The Nazi Hunters, by Andrew Nagorski

The Nazi Hunters
The Nazi Hunters

Unlike Hiding in Plain Sight, Andrew Nagorski’s exploration of the pursuit and prosecution of war criminals spends as much time discussing the biographies of the pursuers as he does their quarry. The Nazi Hunters covers the last 60+ years of tracking down Nazi war criminals, from the chaotic days at the end of the Second World War to the Iwan Demjanuk case just a few years ago. Not only do the hunters have to deal with red tape, deliberate obfuscation, and time, they also spend time fight each other’s egos and arguing with each other in the press. If Hiding in Plain Sight didn’t make it clear that the path to justice is far from smooth, The Nazi Hunters certainly will.

Nagorski begins in 1945. Some war criminals were caught. As much of the top brass as the Allies were able to capture would end up on trial in Nuremberg. In the first third of the book, Nagorski writes about the various American prosecutors and judges who worked for the Nuremburg Tribunals. In the early days of war crime tribunals, the prosecutors had to work very hard to link the defendants with the appalling crimes of the Holocaust, using the evidence to show direct responsibility as much as possible. Occasionally, as during the Dachau Trials, standards slipped enough that hideous rumors about the defendants, Ilse Koch in particular, threatened to turn the proceedings into Grand Guignol.

A few criminals—Joseph Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie—would spend years on the run in South America. After the late 1940s, the rate of trials and convictions slowed to a crawl. It was up to people like Tuvia Friedman, Simon Wiesenthal, the Klarsfelds, and Fritz Bauer to keep the effort from halting entirely. Friedman and Wiesenthal helped the Mossad to find and capture Eichmann before spending the rest of their lives quarreling about who deserved the most credit. The Klarsfelds used the media to help the French government turn the screws on the Bolivian government to extradite Barbie. Bauer was a new name to me, through no fault of his own. Bauer was a prosecutor for the German state of Hesse and was instrumental in prosecuting and convicting former concentration camp guards in the mid-1960s at the Auschwitz Trials.

As I read The Nazi Hunters, I thought about two questions. The first may be one of the central questions of the book. How far is too far when it comes to pursuing Nazi war criminals? Mossad kidnapped Eichmann and flew him from Bolivia to Israel for trial. Iwan Demjanuk was wheeled into a courtroom on a gurney. And yet, in other cases, prosecutors declined to put accused war criminals on trial for lack of evidence or because they weren’t willing to authorize extradition in the first place. It seems the answer to the question very much depends on circumstances.

The second question I wondered about is more personal. Why I am I so interested in reading about war criminals? Part of it is the idea that there are crimes that are so big, so terrible that the entire world can agree that they are wrong and the perpetrators must be brought (eventually) to justice. Part of it is also that I still don’t understand the path from Hitler’s election in 1933 to the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust and World War II. I know the theories, but I am still staggered by the magnitude of what the Nazis did. Nagorski discusses the cases of Rudolf Höss and Adolf Eichmann in this book, which satisfied my curiosity about motivation at least a little. Höss wrote an autobiography and Hannah Arendt and other scholars wrote extensively about what motivated the war criminals. The question stands but Nagorski does a wonderful job showing the breadth of scholarly debate. I suspect—and I think Nagorski does, too—that the truth lies somewhere between brutality, the banality of evil, ambition, anti-Semitism, opportunity, and misguided duty to Hitler.

The Nazi Hunters is a meandering book. I lost the thread of what Nagorski was up to a few times. That said, I learned a lot from this book. Nagorski’s research and interviews with Nazi hunters turned up new information. I was fascinated by Bauer’s story, for example. Nagorski’s thoroughness has also given me new questions to think about and new perspectives from which to examine the long vexed history of the pursuit of war criminals.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 May 2016.

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