The perceived wisdom about Nazi hunting goes something like this: after the war, elaborate rat-lines called â€˜Odessa’ and â€˜Spider’ were established that enabled SS men to escape from the clutches of the Allies. Most ended up in South America, living in luxury haciendas thanks to Nazi loot. However, the hunt continued, with dogged investigators tracking them down and eventually bringing a large number to justice. Amongst these hunters, the name of Simon Wiesenthal stands out – a Jewish death camp survivor responsible for bringing in thousands of former Nazis.
This, as Guy Walters authoritatively shows in his new book HUNTING EVIL, is mostly bunkum. There were loose and rather haphazard organizations that helped former Nazis flee Europe, but no Odessa or Spider and certainly nothing as developed and far-reaching as the myth would have it. Yes, a number did eventually reach South America, but most lived in shabby parts of town and had barely a bean to rub together. There was a vague attempt to track down former Nazis after the war, but it was half-hearted to put it mildly. A considerable number of Nazi war-criminals discovered that rather than going to great extremes to get to Argentina, they were better off offering their services to the Allies instead, enabling them not only to remain in their homeland but also providing them with decent salaries too. Britain was amongst those in recruiting a number of Nazi mass murderers. One, Viktors ArÄjs, oversaw the execution of 13,000 Jews and Gypsies in one day. Another, Friedrich Buchardt, an einstatzgruppen leader, had been directly involved in genocide with as many as 100,000 deaths on his hands, yet post-war worked for MI6. The recognition that the West had a more important enemy to tame in the Soviet Union, ensured that chasing thousands of former war criminals was not high on the Allies’ priority list. Churchill was apparently also worried that some of our own crimes might be exposed in the process.
Possibly the most damaging revelation of all, however, concerns the reputation of Simon Wiesenthal, who, is revealed as a pathological liar and â€˜and a bad one at that.’
Far from bringing thousands to justice, as he claimed, Walters shows that rather, the number could be counted on two hands and one of those cases was an appalling mistake that ruined an innocent man’s life.
For many around the world, Wiesenthal is a revered hero. The German national military archives lie on Wiesenthalstrasse, for example, and no doubt there are numerous other streets and squares all over the world baring his hallowed name. Thus anyone prepared to seriously bad-mouth a Holocaust survivor quite so famous needs to make sure they are doubly – if not triply – sure of their facts before they do so. Certainly the depths of research here are both impressive and convincing. The capture of Eichmann is particularly well reconstructed in fine and page-turning detail, revealing that rather than being Wiesenthal’s greatest triumph, as he claimed, his very limited contribution was more of a hindrance than a help. A study of Wiesenthal’s memoirs also reveals horrible inconsistencies. Yet Walters also supports all his claims with detailed archival evidence, having pieced together clues and connections from long forgotten papers in North and South America, Italy, Germany, Britain and elsewhere – which is more than most Nazi-hunters did.
While his research is undeniably impressive, Walters has managed to weave this mass of information into an absorbing and thoroughly gripping whole. Very sensibly, he focuses his attention on a few key individuals such as Buchardt, Mengele and Eichmann, but also Nazis-turned agents such as Wilhelm HÃ¶ttl, (who so pulled the wool over Wiesenthal’s eyes). We are also reminded in graphic detail about some of the monstrous crimes these men committed; one such, Klaus Barbie, liked to inject acid into his victims’ bladders and pierce their lungs with a needle.
Walters’ frustration and anger at the lies, incompetence, and injustice that so many war criminals escaped the law is obvious. At the end of the book, he relates tracking down Erna Wallich, the seventh most wanted Nazi war criminal on the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s list. It took him a minute on the online Austrian telephone directory, and within a few days, he was ringing the doorbell to her flat and she came to the door. As he admits, he almost called the book Hunting Evil – or not. Be that as it may, Walters proves emphatically that the reality of Nazi hunting is far more fascinating than the myth.