Alex Constantine - March 11, 2009
Ian Traynor in Berlin
17 August 1999
Britain secretly organised the recruitment and transfer to Australia of scores of leading Nazi scientists and weapons specialists after the second world war, newly declassified Australian government papers disclosed yesterday.
The German scientists sent to Australia under a top secret Anglo-American project codenamed Operation Matchbox included SS and Nazi party members. The leading Nazi-hunting watchdog, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem, yesterday demanded an investigation into the recruitments ordered by Britain and the US, and said Australia was a haven for "holocaust perpetrators and mass murderers".
According to documents obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald, the British government decided within four months of the end of the war to poach "a limited number of German scientists and technicians on defence research to develop military potential at Germany's expense."
The Anglo-American moves, at the onset of the Cold War, were also sparked by fears that Stalin's Soviet Union would kidnap the weapons specialists if they remained in Germany.
The scientists were sent to Australia despite a blanket ban on Germans entering the country at the time.
"There's never a ban for the privileged," said Herbert Schneider, an investigating magistrate at Germany's main Nazi-hunting centre in Ludwigsburg. "The Americans in particular were recruiting scientists in Thuringen and Saxony-Anhalt at the end of the war to prevent them being taken to Russia."
In a statement issued in Jerusalem yesterday, the Wiesenthal centre demanded an official inquiry into the activities of the Nazi scientists in Australia in the late 1940s and 50s. According to press reports in Sydney and Melbourne, at least 127 German scientists and engineers were sent to Australia between 1946 and 1951. They included 31 Nazi party members and six members of the elite SS.
One was said to have been a senior German official in Nazi-occupied Poland. Others were experts with IG Farben, the notorious chemicals giant which exploited tens of thousands of slave labourers.
The disclosures contradicted an Australian government study of 1986 which noted that scientists were barred "if they were considered unacceptable due to their association with the Nazi party".
The Wiesenthal centre said: The failure of the Australian government to deal with this issue is a continuing source of pain for the survivors and their relatives."
Mr Schneider said he suspected "some of these people" were war criminals, but he could not be sure without the names of individuals and details of specific alleged offences. "Many people were recruited by the Americans in those years who had nothing to do with war crimes."
Confidential diplomatic traffic between the British and the Australian high commission in London after the war showed that London had drawn up a recruitment list of 120 German scientists within a year of the war's end. The Kremlin had pledged not to enlist Germans with Nazi backgrounds, but was failing to honour that pledge.
"Both the US and the UK are planning to prevent this moving of German scientists and technicians eastwards since it would increase significantly the war potential of Russia," said an Australian government telegram.
The experts sent to Australia included the chief of the Messerschmitt jet aircraft factory and a nuclear physicist engaged in atomic research for the German military, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, which named no names. The scientists were given special security clearance to work on missile research and weapon development.
Two of the Germans worked on Australia's guided missile rocket tests at Woomera in the 1950s, while 10 worked in government defence laboratories, the newspaper said.
Australian Jewish organisations joined the calls for an official inquiry.
"It is a deplorable and shocking revelation that fully paid-up Nazi party members, including those who belonged to Nazi killing units, were permitted to enter Australia and start new lives, often at taxpayers' expense," said Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.