This fascinating account of the Nazi criminals who slipped through the net of justice in the immediate aftermath of World War II – and of those who attempted to track them down – will fill in the gaps for those of us who know the story mainly through popular mythology, whether Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File or The Marathon Man.
Selecting a representative handful of Nazi war criminals – among them Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl – Walters describes their flight from Germany and reveals those who helped them escape and make new lives abroad. That thousands were actively involved in aiding these mass murderers comes as an unpleasant surprise. Right-wing and anti-communist groups and individuals enthusiastically threw themselves into the task, with many from the Roman Catholic Church in Spain and Italy in the forefront of these operations. Thus, the Croatian fascist leader Ante Pavelić – a paradigm of crazed viciousness, possibly responsible for as many as 700,000 deaths – was given safe haven by clergy in Italy before being spirited away to Argentina, where he was welcomed by Juan Perón and given a role of security advisor to the Argentinean leader.
Other prominent Nazi criminals were exploited by the various Allied intelligence services – American, British and Soviet – providing information in exchange for freedom. Such trade-offs, even if possibly justified, leave a bitter taste in the mouth, and it is certainly hard to see what Claus Barbie could have provided US Army counter intelligence to set against the horrifying list of crimes he had committed as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’. Almost as depressing was the lack of political will shown by the various Allied governments in tracking down these people when their crimes were still very current. A seeming burst of interest in recent years has often failed to bring the remaining monsters fully to book; they have manipulated the legal system to evade justice through statutes of limitation and respect for the age of the accused – considerations, needless to say, never enjoyed by their victims.
Many of those who actually began the task of tracking down the Nazis in their sanctuaries operated outside of governmental agencies. The most famous was Simon Wiesenthal, who, Walters reminds us, was lavished with honours, his ‘standing that of a secular saint’. Yet Walters does not hesitate to tear Wiesenthal from his lofty position. While recognising that he did much to raise the public awareness of the issues, Walters concludes that his ‘reputation is built on sand. He was a liar, and a bad one at that.’ Such was Wiesenthal’s love of a good tale, with its author at the centre of things, that he proved as much a hindrance as a help in finding the Nazi fugitives. Others were more effective, however. The husband and wife team of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld were relentless in their pursuit of the wrongdoers, despite attempts on their lives, and among several high profile successes they identified Barbie in hiding in Bolivia (eventually extradited to spend his final years in a French jail).
There is a refreshingly astringent iconoclasm in Walters’ approach. He wastes no time in dispersing the many conspiracy theories that befog the subject, not least the hoary myth of Martin Bormann surviving the Bunker to conveniently relocate in Buenos Aires. He also puts the Odessa legend into its true context: not as a sinister, all-encompassing Nazi network but, at most, a loose description for the groups that smuggled Nazis out of Germany.
Walters is a natural story teller and in this considered but passionate account of one of the more unpleasant and bizarre tales to come out of World War II he convincingly demonstrates that, at times, truth can be a great deal stranger than fiction.
Bantam Books, 702 pages, £7.99 (p/b); Bantam Press, 528 pages, £18.99 (h/b)
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