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'Hitler’s Shadow' Shows How War Criminals Escaped Justice

AU history professor Richard Breitman

Within days of the release of Hitler’s Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War, hundreds of media outlets, from the New York Times to the Jerusalem Post and CNBC, had run stories on the 101-page report.

Coauthored by AU’s Richard Breitman, a history professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, Hitler’s Shadow is based on newly declassified and analyzed government documents. It is available online at the National Archives Web site.

Why has the report’s release caused such a stir?

“People regard Nazi Germany as one of the most tragic episodes in history, certainly in modern history, and the Nazis . . . have come to be seen as symbols of evil,” says Breitman. “So the question is . . . can we get full and accurate depictions of what happened in Nazi Germany and to Nazi officials after 1945? And in that regard the release of what is really millions of pages of new material is really important.”

Again and again, the report documents how Western intelligence agencies declined to prosecute war criminals — often men responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews and others, and some who had killed captured Allied soldiers. Instead, these men, implicated in monstrous crimes, were used as pieces on a global Cold War chessboard.

A sampling of the rogue’s gallery of war criminals that Hitler’s Shadow tracks:

  • Wilhelm Beisner. One of a cadre of Nazis who escaped prosecution and even thrived after the war in the Middle East. The report notes that this group “played important roles in the systematic killing of millions of Jews, and they continued to fulminate about Jewish influence decades later.”
  • Haj Amin al-Husseini. The notorious Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and fervent anti-Jewish Arab leader who received a fortune in Nazi payments, as well as refuge in Germany, and who in spring 1945 with the war’s outcome no longer in doubt signed a contract for subsidies up to 12,000 marks per month to continue his and the Nazis’ shared political and ideological campaign after the war.
  • Rudolph Milner. A Gestapo member who was responsible for the execution of perhaps thousands of suspected Polish resisters, and who also had a role in deporting 8,000 Danish Jews to Auschwitz. Used as an intelligence resource, it is possible that he was shielded from extradition by U.S. forces; he later fled to Argentina.

The use of war criminals for intelligence now seems unthinkable. But in an interview, Breitman noted that crimes against peace — the fact that Germany had dragged the world into war — and not crimes against humanity were the main focus of the Nuremberg trials. Tracking war criminals was not a high U.S. government priority, and a 1953 document, written by an official in response to an effort to find Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann, noted that the CIA was “not in the business of apprehending war criminals, hence in no position to take an active role in this case.”

“I think some of the officials at the time shifted rather quickly their focus from what had happened in Germany to the next enemy,” Breitman said. “Insofar as they thought of Gestapo people as intelligence experts they made all kinds of exceptions to what was supposed to be the general policy of not using Gestapo people. They didn’t have a lot of sources on communists themselves, communists in Germany, communists in Eastern Europe, experts on communists in the Soviet Union, and you could call it desperation, or you could call it just very narrow, short-term thinking. They wanted people who were going to be useful against the current and future enemy.”