It is right to expose Wiesenthal
Accepting that the great Nazi hunter was a braggart and, yes, a liar, can live alongside acknowledging his contribution
‘Simon Wiesenthal’s reputation is built on sand. He was a liar and a bad one at that. From the end of the war to the end of his life, he would lie repeatedly about his supposed hunt for Eichmann as well as his other Nazi-hunting exploits.
“Wiesenthal would also concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic career.”
With these words, the historian Guy Walters begins his examination of the career of the world’s most famous Nazi hunter. It forms one of the main themes of his new book, Hunting Evil, a history of the Nazi war criminals who escaped and the effort to bring them to justice. And it is impossible to read it without feeling deeply uncomfortable.
There are two reasons for this, and only one of them is to do with Wiesenthal. The first reason for discomfort is simply that Walters lays bare, in what is a fine, very readable but nonetheless important, book about how the victors simply let criminals, thousands upon thousands of terrible murderers, walk away after the war.
A couple of years ago, at the end of a drama documentary on the Wannsee conference, the sentences handed out to the conspirators were rolled on the screen just before the credits. I remember watching aghast as I read that one after another of these monsters appeared to have gone back to Bavaria or wherever and lived a quiet life as a greengrocer. Walters explains how this happened.
Jews can never be hurt by the truth about the Holocaust and must never fear it
To start with, the Allies simply had what they regarded as more important things to do. They didn’t want to spend any time or money catching Nazis. Walters prints a tragi-comic correspondence between a set of war crimes investigators and their superiors in which headquarters declined a request for an English-German dictionary, saying that it was out of print and wouldn’t be available for a year.
The victors were also fighting each other. Nazis were recruited to help fight the Soviets, and thus protected from justice. The Allies were fearful, too, that legal proceedings would expose their own soldiers to liability.
They failed to comprehend the scale of the Nazi crime until the units were disbanded and it was too late. Into the vacuum stepped privateers. And Wiesenthal was the most famous. He did a wonderful thing. He kept the issue in the public eye, kept the memories alive, kept the pressure on.
This made him a secular saint. Until now, criticising Wiesenthal has been the occupation only of cranks and antisemites. Walters is most definitely neither of those. But has he erred by providing them with ammunition? Should Jews welcome his book, or shun it? Very firmly the former, in my view.
Walters’s documentary evidence on Wiesenthal’s inconsistencies and lies is impeccable. He shows how the Nazi hunter’s accounts of his wartime experiences are contradictory and implausible. He demonstrates that he had no role, contrary to his own assertion, in the capture of Adolf Eichmann. He pitilessly dissects Wiesenthal’s overblown claims about the numbers he brought to justice, suggesting it was not much more than a handful.
When you read Hunting Evil, you know its author is telling the truth. And, above all — above everything — the truth matters. The truth however painful, the truth however embarrassing, the truth wherever it takes you. Jews can never be hurt by the truth about the Holocaust and must never fear it, never run away from it.
Ben Barkow, the director of the Wiener Library, the institution that my grandfather established to document the truth, has lent his voice to that of Walters, agreeing that a revaluation of Wiesenthal’s contribution was in order. Barkow argues that a nuanced view is possible. That accepting that Wiesenthal was a showman and a braggart and, yes, even a liar, can live alongside acknowledging the contribution he made.
Surely he is right. But even if he is not, Walters has done a service to history and therefore to Jews.
Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times