Author of 'The Nazis Next Door' on Post-War America as a Haven for Perpetrators

11-1-14 Nazis Next Door
'The Nazis Next Door,' by Eric Lichtblau. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

After the Allies defeated Hitler's Germany in 1945, the Americans quickly turned toward a new enemy: the Soviet Union. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, Nazis and Nazi collaborators not only lied their way into the United States, but in many cases the CIA, FBI, and other agencies also hired them to work as spies and scientists. Officials helped them enter the country and gain citizenship, and protected them when unpleasant rumors and investigations surfaced despite knowing or suspecting deep ties to war crimes and atrocities.

In The Nazis Next Door, published Tuesday, Eric Lichtblau uses declassified documents and interviews to tell the story of how the U.S. became a safe haven for Nazis after the war, recounting one infuriating detail after another. Lichtblau—an investigative reporter in Washington for the New York Times—won a Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting along with James Risen in 2006 for their work on the NSA's secret domestic wiretapping.

In a Q&A, Lichtblau discusses the making of the book on a little-known chapter in post-war history. Edited excerpts:

Where and how did this investigation start?

I did a story for the Times four years ago on a report into Nazis and prosecution of Nazis that the Justice Department had been sitting on for a number of years. They had refused to release it publicly for sort of mysterious reasons. I got hold of that report and a lot of fascinating details about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the efforts by the Justice Department over the last 35 years or so to track down Nazis. And it got into things like the investigations into Nazis who had intelligence ties, some of the problems in prosecutions, cases that collapsed. It was a roadmap almost to what then became the book. It was such a fascinating period in post-war history.

At the beginning of the book you mention the terrible conditions for victims of the Holocaust in Displaced Persons camps, while the Nazis were slipping away to safety.

When I started that didn't even occur to me as something I was going to examine, but I came to realize slowly that that was an important part of the story, not just how easily Nazis and Nazi collaborators had gotten into America, but how much difficulty the survivors had in getting out of the concentration camps. Those two pieces really went together because of the immigration policies at the time. The survivors were living under these horrific conditions. They were still confined behind barbed wire, under armed guard in camps. And this report by Earl Harrison to Truman comparing them to the Nazi concentration camps…

As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.
—Earl Harrison to President Truman

Can you talk a little bit about the narrative that we have both of the Holocaust and its aftermath, how we talk about it in the U.S., how we teach it in schools?

What I try to do is to demythologize our memory of the liberation of the camps, as if the survivors were just welcomed with open arms, which they weren't, and the idea of the conquest of the Nazis, which is sort of only half true: Yes we had defeated them, but we also embraced them in many ways.

With the Nazi scientists, history sort of remembers these guys as having no real connection to the atrocities of the Holocaust, and it's simply untrue. Many of them were directly involved in atrocities, especially in production of the rockets at Mittelwerk [a slave labor camp] that Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph and people like that supervised.

I'm trying to bring a little reality and perspective to this rose-colored view that a lot of people have of the postwar years.

Your book focuses on government and agencies. But you also mention a "Nazi slumber" among the general public. What was the public's attitude in the decades after the war?

You know, it was really remarkable and disheartening to see how little the general public cared about this stuff for the better part of 25 years or more after the war. It wasn't until the 1970s that members of Congress, Elizabeth Holtzman and others, really started banging the drum to do something about this.

You did have people like Chuck Allen, a left-wing journalist who kind of became a hero of mine as I was reporting this out. In the early 60s he was trying to draw attention to these issues. And he was dismissed as a left-wing radical or a communist. Worse, not only was he ignored, but the FBI also wire-tapped him and trailed him for years. No one wanted to hear what he had to say.

You look back and you think what might have been different if, instead of going after these guys as the government did beginning in the late 70s and the early 80s, if they had done it 20-25 years earlier. Hundreds of Nazis would not have lived out their golden years in the United States. It's a travesty.

As a thought experiment, how do you imagine things might have looked if there hadn't been a Cold War after WWII?

Oh I think it would have been completely different. I don't think I would have written this book. Because it all became about going after the Soviets and gathering intelligence on the Soviets. We very quickly forgot about the Nazis as last year's enemy and turned to the Soviets as the new enemy.

It was also the Cold War that kept a lot of the information and the evidence bottled up because so many of the atrocities had taken place during the Holocaust in what then became the Soviet bloc countries. Because of the antagonism between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, we not only weren't sharing that information about Nazi collaborators, about massacres in Lithuania or Estonia, but anything that did emerge publicly was immediately dismissed by J. Edgar Hoover [director of the FBI] and Allen Dulles [head of the CIA] and others. It was immediately poo pooed as Soviet propaganda.

The Cold War ended many years ago. Where are we in this? Particularly with the AP's recently-published investigation about Nazis' getting Social Security payments—how much has changed?

We're at the point where nothing is considered secret anymore the way it was once in terms of hiding Nazi histories. The CIA's files have become public over the last 10-12 years, the Soviet files have all become public over the last 15-20 years or more, and all these skeletons that were in everyone's closet have now come out and we're realizing how deeply involved the U.S. was with Nazis and Nazi collaborators. The deeper I got into this the more shameful I considered this whole episode to be. It's incredibly dispiriting as an American to see how low we sunk as a country.

What are your thoughts about prosecuting former Nazis and collaborators now when they're in their 90s?

It's such a difficult issue. I see it from both sides, like at what point is it just too late—punitive and symbolic rather than achieving some justice? I guess I side with the people who think that it doesn't matter how old they are. If they are physically and mentally able to stand trial and go through a legal proceeding, I think there is some measure of justice in going through that. So that they were held accountable in some way.

What haven't we talked about yet that's important?

One other element of the book that hasn't gotten any attention has to do with the Nazi scientists, particularly about the effort to go after them in the 80s: The Justice Department, for instance, formed a secret Paperclip [Operation Paperclip] team specifically to look at these guys and had about a dozen open files, including on a very prominent doctor in Texas who was implicated in medical atrocities.

In the end, they only ended up prosecuting one guy, but the fact that they had mounted such aggressive investigations hasn't really come out before. I talk in the chapter about the political backlash from the White House, and also from Alabama, where a lot of these scientists were based. I think that certainly had something to do with the failure to prosecute a number of them.

There's a lot of information in the book that is surprising and difficult to swallow. How did you feel going through this material?

It all surprised me in a way. I thought I sort of knew the story going in and then the deeper I got into the research, the angrier I got. You're looking at CIA files that say that so-and-so was involved in minor war crimes, but he'd make a good Soviet spy. A lot of it was written from a place of anger, because you look at these documents and you shake your head and say, 'How the hell could this have happened?'