If you are writing a book about the people who hunted down the Nazis after the Second World War, the one figure it is impossible to ignore is Simon Wiesenthal, the man who became legendary for tracking down war criminals, earning two Nobel Prize nominations in the process.
However, Guy Walters, the author of Hunting Evil, a new book which documents how and where leading Nazis escaped to and the rather inadequate attempts of the Allied powers to track them down, does not buy into the mythology. He feels very strongly that contribution of the Austrian-born Holocaust survivor, who died in 2005, has been vastly over-estimated.
Over coffee in a central London hotel, Walters, a former Times journalist and the author of six books on the Second World War, explains that when he looked into Wiesenthal’s claims they simply did not add up. “I came to this book with no agenda about Wiesenthal apart from the generally held view that he was a great man — a kind of secular saint. I found it profoundly annoying to discover that much of what he had written was absolutely self-contradictory.
“Every time he told a story, it changed. He made terrible mistakes over the whereabouts of Josef Mengele. He claimed credit for the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, when in the 1950s it was clear that he believed Eichmann was in Germany or Austria, not Argentina. And he also made a lot of false and unsubstantiated allegations.”
Wiesenthal, alleges Walters, also made false statements about his past. “Wiesenthal lied about having two degrees. His stories about his time with the partisans in the war contradict each other — in some accounts he was with one group, in some accounts he was in another, and he survived a bewildering number of near-death experiences, some of them medically implausible.
“Bruno Kreisky, the former Austrian Chancellor, said he was a Gestapo collaborator. Wiesenthal took him to court on that and won. I don’t make that claim but there is certainly a mysterious period in the war when he comes back from a spell with the partisans but is not executed by the Nazis. Is it possible that in order to save his skin, he had gone on a spying mission? I can’t verify that. It’s pure conjecture. But there are holes in his accounts, and it’s possible he could have cut a deal.”
Walters’s nervousness about the revelations in his book stem from the fact that he knows they will be pounced upon by “antisemitic bastards” and Holocaust deniers. “Sometimes the truth is inconvenient. This does not mean you should ignore it. I hate the fact that fake historians like David Irving have hijacked the term ‘revisionist’. Proper historians should be constantly looking to revise an accepted view of history, based on new evidence.”
Walters’s claims over Wiesenthal are backed up by weighty authorities, among them Neal Sher, the director of the United States Office of Special Investigations, whose 1990 letter admonishing Wiesenthal for the quality of his leads is published in the book. Sher wrote: “The bottom line is that, to my knowledge, no allegation which has originated from your office has resulted in a court filing by OSI.”
So did Wiesenthal achieve anything at all? Walters contemplates for a moment. “In the post-war years, the Israelis had comparatively meagre resources to go out chasing Nazis. The Germans were not doing much. It was not the job of the Americans to hunt them. And Interpol contentiously said it was not their job to hunt Nazis because the crimes were ‘political’. The result is that you get this shambling, scatty bloke saying: ‘Well, OK, I’ll do it.’ Fair play to him, but he was an amateur.
“The Simon Wiesenthal Centre says they hunted down 1,100 Nazis. The true figure is more like 10. But that’s a positive contribution — he did a lot more than most people have done. He also raised awareness of the Holocaust and he alerted the world that there were Nazis on the run. However, he hoodwinked a lot of people about his achievements. And there was shocking stuff, including the fact that he knew that the United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim was a war criminal but did not publicise it because he wanted him to win the Austrian presidential election.”
Another myth which Walter feels needs to be crushed concerns the Odessa organisation, made famous by novelist Frederick Forsyth, that was said to protect former members of the SS. “It was an invention. There was no formal network. The more I went to archives and talked to former Nazis, the more it became apparent that it was simply rubbish.”
There is also the disturbing revelation that, after the war, MI6 employed Friedrich Buchardt, a war criminal who was “a monster” according to Walters. Buchardt was a senior officer in one of the Einsatzgruppen — SS units charged with the systematic murder of Jews throughout Eastern Europe. Says Walters: “He was an intelligent man with academic qualifications. While in prison after the war, he produced an enormous document about the Russians. This became almost an MI6 manual for how to deal with the Soviet Union and bought him his freedom. It is not clear how long he spent working for MI6, but he certainly worked for us and probably went on to work for the CIA.”
Buchardt eventually died peacefully in 1982. His whereabouts and the extent of his crimes were well known to the British and American authorities, according to Walters.
Of course, other countries sheltered more Nazis than did the British. Walters estimates that Argentina, Syria and Egypt were the main culprits. In the case of Peronist Argentina, there was also “political empathy between them and the Nazis”, and they offered a home to former Nazis including Adolf Eichmann — despite the fact he had no contribution to make. Walters says: “Eichmann was a drunkard — a useless and pathetic little man, who didn’t make a success of himself after the war. The house in which he lived didn’t have electricity. Others, notably Mengele, lived in some comfort, but then his family had loads of money. Mengele is still a big name tractor manufacture in Germany.”
Clearly, 65 years after the end of the Second World War, there are few Nazi war criminals of note still alive. However, in researching his book, Walters spoke to Erich Priebke, who is under permanent house arrest in Rome for the reprisal murders of 235 Italian prisoners. “He was very unrepentant in many ways,” he says.
He also doorstepped “in a very tabloidy way” a woman called Erna Wallisch, who was a camp guard at Majdanek and Ravensbruck. It was not difficult to track her down. “I went to the Vienna online phone directory and there she was. I thought I’d interview her, so I got on a plane, found a friendly Austrian journalist and went off to see her. She answered the door but didn’t want to talk. We lobbied the Austrian government pretty hard on why they were doing nothing about her — they were not co-operative.
“Wallisch died last year but I felt mildly proud that I had been able to make her aware that, even at the end of her life, her crimes had not been forgotten.”