A Nazi operator such as von Bolschwing, who recommended propaganda to inculcate Germans with anti-Semitism, might have wound up before an international tribunal. But instead, von Bolschwing, who was later characterized as “guilty of acts more heinous than anyone else currently under investigation,” got a job with the CIA as a Cold War spy. Then he was awarded American citizenship due to his work’s “caliber,” became vice president of a Sacramento computer company, and died in 1982 at a nearby hospital.
Coming on the heels of recent revelations that dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals pocketed millions of dollars worth of Social Security checks, the story of Otto von Bolschwing is one of many discussed in newly disclosed records. In all, historians told the New York Times, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and Allen Dulles’s CIA hired at least 1,000 Nazis — if not more. Bits of the story have been reported in the past, but the full scope of the operation has now been reported in Times reporter Eric Lichtblau’s new book, “The Nazis Next Door,” released today.
“U.S. agencies directly or indirectly hired numerous ex-Nazi police officials and East European collaborators who were manifestly guilty of war crimes,” University of Florida professor Norman Goda told the newspaper. “Information was readily available that these were compromised men.”
The reports and additional records shed greater light on one of the United States’ murkiest forays into clandestine activity. It involved deal-making and moral absolution in which almost anything — even war crimes — could be ignored to check the rising threat of the Soviet Union. Along with other programs, such as Operation Paperclip, which enlisted the help of Nazi scientists, the use of ex-Nazis as spies illustrates a postwar government’s willingness to neglect the demands of justice to satisfy the needs of security.
The decision came from the top, the BBC reported. Records show Hoover signed off on the use of ex-Nazis and paid little attention to past crimes. One accused war criminal, Aleksandras Lileikis, had an alleged role in the extermination of thousands of Jews but was nonetheless recruited to work as a spy in East Germany and eventually lived in Boston. “All of us were collaborators,” with Nazis, Lileikis once said. “The whole nation, since it was acting according to Nazi laws. … So I made mistakes — mistakes, or let’s say the ‘crimes’ which I am accused of.”
It was a secret the CIA worked long and hard to protect, even as the spies died one by one. Word of intelligence agencies’ Nazi collaboration first began to seep out in 1970s, a flow the agency tried to stall in a series of battles with the Justice Department.
The FBI in 1980 declined to disclose records showing 16 Nazis had worked for the government hunting Communist sympathizers, saying it wanted to protect “the confidentiality of such sources of information to the fullest possible extent.” Then in an additional battle with the New York Times, the Justice Department refused for years to declassify a report that illustrated government agencies’ coziness with von Bolschwing, among others. Only “under the threat of a lawsuit” did it do so.
It’s a period that few seem anxious to relive — one that caused great pain to American families who learned, often suddenly, that a relative had assisted in acts of genocide. Few families were more surprised than that of von Bolschwing, an agent who ingratiated himself with the CIA by portraying himself as a “Nazi gadfly,” CIA reports show. “Although he never developed into a ‘first-class agent,’ the CIA was sufficiently grateful to help him emigrate to the United States in 1954,” the report stated. “The CIA advised the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] about his past as they understood it. [It] agreed to admit him nonetheless.”
He then began what would be his second life, the full scope of which only came to light in the early 1980s when a civil complaint accused him of lying about his Nazi Party membership. His son “couldn’t quite process the words,” Time reporter Eric Lichtblau wrote in his new book. “This must be a bizarre mistake, he thought; maybe some sort of cruel hoax…. Denial followed disbelief. In an instant, [his] mind raced through everything he knew about his father, or everything he thought he knew.”
Von Bolschwing was always mysterious about his time during the war, the San Jose Mercury News reported in 1981. He said he served time as a Gestapo prisoner, later worked for the CIA — and left it at that. Only under interrogation did the multitude of cover stories peel away.
“Were you a member of the Nazi party?” one investigator asked him.
“Yes. … 1932, I think, through 1945,” he responded.
Now years later, his son thinks he should never have been allowed in the United States. “It should never have happened,” he told the Times. “He never should have been admitted to the United States. It wasn’t consistent with the values as a country.”