, the book relies heavily on earlier treatments, in particular Judith Feigin’s exhaustive internal history of the OSI and US Intelligence and the Nazis, a compendious work prepared by leading scholars. His claim, for example, that 10,000 Nazis and collaborators settled in the US is hardly new; a former head of the OSI made the same guesstimate decades earlier.
More disappointing is Lichtblau’s refusal to address the deeper question: were any of these compromises justified? In discussing the CIA’s recruitment of Soobzokov, Wolff and von Bolschwing, he emphasises not only that all three were deeply tainted figures but also that they ultimately proved of little value to the US. (Soobzokov comes off as a particularly inept spy.)
Von Braun represents a very different case. Disagreeable as it may be to celebrate a scientist who presided over a Nazi rocket factory ruthlessly run on slave labour, there is no gainsaying von Braun’s contributions to the American military and civilian rocket programme. Was the US right, then, in putting von Braun to work?
In sidestepping the difficult ethical problems that his own book raises, Lichtblau misses an opportunity to weigh in on a matter that now vexes debates about Islamic State: in the fight against intractable enemies, to whom should we be prepared to turn for help? Lawrence Douglas is the author of The Right Wrong Man: John Demjanjuk and theLast Great Nazi War Crimes Trial, to be published next year. He teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts.