US Navy aircraft.
(photo credit: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE)
Judging from the somewhat hysterical headlines last week regarding the recent Associated Press report about deported Nazi war criminals receiving millions in US Social Security payments, one might get the impression that America’s efforts to take legal action against Holocaust perpetrators who escaped to America and settled there after World War II had been a complete failure. The in-depth and detailed AP report did indeed shed light on an unfortunate and truly upsetting dimension of the US campaign to prosecute the Nazi war criminals living in the country, but that is only one aspect of a much more complex reality.
The heart of the problem is actually not that American taxpayers continue to pay Social Security to Nazi war criminals and collaborators who had illegally entered the US and acquired US citizenship, but rather that the solution offered by the American authorities to the presence in their country of Holocaust perpetrators was civil proceedings for immigration and naturalization violations.
According to US law in the mid-Seventies (the period when authorities realized that hundreds of suspected Nazi criminals had entered the country and obtained citizenship), those who committed crimes overseas against non-Americans could not be prosecuted in the US on criminal charges. That meant that unless the law was changed, the only way to get rid of these criminals was to prosecute them for lying on their immigration applications and naturalization applications.
The problem with this solution, however, was that the punishments for such violations were far too lenient for Nazis who had personally participated in mass murder. If there had been countries willing to extradite these individuals, it would not have been a problem, and might even have been a better solution since in that case they could have been tried on criminal charges and given appropriate punishments, either in the countries in which the crimes had been committed, or in those countries which sent these people to commit their crimes.
However, the only country which actively sought to extradite them was the Soviet Union, whose justice system was highly suspect in American eyes, a fact which prevented extradition and even deportation there, with the exception of two cases. As a result, the maximum that the US authorities, in this case the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which had been especially established for this purpose in 1979, could do was to kick these Nazis out of the country, and hope that they might be prosecuted for their crimes somewhere else – a hope that rarely materialized.
Working under these limitations, the OSI enjoyed significant success, winning decisions against a total of 107 Nazi war criminals, 75 of whom were denaturalized and 66 of whom were deported, figures that made it the most successful agency of its kind in the world (albeit with a somewhat easier task than those countries which pursued criminal prosecution).
Now we know that some of those successes came at a price: these Nazi war criminals/collaborators were allowed to retain their Social Security privileges.
But having said that, we must keep in mind several important facts. The first is that in many cases, the most painful aspect of this process for the accused was their public exposure as Nazi criminals in the media, with the accompanying embarrassment of their families, many of whom were not fully familiar with their World War II past. The second was that being forced to leave the US, which in certain cases meant leaving behind their extended family, was also no doubt painful. Certainly not as painful as the fate of their victims, but at least they were not ignored and did suffer some form of punishment; in these cases the maximum mandated by American law.
Third is the fact that the Social Security payments they received are from money that these people had reduced from their earnings while working in the US, not gains from any Holocaust crimes.
In closing, there are two additional very important points which were totally overlooked by the media in its coverage of this issue.
The US was not the only Anglo-Saxon democracy to admit Nazi war criminals posing as innocent refugees after World War II (aside from German rocket scientists and Eastern European potential spies behind the Iron Curtain who were knowingly brought to America and given citizenship). The same problem existed in Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand, all of whom admitted large numbers of the exact same type of Holocaust perpetrators, who fled prosecution in their countries of origin, which had been liberated by the Red Army and were either incorporated into the Soviet Union or under Communist domination.
The Americans were the first country of refuge to take legal measures against these criminals, and it was the Americans’ success which played an important role in ultimately convincing each of these countries to initially investigate the issue, which led three (Canada in 1987, Australia in 1989 and Great Britain in 1991) passing special legislation to allow criminal prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators found living in them.
In addition, the OSI’s many successes helped focus attention on the extremely critical role played by the Nazis’ Eastern European collaborators in the implementation of the Final Solution together with the Einsatzgruppen mobile killing units, which was far less well known than the crimes committed in the death camps in Poland. This has proved helpful in combating the current efforts of the Baltic states to try to minimize or whitewash the role of their nationals in Holocaust crimes.
The Associated Press did a service to the American public by exposing the ongoing Social Security payments to Nazi war criminals no longer living in the US, but that unfortunate fact should not erase the important achievements of the Office of Special Investigations which exposed and punished numerous Holocaust perpetrators, to the extent possible in the United States.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. From 1980-1986, he worked as a researcher in Israel for the OSI, an experience described in his most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan). His website is www.operationlastchance.org and he can be followed on Facebook and Twitter@EZuroff