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Review of “Useful Enemies John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals”

Alex Constantine - May 8, 2013

Richard Rashke's 'Useful Enemies' talks about John Demjanjuk case and why some enemies were welcome in U.S. and some weren't

Using slave labor, the German scientist Wernher von Braun helped produce the V-2 rockets that in 1944 rained added grief -- as if the country needed any more -- on England. Given more time, the rockets might have changed the tide of World War II.

After the war, the predecessor agency to our National Security Council brought von Braun to America to develop our own rocket program; in 1959, he was given the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service. He said he was a man of science, not a Nazi true believer. As the mordant 1960s piano-playing satirist Tom Lehrer sang, with mock German accent:

"Vunce rockets go up,

Who cares vhere zey come down?

Zat's not my department,"

Says Wernher von Braun.

The postwar American ambivalence toward former Nazis is part of the subject of Richard Rashke's "Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals." As he shows, the American government welcomed and protected not just scientists, but also other former Nazis and collaborators who could help in our struggle against communism. Based on their wartime conduct, some of these were, it might fairly be said, hardly human at all -- monsters, rather.

And then there was the Ukrainian autoworker John Demjanjuk of Seven Hills, Ohio. He was neither scientist nor Cold War agent; whether he was a monster was the subject of 30-plus years' worth of litigation that Rashke presents in detail.

The Office of Special Investigations, a unit of the U.S. Justice Department, accused Demjanjuk of being the sadistic Ivan the Terrible, a guard in the Treblinka death camp. As Rashke shows, OSI's lawyers had grave ethical concerns about their own case. Later, a federal court of appeals, in an opinion written by the great Kentucky judge Pierce Lively, held that they had committed fraud on the court.

Rashke is good at explaining how the Demjanjuk case, first brought in Cleveland, made for bitterness here. Much of the evidence against him came from Soviet files and so was automatically suspect to Ukrainian-Americans, most of whom hated communism. To them, Rashke says, "the Nazi hunt in America had become an OSI-Jewish conspiracy with the KGB pulling the strings."

For Jews, on the other hand, "the trial evoked memories of pogroms and Ukrainian militiamen helping the Nazis" -- not to mention the horrors of the concentration camps.

"Useful Enemies" weaves the Demjanjuk affair together with a history of American use of war criminals by agencies such as the Army's intelligence branch, the CIA and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. According to Rashke, they did so knowingly, often falsifying naturalization papers or engaging in cover-ups to protect their new hires -- and to protect the agencies themselves.

The Demjanjuk case was "a perfect diversion for the American intelligence establishment with secrets to hide," he says.

Deported in 1986, Demjanjuk was tried and sentenced to death in Israel (whose Supreme Court, in an act of significant judicial courage, reversed his conviction in 1993). In 2011 in Germany, he was convicted of being an accessory to 28,060 murders -- in other words, of facilitating the killings -- as a guard at another camp, Sobibor.

It was the first time, Rashke says, that a German court convicted a Nazi-era war criminal without evidence that he had killed anyone.

Through exuberance, or high indignation that verges into stridency, the intensity dial on Rashke's prose is usually cranked up to 11. One might say, for instance, that American policy on allowing European Jews entry to the United States was shameful; to him, it was "blatantly selfish, timid, callous, and discriminatory." The adjectives (and adverbs, too) are always flying all over the place.

And he is undisciplined, as well, in other ways. The depth of his research appears impressive, but his citation of source materials is cavalier -- some assertions and quotations are cited, some not.

Cribbing from a 1987 newspaper article, for example, he quotes an Israeli teacher explaining why it was important for young Israelis to attend what would be the last major World War II war crimes trial -- except that in the original it was a student, not a teacher, and Rashke gets the quotation wrong.

These errors, and others, are small glitches, but they distract from Rashke's bigger themes -- that the United States employed Nazis not by accident, but as deliberate policy; and that the accusations against Demjanjuk, in Cleveland, Jerusalem and Munich, were motivated by politics.

Though told in a sometimes exasperating form, "Useful Enemies" is a fascinating story, abounding in irony and irony's bad twin, hypocrisy. Rashke is good at finding those: Demjanjuk, neither German nor a Nazi, was convicted, in Germany, of being a guard at Sobibor, when four German SS officers who ran that camp, and issued the orders, were acquitted by a German court long ago.

As for facilitating the killing, Rashke points out, there were many others who were never prosecuted at all. Including some useful rocket scientists.

Mark Gamin is a Cleveland lawyer and critic.


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