If nothing else, the revelations in Sunday’s front-page story in the New York Times on the Justice Department’s continued refusal since 2006 to make public a report summarising the efforts of its Nazi-hunting Office of Special Investigations, clearly shows that even more than 65 years after the end of the second world war, Nazi crimes and the efforts to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice are still a source of controversy and public interest. While there is little new information in the revelations, the more interesting aspects are indeed infuriating and raise serious questions. Though the themes are familiar, the ethical compromises involved in the US policy in using former high-ranking Nazi officials as informants and in putting to work Nazi scientists for the American space programme or other classified military projects, as well the sometimes-flawed implementation of government efforts to punish such individuals, are worth re-examining.
The United States’ record on this issue can basically be divided into four periods. During the first, which lasted from the end of the war in 1945 until approximately 1948, the US government played a major role in the prosecution of senior Nazi officials at the Nuremburg trials and of other criminals in additional proceedings, some of which were held in former concentration camps. During the second period, from 1948 until approximately 1953, the exact opposite happened. With the cold war already underway, the US lost interest in actively pursuing Nazi war criminals, preferring to build up West Germany as a bulwark against communism, and therefore adopting a far more lenient attitude toward former Nazis, some of whom were enlisted as intelligence sources or rocket scientists – their criminal Nazi pasts ignored. Equally appalling was the fact that, during these years, US immigration authorities allowed entry to the United States as refugees to thousands of the worst of Hitler’s east European henchman.
During the subsequent years, until the mid 1970s, nothing changed; it was only toward the end of the latter decade that, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn and Congressman Joshua Eilberg of Philadelphia, US negligence was fully exposed and the government finally decided to take legal action against the Nazi war criminals living in the US – and establish the Office of Special Investigations.
Holocaust crimes, however, could not be prosecuted in the United States as they had been committed overseas and their victims were not Americans at the time the crimes were committed. So, instead, Nazi criminals were prosecuted for immigration and naturalisation violations – that is, for concealing their wartime past. Although this appeared to be a cop-out of sorts when announced, the decision yielded relatively successful results.The good news was that it was relatively easy to win such cases, compared to war crimes prosecutions. The downside was that the punishments – denaturalisation and deportation – were often grotesquely incommensurate with the crimes.
During its 32 years of existence, the OSI had significant success and successful pursued legal action against over 100 Nazi perpetrators – a record that outstrips any other agency of its kind. There were mistakes along the way – the prosecution of Ivan Demjanjuk primarily for crimes at Treblinka rather than at Sobibor is, of course, the most famous – but all in all, the US government can be very proud of the OSI and its achievements.
This only makes the refusal to make public the full report even more incomprehensible. If it were published, then, no doubt, questions would be raised about its objectivity and reliability – have been written in-house – but the public deserves to know the truth about the OSI’s work. Publishing it would be the best way to help prevent the mistakes of the initial decades and ensure future success in bringing the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.
Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the founder and director of its Israel office.