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, had run stories on the provocative 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 a trove of government documents Breitman helped declassify and analyze.
“People regard Nazi Germany as one of the most tragic episodes in history, certainly in modern history, and the Nazis are seen as symbols of evil,” Breitman said, explaining media interest in the report. “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 millions of pages of new material is really important.”
Their stories and others illustrate a pattern of U.S. intelligence agencies using war criminals as pieces on a global Cold War chessboard instead of forcing them to face the consequences of their monstrous crimes.
Employing war criminals in a cynical game of cloak and dagger now seems unthinkable. But our moral repugnance may be based on false assumptions about Allied priorities following World War II. In the popular imagination, the Nuremberg trials were a courtroom drama in which sadistic Nazi death camp commandants finally received their just rewards. The reality is more complex.
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, Breitman notes. Tracking war criminals was simply not a high U.S. government priority. In a 1953 document quoted in the report, a document written in response to an effort to find Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann, an official 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 rather quickly shifted their focus from what had happened in Germany to the next enemy,” Breitman says. “They thought of Gestapo people as intelligence experts [and] made all kinds of exceptions to what was supposed to be the general policy of not using [them]. 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. 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.
What did U.S. spymasters get for their deal with the Devil? Not much. The value of the intelligence these war criminals provided could never approach the damage Allies sustained from their betrayal by double agents in their employ.
While researching the report, Breitman pored through nearly all of the 1.2 million pages of records from the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA. Agencies were generally cooperative during the process of sifting through documents, he said. But their default response was often — when in doubt, classify.
Which highlights the stakes of this kind of research and its value to future generations.
“As time passes, the immediacy of the need for confidentiality passes and the public needs to understand what happens, that you can’t write good history unless you have access to the critical records,” Breitman says. “So this is a plea for declassification of older government records on a fuller scale than normally occurs. We got this stuff only because of the special law from Congress [the 1998 Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act] that was far more powerful than any previous declassification measure. I hope Congress will think seriously about other laws for historical material.”
Hitler’s Shadow: Nazi War Criminals, U.S. Intelligence, and the Cold War is available online at the National Archives.