September 16, 2019

The welcome enemy: Nazis in the U.S.

One of the bitter facts of history is that the United States’ immigration quota for Germany and Austria went unfilled during the 1930s when hundreds of thousands of Jews were clamoring to escape the Third Reich. And further, when the war against Germany was finally won in 1945, thousands of Nazis — and not just Wernher von Braun and his rocket-builders — were welcomed to the United States.

This shameful story is told by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau in “The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a shocking and important story that is mostly left out of the celebratory histories of the “Good War.”

“Visas to America, especially in the early months and years after the war, were precious and few; with more than seven million people across Europe left stateless, only forty thousand people were admitted to the United States in the first three years after the war, despite calls for America to open its shores,” Lichtblau writes. “Yet Nazi collaborators and even SS members in Hitler’s reign of persecution, men who had proudly worn the Nazi uniform, were often able to enter the United States as ‘war refugees.’ ”

Lichtblau concedes that some of these Nazis managed to enter the United States by “gaming” the immigration system. But others were assisted by high-ranking officials in the CIA, the Pentagon and other government agencies who were convinced that men with experience in Nazi Germany “could help vanquish the Soviet menace.” Former Nazi spies were valued no less highly than Nazi rocket scientists, and for the same cynical reason. “No one hated the Soviets more than the Nazis, officials liked to say,” Lichtblau explains, “and they wanted to exploit that enmity.”  

But Lichtblau insists that something more than expedience was at work in the courtship between a victorious United States and the defeated Nazis. George Patton, a celebrated war hero who ran the camps for survivors (euphemistically known as Displaced Persons), betrayed his own anti-Semitic impulses when he described the congregants in a makeshift synagogue where Yom Kippur was being observed as “the greatest stinking mass of humanity I have ever seen.” President Harry Truman himself, writes Lichtblau, “was known privately to deride ‘kikes’ and ‘Jew boys.’ ”  

Lichtblau points out that the Vatican and the Red Cross were “complicit in helping the fleeing Nazis gain shelter, travel documents, and escape routes,” but he reveals that aid and comfort were also available from the American government. “The United States, fabled refuge for the world’s tired, its poor, and its huddled masses, was a beacon for Nazi war criminals as well,” he writes. “Even as the United States was casting blame on the Vatican for shepherding Hitler’s minions to freedom, it was doing much the same itself, creating a safe haven for the Nazis in America.”

“The Nazis Next Door” is a history book that often reads like a thriller. “The unholy alliance … began with an ambitious American spy chief in Europe, a brutal Nazi general, a bottle of Scotch, and a secret fireside chat at a Swiss safe house,” he writes by way of introduction to the first encounter between CIA Director Allen Dulles and SS Gen. Karl Wolff, a conversation conducted in German for the convenience of the Nazi officer. But Lichtblau is always ready to show us the real-world consequences of back-room intrigue: “In the coming years, Dulles and America’s spy services would put to work hundreds of former Nazis as spies and operatives in both Europe and the United States as part of the new Cold War ethos.”

Nazis were put to work in every theater of conflict, including the Middle East, where a former SS officer called Tscherim (Tom) Soobzokov was recruited to monitor Soviet activity in Jordan, where he was then living, and elsewhere around the Arab world. The fact that he had blood on his hands was irrelevant: “We are not at all interested in any criminal, moral or other similar lapses in his past,” his CIA handler was told, “and such things will not be covered in the tests and interviews.” Soobzokov was dismissed only after years of service to the CIA and only because he was found to be “an incorrigible fabricator,” and not because of the wartime record that the CIA had helped to conceal.

More often, however, the loyalty of the CIA to its Nazi assets was more durable. Otto von Bolschwing, for example, worked with Adolf Eichmann in the notorious Jewish Affairs office and authored “what amounted to an official Nazi white paper on waging anti-Semitism.” When Eichmann was discovered by the Mossad and taken to Israel for trial, both von Bolschwing and his handlers in the CIA feared that his wartime exploits would be revealed. But Eichmann himself was a matter of no interest to the American government: “Prosecution of war criminals is no longer considered of primary importance to U.S. Authorities,” an Army intelligence official wrote as early as 1952. Von Bolschwing’s spymasters agreed “not to give him up to the Israelis,” and offered him “what he wanted: silence and protection,” Lichtblau writes. “Von Bolschwing’s dark secrets were safe with the CIA.”

Eventually, at least some of these secrets came to light because of the efforts of the courageous journalists, prosecutors and legislators who are the real heroes of the story Lichtblau tells. But they, too, were forced to confront the inertia, indifference and active resistance of a government that refused to hold itself or its Nazi colleagues accountable. Pat Buchanan, for example, then an aide to Ronald Reagan, denounced the “hairy-chested Nazi hunters” in the Justice Department and declared that the U.S. “had better things to do than ‘running down seventy-year-old camp guards.’ ” Very few of the Nazis next door were ever called to account, and even fewer were punished in any meaningful way.

Indeed, what is most remarkable about Lichtblau’s book is the tenacity of the U.S. government in protecting the Nazis in its hire. When George H. W. Bush, then serving as CIA director, was asked by a reporter about the relationship between the CIA and one suspected Nazi collaborator, he answered: “If it were in my knowledge, I’m not sure I’d tell you.” And, for that reason alone, Lichtblau is to be praised for speaking an ugly truth to power. 


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.