Murray Polner: Review of Richard Rashke's "Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals" (Delphinium, 2013)

tags: Nazis, Murray Polner, United States, war criminals, CIA, Richard Rashke

Murray Polner, a regular HNN book reviewer, wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and When Can We Come Home, about Vietnam War resisters.

When new employee John Loftus first arrived at the Office of Special Investigations, a component of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice formed to track down some of the thousands of war criminals who had entered the country after World War II, his supervisor greeted him -- so he reports in his 2010 book America's Nazi Secret -- by saying “welcome to the Department of Justice. You now represent the most corrupt client in the world -- the United States government” 

An exaggeration, of course, but it’s a judgment  replicated in many ways in Richard Rashke’s Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America's Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, a meticulously researched and nuanced study explaining how, in the name of furthering the holy war against communism, the U.S. deliberately allowed Nazi war criminals to enter the country while deliberately ignoring their complicity in mass murder and torture. Rashke is the author of The Killing of Karen Silkwood, about the labor organizer and reputed whistleblower who died in a puzzling auto accident, and Escape From Sobibor, which dealt with the break out of hundreds of Jewish prisoners in 1943. In Useful Enemies, he relies heavily on trial transcripts, interviews, whistleblowers, documents wrested from FOI requests, and assiduous study of available texts:

Several thousand SS and SD officers; Gestapo officers, agents, and chiefs; Abwehr intelligence officersl Nazi propagandists and scientists; Einsatzcommandos [specialists in mass killings of civilians, especially East European Jews]; Waffen-SS volunteers, Vlasov’s legions [captured ex-Red Army soldiers, who fought for the Germans]; Nazi quislings and ethnic cleansers, all were welcomed and protected.

General Reinhard Gehlen, for example, served as the Wehrmacht’s intelligence commander in Germany’s war in the east against the Soviet Union. Ever the cynical opportunist, Gehlen turned American agent, employing a very large number of once loyal Nazis and assorted criminals to spy on the USSR and its satellites. He then proceeded to fill America's intelligence community with wild tales about Stalin’s imminent invasion of West Germany. Rashke quotes Victor Marchetti, a onetime CIA military analyst and later critic (see his expose The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence) who wrote “The agency [CIA] loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear. We used his stuff constantly, and we fed to everybody else: the Pentagon, the White House, the newspapers. They loved it, too. But it was hyped up Russian Boogeyman junk, and it did a lot of damage to this country.”

But was it reasonable to hire Nazi war criminals and collaborators and also welcome thousands of them into the U.S. when our foreign policy elites and intelligence agencies believed the nation faced the grave threat of a catastrophic Soviet-U.S. nuclear war? Was it nothing more than a shrewd, tough, and necessary option to detect and defeat a treacherous enemy’s moves? Or was it, as Tim Weiner wrote in his classic Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA:  “By 1949 the United States was ready to work with almost any son of a bitch against Stalin.” Or as Rashke asks, was the whole enterprise unnecessary, unlawful and morally wrong?

Useful Enemies is not a Manichean telling of who was or was not a war criminal, for he raises difficult legal and philosophical questions about the meaning of collaboration. Was, for example, the SS officer working in a concentration camp office a collaborator or a war criminal? And what of the many Baltic, Byelorussian and Ukrainian volunteers who assisted the homicidal Einsatzgruppen, killers of  some 1.5 million Jews, Gypsies, partisans, political enemies, Jehovah Witnesses and communists? Or those who chose to work for the Waffen-SS? Quoting a German source, Rashke describes a German colonel stationed in Lithuania gazing on as civilians publicly clubbed a group of men to death while fellow Lithuanians cheered and joined in singing their national anthem. So, Rashke asks, ‘Is watching the murder of civilians and doing  nothing about working with the Nazis?” or “Is jeering and spitting on the prisoners marching through the village of Dachau to the SS concentration camp located there working with the Nazis?” 

“Under the guise of national security,” Rashke writes, “and based on false assumptions and misguided Cold War pragmatism, the U.S. allowed itself to be duped into becoming an international employment agency for Nazi war criminals and terrorists.” Rashke charges the U.S. spent years prosecuting John Demjanjuk, a minor Ukrainian peasant and captured Red Army soldier turned SS guard in the Sobibor death camp. He was certainly no angel and when he arrived in the U.S. he lied on his entry card, omitting his role as a guard. He was falsely or mistakenly charged as being Ivan the Terrible, an especially vicious camp sadist, a case that lasted 34 years in U.S., Israeli and German courts, and was  “a perfect diversion for the American intelligence establishment with secrets to hide.”

After the U.S. finally deported him for lying about his work as a Sobibor SS guard on his citizenship application papers, he was sent to Israel in 1986, which is where Rashke brilliantly reports on court proceedings, related events and the people involved. In a case that lasted a year, amidst almost universal and understandable hatred for anyone associated with the Nazis, Rashke found two intrepid Israeli Jewish defense lawyers who faced a hostile judge and personal attacks. One of the lawyers was found dead, officially and controversially declared a suicide. The second lawyer’s eyes were splashed with acid by a concentration camp survivor.

Still, an Israeli appellate court rejected the lower court’s death sentence and Demjanjuk was returned to the U.S. In 2008 he was dispatched to Germany where he was again found guilty, sentenced to five years for his role as a concentration camp guard in Sobibor, and perhaps in other camps as well, but not for being Ivan the Terrible, who it turned out was another Ukrainian named Ivan Marchenko. Demjanjuk died in Germany in March 2012 before his appeal could be heard.

Recently declassified documents, Rashke writes, revealed that Hoover’s FBI, the State Department, the Pentagon, the INS and the CIA  “opened a wide door” for Nazis and their collaborators and sheltered them in the name of Cold War anti-communism. That Moscow would have done the same is irrelevant because of America’s often- proclaimed morality and values. Rashke describes in excruciating detail the men and one woman -- Hermine Braunsteiner -- who committed ghastly crimes during the war and suffered no recriminations afterward -- one even taught at Yale. One of many was Valerian Trifa, a Romanian pro-Nazi Iron Guard leader, whose members “hung Jews on hooks in a meatpacking plant and skinned them alive” while they “raped, stoned and decapitated.” Trifa was welcomed first in Italy, where he became a history teacher at a Roman Catholic college, emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, and was later ordained and consecrated as a priest and bishop by the Romanian Orthodox Church before finally deported in 1982 for omitting his Iron Guard role when he first arrived. When Charles Kremer, a Romanian-born dentist in New York City, wrote Presidents Johnson and Nixon demanding an investigation of Trifa, the FBI -- iin an effort to protect Trifa -- opened a ten-year long investigation of the dentist. Useful Enemies is filled with similar cases, some considerably worse. Most men were never tried and were allowed to live out their American lives in peace.

Read together with Christopher Simpson’s Blowback,  Richard Breitman and Norman J.W. Goda’s seminal Hitler’s Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War and Breitman, Goda, Timothy Naftali, and Robert Wolfe's U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis, Rashke’s engrossing and significant book about moral complicity with monsters in the name of national security cannot be easily dismissed.

comments powered by Disqus