Remarks before the Nazi War Criminals Interagency Working Group
In World War II, Winston Churchill made his now famous statement: "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." While Churchill’s remark perhaps refers more to deception and subterfuge, it does, at the very least, imply that truth is such a precious commodity that it should be zealously guarded lest it fall into the wrong hands.
Churchill’s maxim has, since World War II, taken on the force of law. For over 50 years we have lived in a society that operated on a "need to know" basis. Our bodyguards have indeed guarded the truth; or, more accurately, the truth has been guarded from us. In the name of unspecified "national security concerns," or in the name of protecting individual rights and reputations, the files have been kept sealed.
What secrets are hidden in these files – obviously we do not know that yet. But, we can perhaps get an idea if we just consider some possibilities. A recent report in a London newspaper described the story of Erhard Dabringhaus. Dabringhaus was an U.S. Army (CIC) intelligence officer in post-war Germany. During the years between 1946 and 1952 he helped recruit agents that served as a backbone of what would become the CIA. One prime area of recruitment was involved Nazis – even more specifically, SS men. Perhaps the most infamous of these men was Klaus Barbie, also known as "The Butcher of Lyon." He was responsible for the deportation of 7,500 people, participated in 4,342 murders and was involved in the arrest and torture of 14,311 resistance fighters. Barbie was finally tracked down in the early 1980s and died in a French prison, but not before the exposure of his past also forced the exposure of U.S. involvement in the recruitment and protection of Nazis. A 1983 report by Alan Ryan, the then outgoing head of OSI, detailed the use by U.S. intelligence of Barbie, including his escape via the Rat Line. This line was an escape route from Europe to South America, a line that included assistance from a Croatian priest in the Vatican. Ryan concluded that "no other case was found where a suspected Nazi war criminal was placed in the rat line, or where the rat line was used to evacuate a person wanted…" (This assertion is far from being the final word on that point.) But, he did find, "that officers of the CIC engaged in obstruction of justice… although "prosecution is moot because of the statute of limitations").
Dabringhaus, Barbie’s control, published a little noticed book about his experience, and the matter seemed to end with the assumption that a relatively small number of Nazis had been recruited by the U.S.
However, the story published last month (May 22) in the Times of London detailed a different picture, one with serious implications. According to this article, Dabringhaus, who died last year, left a legacy of files that contained dramatic revelations. These revelations indicate that:
- Dabringhaus alone recruited hundreds of Nazis, specifically SS men (The Times story estimated that a third of SS officers were ultimately protected by the U.S.)
- These Nazis operated into the 1960s (at least);
- Some of these Nazis recruited for U.S. intelligence "continued to kill or persecute Jews" as participants in Stalin’s antisemitic purges;
- Dabringhaus was once ordered to kill British agents in order to protect Barbie;
- SS men continued to work for the CIA in Latin America, teaching and using the techniques of torture developed under Hitler.
The implications are staggering. Did the U.S. protect Nazi murderers, even as they continued their murderous activities, while our government denied any knowledge of these people? Did we rely upon information and evaluations by these murderers to help formulate our foreign policy during the height of the Cold War? Did we cover up their activities in repressive regimes in Latin America? What connections, if any, exist between the original Nazis and their current heirs?
And, it is not only the questions listed above that need answering. We know that our space program was aided in its development by Nazi scientists, recruited in Operation Paperclip, scientists who utilized slave labor in their work on the v-rockets and other programs. We know that Nazi murderers and Nazi collaborators were used and protected, and even sheltered here in the United States. But, we do not know how many, or what impact they had on U.S. policy. We do not know how many of these people evaded justice, or continued on their path of prejudice and persecution, protected by agents of our government, and sheltered under a cloak of secrecy. Nor can we be sure we know everything that we should know about Kurt Waldheim, and how a Nazi could become Secretary-General of the United Nations. We have mentioned the Rat Line, an escape route for Nazis with Vatican connections (not run by the Vatican, but by a Croatian priest attached to a seminary there), but, as is well known, many unanswered questions remain about the role of the Vatican then. Answers, and perhaps even more questions, can be resting in these archives that are to be unsealed.
I have attempted to sketch only some of the issues that might be addressed by the opening of the files. Of course, many more, such as those related to gold and material goods, can also be aided by this procedure. Ryan’s 1983 report concluded that "Justice delayed is justice denied." Those words were published 16 years ago! How many Nazi war criminals and murderers have had their meeting with justice delayed, and ultimately denied because documents were as Dabringhaus wrote, "conviently missing," hidden and sealed in United States archives? While the delay of over 50 years since the end of the war has, inexcusably, allowed war criminals and mass murderers to evade justice, to hide in the U.S., and perhaps even influence and effect U.S. policy and the lives of untold numbers throughout the world, at least now we can say that this attempt to open the record stands as a vital, courageous and necessary response. But this effort must be multinational in scope and so archives in Germany, Russia and other countries must be brought into this effort. And while justice may ultimately be lacking, at least we will have a more complete record, including a record of our mistakes, from which we can learn. The late Isaiah Berlin wrote that "The conception of man as an actor… lies at the heart of all truly historical study." To learn how to act, how to behave, we must learn and know our history, to its fullest extent. The opening of these archives is a significant step towards that self-knowledge, and one that could and should be both welcomed and used as a model for other subjects and societies.
1 Anthrony Cave Brown "Bodyguard of Lies" New York, 1975, p.432
2 "The U.S. protected almost one-third of the most senior SS officers" Daniel Moore, London Times, May 22, 1999
3 Erhard Dabringhause, Klaus Barbie, Washington. 1974, p.10
4Alan Ryan, Klaus Barbie and the U.S. Government: A Report to the Attorney General of the United States, August, 1983, p. 212.
5 Ibid., p. 214.
6 Cited in E. Dabringhaus, p.162 [ Research Papers ]