By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Sunday, July 25, 2010; B06
The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice
By Guy Walters
Broadway. 518 pp. $26.99
"Hunting Evil" is not the book Guy Walters originally planned to write. He intended to produce a study of Odessa, the sinister post-World War II organization composed of leading Nazis and their sympathizers. According to conventional wisdom, Odessa enabled numerous Nazi war criminals to flee to Latin America, where they lived securely, often with the full knowledge and sympathy of their host country. Their well-being was periodically threatened by Nazi hunters, among them Simon Wiesenthal, whose heroic status was so great that he was repeatedly nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The statement accompanying his Medal of Honor lauded him for capturing more than 1,000 Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann.
This is the story Walters planned to tell. The truth, he discovered, is quite different from the legend. Odessa, he contends, was a figment of people's imagination. While there were undercover agencies helping Nazis escape, there was no Odessa.
He also found that Wiesenthal (1908-2005) falsified much of his record, claiming credit for things he never did. Walters is hardly the first person to raise questions about Wiesenthal, whose unreliability is evident to any reader who compares his various autobiographies: On significant points, they repeatedly contradict one another. Walters, who concludes that Wiesenthal had "scant regard for the truth," estimates that he found only a dozen war criminals, at most. Even if this is accurate -- and according to a forthcoming biography by Tom Segev, the number is probably far higher -- it is more than most other people found. Walters devotes a disproportionate amount of space to Wiesenthal's misdeeds, though acknowledging that he was on the side of the angels.
Of far greater significance is the story Walters tells of how democracies worldwide, including the United States and Britain, welcomed Nazi war criminals in the postwar period. Several countries coddled known genocidal murderers because the criminals could supposedly provide important intelligence. In many instances, however, they had no valuable information to offer.
Britain engaged Friedrich Buchardt as a secret agent, even though he had been one of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units. These units shot hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. To enhance their work, they devised a system called sardine-packing: Victims were forced to lie down head to toe prior to being shot, thereby making more room in the pit for another layer of victims.
The Vatican also went out of its way to protect criminals. It provided passports, refuge and other means of support for them. While the church's record during the war may be open to some debate, its record in helping the murderers escape responsibility afterward is clear, as has been documented by both Michael Phayer in "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965" and Gerald Steinacher in "Nazis auf der Flucht."
Much of what Walters tells is not new, but it bears retelling, and he does so in a gripping, well-documented fashion. One of his most powerful anecdotes comes at the end of the book. He interviewed Erich Priebke, who had been a key player in the March 1944 massacre at Rome's Ardeatine Caves. There the Nazis murdered more than 300 innocent men because partisans had killed 33 German policemen. With the assistance of the church -- bishops, nuns and priests -- Priebke escaped to Argentina. When Sam Donaldson of ABC News tracked him down in 1994, Priebke demonstrated decidedly little remorse. Embarrassed, Argentina allowed him to be extradited to Italy, where he was tried and sentenced to house arrest. He lives there in relative comfort. When Walters spoke to him in 2007, Priebke complained that the Vatican had not responded to the many letters his supporters had sent to the new pope, hoping to get his sentence set aside. "They [the Vatican] are afraid of the Jews," Priebke explained. His worldview had not changed since his days as a Nazi murderer.
Ultimately, "Hunting Evil" reminds us that there must be a moral limit to how much a country dirties its hands, even when pragmatism tempts it to ignore war criminals' misdeeds. The United States should keep this in mind as it tries to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. For a country to ignore wrongs committed by its allies is to compromise the cause for which it fights and for which its forces have given their lives.
Deborah E. Lipstadt teaches Holocaust history at Emory University. Her most recent book is "History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier."