Maybe I'm sensitized to this because I've spent the last few weeks reading about Nazis — not everyone's taste in beach reading, but it's worked for my summer vacation.
I was prowling my late father's bookshelves and re-read Simon Wiesenthal's Murderers Among Us about the famed Nazi-hunter's efforts to track down war criminals. I followed that with three books that looked at the role of the media in the rise of Hitler: reporter William Shirer's classic Berlin Diary and his novel about an American journalist-turned-Nazi-symp, The Traitor, which explores the issues of journalistic co-optation. And lastly, Howard K. Smith's memoir Last Train From Berlin, which picks up the experience of an American reporter in Hitler's capital during the last year before the U.S. was in the war. It ends with Smith luckily (and unknowingly) skipping town the day before Pearl Harbor transformed the American press corps in Germany from "neutrals" to the enemy.
So, I admit, I've got Nazis on the brain, but every day for the last few weeks, I've spotted news stories related to the very issues I've been reading about. They range from the merely curious to the truly significant, and make me think that the reverberations of the "Thousand-Year Reich" might actually be felt for that long.
In Denmark, some people have discovered what amount to Nazi time capsules: hidden, sealed, furnished bunkers from the German occupation of World War II that look today just as they did when the soldiers left them hurriedly more than 60 years ago. We hear of a lawsuit won by the son of a famous British fascist who was said to have participated in Nazi-themed orgies. And speaking of famous sons, when you sit down to watch the Beijing Olympics or read about China's human rights record (at home, Tibet, or Sudan), think about this: The Chinese hired the son of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, to create the "master plan" for their games. Yes, these games are brought to you by Albert Speer, Jr., just as the 1936 Berlin Olympics were presented by Albert Speer, Sr. You could not make this up.
Such is the fascination with things Nazi that the New Statesman recently ran a piece about the enduring appeal of "Nazi chic."
But as the stories remind us, removed as we are from the World War II era, there are still real Nazis among us. In his 1966 book, Wiesenthal said that he felt he was working against time and that most of the big fish were caught, off the hook, or dead. But the ensuing decades have shown that there are still plenty of little fish around — even a few of not-so-little ones.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center is pushing Operation Last Chance, which is the effort to track down the remaining criminal Nazi bigwigs that have escaped justice. Headlines were made in late July regarding a search for Aribert Heim, a death doctor at the Mauthausen concentration camp who is said to have decorated his office with the body parts of his victims. Heim is believed to be alive, hiding near the border of Chile and Argentina, and of age 96. The roster of death-camp higher-ups is just about wiped clean of the living. On July 22 of this year, the Los Angeles Times ran the obituary of the last known living concentration camp commander. But some of the significant henchmen, like Heim, may still be lurking.
If any of this seems remote, it shouldn't after the revelation just a few weeks ago that an 86-year-old retiree in Bellevue is alleged by the U.S government to be a former member of the Nazi SS in what was then Yugoslavia. The man's name is Peter Egner, and the government is seeking to revoke his citizenship and deport him. On Aug. 4, it was reported that the U.S. Office of War Crimes was sending its file on Egner to authorities in Belgrade and will visit Serbia in September to discuss his possible extradition. Egner says he is innocent and never hurt anyone.
Is the U.S. government simply tormenting an old man? As reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
'The Nazi unit in which Peter Egner is alleged to have participated was responsible for countless deaths and unimaginable human suffering,' said Acting Assistant Attorney General Matthew Friedrich in a statement released Tuesday. 'By bringing this action today, we again declare our unwavering commitment to the principle that participants in Nazi crimes should not be afforded the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship.'
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was unapologetic. 'Why go after a person who's 86? For the simple reason that there's no time limit when it comes to crimes against humanity,' he said. 'What they did from 9 to 5 every day before they sat down to dinner was murder innocent people. Every day, that was their full-time job. If you're a mass murderer and you've killed hundreds or thousands of people, and you're clever enough to hide out, you should be given a reprieve — a free pass — just because you're 86?'
Two things make it impossible to ignore the Peter Egner situation. One is the history of the unit to which he allegedly belonged, the Einsatzgruppen. These were mobile killing units — death camps on wheels — that went into Nazi occupied areas and killed Jews, Gypsies, and others. Their signature technique was the so-called "de-lousing" van, which killed their passengers with carbon monoxide pumped in from the running engine. Here's how it worked, according to Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy by Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth:
The fate of these remaining Serbian Jews was sealed when [Serbia's SS head Harald] Turner requested that Berlin send a gas van to kill them. Except for Sundays, every day between March and May 1942 fifty to eighty women and children were told that they were being transported to a better camp. They were seated in the gas van and their baggage was placed in a separate truck. After a short drive the van stopped, and one of the two drivers pulled a switch that redirected the exhaust fumes into the van's interior.
Enger is alleged to have served in the Einsatzgruppen from 1941 to 1943. He is suspected of being involved in the deaths of more than 11,000 people at the Semelin concentration camp in Belgrade. The SS was so pleased with the effectiveness of their efforts in Serbia, that Turner famously bragged that "Ã¢'ê¬Â¦Serbia is [the] only country that has solved [the] problem of the Jews and gypsies."
Another reason is that Serbia is dealing with its own more recent history of genocide as we speak. Radovan Karadzic, who gave us the term "ethnic cleansing," has been caught and sent to The Hague to be tried for war crimes. Genocide, even in Europe, is not a thing of the past. Those who carry on the traditions of the Siberian Einsatzgruppen are still around, still justifying mass murder as a mere exercise in hygiene. Many Serbian nationalists still defend Karadzic's actions. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy who negotiated an end to the Bosnian war, recently commented that Karadzic would have made a "good Nazi." Continuing to pursue cases against original Nazis is essential if we're going to hold their modern-day counterparts to account.
Some people toss around Nazi analogies freely these days, from editorialists for the Building Industry Association of Washington to Oregon anarchists like John Zerzan, who apparently coined the term "little Eichmanns" when referring to the Unabomber's victims. It was later outrageously applied by Ward Churchill to some of the "technicians" in the World Trade Center who died on 9/11.
But there's no need to stretch the definition of Nazi when there are still real Little Eichmanns around. The Nazis living today may have mostly been smaller cogs in the killing machine, but they're worth rooting out, even if it turns out they live peacefully in a Bellevue retirement co-op called Silver Glen. Remember it was SS-ObersturmbannfÃÂ¼hrer Adolph Eichmann, mild mannered architect of the Final Solution, who came to personify the "banality of evil." That banality offers a great hiding place, but it's no excuse for letting evil off the hook.