Most of the tales of WWII focus on the soldiers and the leaders of the countries at war. For myself, I’ve always been more fascinated by the stories of those who operated without direct backing from government and military, like the French Resistance fighters or the Nazi Hunters. And certainly many tales about these individuals have been exaggerated, both by storytellers wanting to create the most exciting yarn possible and by the heroes themselves. But there was a truth that inspired the fiction.
I must admit that much of my knowledge about the Nazi hunters was based primarily on novels, films, and dramatized versions of history. Andrew Nagorski’s The Nazi Hunters was my first real, ‘non-fiction’ look at the true story behind the mythmaking, and the men who refused to let war criminals slip into obscurity.
One of the most interesting things learned from Nagorski’s book is how unpopular the idea of Nazi hunters were. I’m young, I was not around during the Eichmann trial or when the topic of escaping Nazi war criminals was still a hot topic. I’d always assumed that most the world wanted to see the Nazis brought to justice. This apparently wasn’t the case. Many wanted to leave the past where it was, fearful that drudging up ugly events would prevent the world’s healing. To me, this sounds more sympathetic to the villains than the victims.
The men and women who hunted Nazis across the globe were not willing to allow the past to be forgotten. Many of the hunters had lost family to the Nazis and felt their dearly departed deserved justice. What’s interesting is that, despite many operating as individuals, they often handed the Nazis over to official parties. Very rarely, it seems, were the Nazi war criminals executed without a trial.
The trials make up a good portion of Nogorksi’s book. And again, the world had conflicting reactions to the idea of putting Nazis (some of them bosses, some underlings) on trial for murder and war crimes. Most of the Nazis refused to be apologetic, instead trying to make it seem like they were not the monsters the Jews were looking for. The Nazis, now out of uniform and without a mad army behind them, appeared quite weak and powerless. “The banality of evil,” is a phrase brought up again and again to describe these men. To me, this makes them more frightening. You can spot a wild mad man in a crowd. But a boring guy who’s willing to commit atrocities based on his beliefs (or on his superior’s beliefs) is a monster that can hide among us.
One of the captured Nazis said something along the lines of, “I am over it. If they’re not, that’s their problem.” To me, that’s what I’ll take away from this book most of all: the fact that the murderers thought it was their right to go on living their lives in peace after the war — that WWII was an event which belonged in the past and was no longer a part of them. Victims have longer memories. The Nazi Hunters is an endlessly compelling book, one which strips away the fiction of heroes and monsters and presents them as human beings. It’s a book about dedicated professionals, some of whom continued their hunts for many decades, sometimes competing against rival hunters and sometimes facing grief for their troubles. Now, in 2016, most of the hunters and the hunted are dying away with the passage of time. Their stories do, finally, belong in the past. But it must not be forgotten. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, so they say.
Andrew Nagorski's The Nazi Hunters will be available on May 10th. You can pre-order the book on hardcover or Kindle ebook from Amazon today.
*I received an ebook copy of The Nazi Hunters from the publishers in exchange for an honest review*
Writer of horror, science fiction, and dark fantasy. Lover of books and film. Lifelong Godzilla fan. Reluctant blogger.
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