As everyone knows, there was a considerable brain drain from Nazi Germany in the 1930s as leading artists and scientists, many of them Jewish, sought refuge in the United States.
Of course, there were still enough Aryan brains on hand to devise the V1 and V2 rockets, the first true weapons of mass destruction. These were considerably trumped a year later by the American invention of the atomic bomb, but, still, first is first.
After the war, American occupation authorities in Germany scarfed up as many Nazi scientists as possible. True, they’d served the most demonic regime in the history of mankind, but a brain is a brain, and what was the point of letting the Russians get hold of them instead?
Most of our new guests kept their heads down and worked quietly for our Cold War military, but one made himself a household name. This was a handsome devil named Wernher von Braun, who, voluble and charismatic, became the approved face of the good German scientist who worked for freedom and democracy.
By rights, von Braun should have been played on the screen by someone like the late Maximilian Schell, a matinee idol with a slippery smile and a accent. Instead, Stanley Kubrick cast Peter Sellers as the title character of his “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The versatile Sellers also played the American president for whom Strangelove was chief science advisor, suggesting how easily we can become what we use.
The idea of using Nazi assets in the struggle against godless Communism came from Adolf Hitler himself, who suggested late in World War II that America join forces with Germany in a crusade against Russia. A few ears were receptive to this, the most notable being those of Gen. George S. Patton, Richard Nixon’s favorite hero. But nothing came of it … apparently.
True, within a few years we had indeed made common cause with West Germany in the fight against the Soviets. This new Germany was certifiably “denazified,” to use the official term of art for purging the more egregious war criminals from positions of authority.
Of course, the only truly impeccable Germans were those who had spent the 12 years of the Third Reich in concentration camps, and not many could boast of such credentials. After the major surviving Nazis had been dealt with, there was little further talk about wartime atrocities and exterminations, while the Germans, for their part, refrained politely from bringing up the subject of saturation bombing.
Still, German and some other immigrants to the U.S. were questioned about their personal history since, technically at least, there was no statute of limitation on war crimes committed under the Third Reich. No serious background checks were conducted, however — why, after all, drag up the unpleasant past with a new ally — and a sizable number of Nazi operatives got through.
Only after decades the fact were investigations against Nazi operatives pursued, in good part as a result of the efforts of the privately funded Simon Wiesenthal Center, whose business was to hunt down Nazis who had slipped between the cracks or even had covert invitations.
The exposure and publicity generated by the center, along with what one might call the popularization of the Holocaust, resulted in belated government efforts in the U.S. and Germany to check bona fides. Some elderly retirees who had worked in America were dug up and deported — not for their crimes but for having falsified their application forms.
A problem arose, however. The deportees mostly qualified for Social Security benefits after working in the U.S. and those who did were receiving them. Each case was an embarrassment and prosecution was difficult.
It’s not particularly easy to demonstrate the facts of events 50, 60 and even 70 years ago, and not a happy thing to have to explain over and over why justice had been so long delayed. As a means of quietly disposing of these cases, therefore, the Justice Department availed itself of a legal loophole to persuade Nazis and their collaborators to leave the country voluntarily in return for retaining their Social Security income.
Dozens, including suspected former SS guards, took up the offer. They landed, unheralded and unannounced, in unsuspecting host countries that found themselves providing social services of their own for the “refugees.”
There are still four living beneficiaries of this program whose checks are being cut this month as usual. One of them, Jakob Denzinger, a former guard at Auschwitz among other concentration camps, lives in a spacious apartment in Croatia with a nice river view. His son, who still lives in the U.S. as a citizen, defends his father’s entitlement to the high life: after all, hadn’t he paid his taxes like everyone else? Uh-huh, in the country he sneaked or lied his way into in the first place.
Why be so kind to Nazis? Only a week after the story of the Social Security caper broke, the other shoe dropped.
It wasn’t just that war criminals had found easy refuge here — see that nice old man next door who always waves to children on their way to school, just as he once did when they were going to the gas chamber instead — but that the FBI and CIA actively, no, “aggressively” recruited Nazi operatives to do little jobs for them such as fingering supposed Communist sympathizers in the United States itself, and these groups may well have assisted their entry in the first place.
After all, who better to ferret out undesirables than those who had done such as a skillful job of hunting down Europe’s Jews and Gypsies? And we aren’t talking about pikers here, mere SS guards and such. We’re talking about, people like Otto von Bolschwing, a mentor and top aide to no less than Adolf Eichmann, a chief architect and implementer of the “Final Solution.”
No wonder it was so hard to track down Eichmann himself, who was hiding in plain sight in Buenos Aires. When the Israelis got to him themselves, Bolschwing appealed to his CIA handlers for protection and got it. This, according to his son Gus (who is still alive), “shouldn’t have happened.” The understatement of the century, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, the Justice Department had under pressure opened an office to seek Nazis in hiding in the U.S. — the same office that would make those generous little Social Security deals for our no-longer-wanted guests to leave quietly.
When the CIA was forced to reveal information about its own operatives, it was on the understanding that no prosecution or deportation would ensue. In other words, the small fry might go. But the worst of the worst could stay.
It’s no secret that spy agencies employ unsavory characters; not many turncoats are idealists. But the Nazis run by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Allen Dulles’ CIA weren’t ratting out their own kind; not only did the U.S. have no interest in pursuing the likes of Eichmann and Josef Mengele, but, after the theatrics of Nuremberg were over, to do so would have been counter to our perceived geopolitical interests.
What useful intelligence, though, could Hoover and Dulles have hoped to extract from their Nazis? Any information they had would have been years out of date, and, unlike the clever von Braun, they had no special expertise to lend.
In the fashion of their kind, they told their employers what they wished to hear, but any other set of dubious characters could have done the same. The only conclusion one can draw is that Hoover, Dulles and their like wished to employ Nazis, in part one supposes because their anti-Communism would have been vouched for, but in part because of temperamental and perhaps ideological affinity.
Our cold warriors, inept as they mostly were, liked to consider themselves tough, unsentimental and professional — in fact, not unlike good SS men who sometimes had unpleasant tasks to perform. There was a racial undertone not far from the surface, too: the Nazis had had their Jews to deal with, not to mention Slavs, just as America had its “Negro Problem” at home.
It was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI who suggested to Martin Luther King that he might like to consider committing suicide and Richard Nixon who rallied in private against blacks and Jews that were not so terribly far from the Nazi-race purifiers.
This was not simply a matter of a few particularly rotten apples in the barrel, either. We know that more than a thousand Nazis were employed by the CIA and the FBI, and, according to one researcher, the number is “probably much higher.” So, how many is that? Five thousand? Ten? America was not merely a secure haven for Nazis on the run, but a second career choice as well. Welcome to the Fourth Reich.
To come back once more to the movies: In 1946, Orson Welles made a film called “The Stranger” about a notorious Nazi who goes underground in a small Connecticut town until he is smoked out by a diligent investigator. In the real world, the villain wouldn’t have had to worry much about discovery. He would probably have had Hoover’s talent scouts all over him in five minutes.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]