Only time will tell whether the good news this past week that the Canadian citizenship of Einsatzgruppe D member Helmut Oberlander was again (for the fourth time!) revoked will mark the beginning of a satisfactory conclusion to this very frustrating and infuriating episode in the annals of attempts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.
In certain respects, the Oberlander case is a symbol of the relative futility of Canadian efforts to take legal action against Nazi perpetrators and collaborators who were admitted to Canada during the decade following the end of World War II. To be fair, Canada was not the only country forced to face this issue. In fact, practically all the major Anglo-Saxon countries which fought against the Axis forces during the war made the same mistake of admitting Nazi war criminals afterwards.
In some cases, like in the United States, about 150 of these individuals were actually sought out for their unique expertise, like the Nazi rocket scientists and engineers who worked on the V-2 rockets and other similar projects. At least several dozen others, natives of countries which had come under Communist rule, were chosen for espionage tasks behind the Iron Curtain or as potential CIA agents.
Most of the Nazis’ helpers admitted to the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, however, most of whom were from Eastern Europe, simply posed as innocent refugees fleeing Communism. At this point in time, it was easier to hide their role in the Holocaust, since the common perception in the West was that most of the victims of the Shoa had been murdered in death camps like Auschwitz or concentration camps like Dachau, Mauthausen, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, all of which had been run by Germans and Austrians and liberated by Allied troops.
It was only in the late Sixties and early Seventies that reports began to surface that there were numerous Nazi collaborators among the refugees admitted to Anglo-Saxon democracies in the immediate aftermath of World War II. These revelations were initially publicized in the US, where several members of Congress, particularly Elizabeth Holtzman of Brooklyn and Joshua Eilberg of Philadelphia, took up the cause, and prompted official government investigations which confirmed the existence of a serious problem.
At that point, however, these criminals could not be prosecuted for their crimes, since they had been committed outside the United States, and their victims were not American citizens. So rather than change the Constitution, the US government decided to try these individuals for immigration and naturalization violations (for lying on their immigration and citizenship applications regarding their service in or with the forces of the Third Reich), which were punishable by loss of citizenship and deportation from the country.
Eventually, after a somewhat rocky start, a special agency, called the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), was established in 1979 to handle these cases and the Americans began to win case after case. Their successes focused attention on the important role played by the Nazis’ collaborators in Eastern Europe, which led to similar revelations regarding the entry of Nazi war criminals posing as refugees to Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand, and the establishment of official government inquiries on this issue in each of these countries. Ultimately, all of these countries with the exception of New Zealand passed special legislation to allow criminal prosecution of Nazi war criminals resident in their country, which brings us to the Canadian chapter of the story.
The first case tried in Canada was that of Hungarian gendarmerie captain Imre Finta, who had played a major role in the deportation to Auschwitz in spring 1944 of more than 8,000 Jews from the Hungarian city of Szeged.
Despite the fact that Finta’s sole defense was superior orders, which had hitherto never been accepted in any trial of Nazi war criminals anywhere in the world, and that he had previously lost two libel cases with regard to the same accusations, he was acquitted, and the verdict was subsequently upheld by the Canadian Supreme Court, a decision which doomed criminal prosecution of Nazi perpetrators in Canada to failure. Under these circumstances, the Canadian authorities to their credit did not cease their efforts, but switched to the American model of prosecuting suspected Nazis for immigration and naturalization violations.
The Canadians first applied this remedy in 1994-1995, when they stripped 10 suspected Nazis of citizenship, among them Helmut Oberlander. The next step was to obtain deportation orders against the eight who refused to leave the country voluntarily, as did Hungarian police officer Laszlo Csatary, who helped deport over 15,000 Jews from Kosice to Auschwitz, and Mamertas Maciukas, who served in a Lithuanian murder squad which killed thousands of Jews in Lithuania and Belarus, in actions similar to those carried out by Oberlander’s unit. The problem is, however, that to this day, not a single one of those eight who opted to contest their deportation from Canada has been deported, and in the process, seven have already died in the country.
If one compares the biographic profile of the Nazi war criminals who emigrated to Canada with those who entered the US, their wartime service was virtually the same. Almost all of them hail from Eastern Europe, where collaboration with the Nazis included active participation in mass murder, and they served in similar positions, whether as local security police or murder-squad operatives or camp or ghetto guards. Since both countries apply the same civil rather than criminal remedies, the important question is why have the Americans been so much more successful in maximizing justice than the Canadians? (To date, the US has denaturalized 86 Nazi war criminals and deported, extradited or expelled 67, whereas the number of persons forced to leave Canada because of World War II crimes is less than a dozen.) Perhaps the answer might be that fewer Nazi perpetrators emigrated to Canada, but even if that is true (and no one to this day knows the exact figures for either country), there is a glaring discrepancy between the results achieved in Ottawa and those obtained in Washington.
There are numerous factors which have affected the belated efforts to take legal action against Nazi war criminals in the Anglo-Saxon democracies. Probably the most important has been the existence of political will, which is often dependent on the size and political strength of the local Jewish community on the one hand, and on the other hand of the émigré communities among whose members the suspects are found. Thus in Canada, I think that it would be very difficult to totally discount the fact that the Ukrainians are the country’s largest ethnic minority, and that their leadership, along with that of the emigres from the Baltic countries, vigorously opposed the investigation and prosecution of suspected Nazis.
This might well explain, why the Americans ultimately made special efforts to facilitate prosecution of Nazi war criminals (once the process was finally launched) by, for example, streamlining the appeal process, and there were no equivalent steps taken in Canada.
Thus the good news from Ottawa about the revocation of Oberlander’s citizenship should make us happy, but who knows if he will ever be deported, let alone prosecuted, for his service in one of the most horrific death squads which actively sought to implement the Nazis’ plan for the total annihilation of European Jewry.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs. His most recent book, with Ruta Vanagaite, Musiskiai; Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), has been published in Lithuania and Poland.