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'Nazi Hunters' chronicles a dogged pursuit of justice

Criminals are never beyond the law – but how far should we go in persecuting Nazi officers, guards and soldiers 71 years after the end of World War II?

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    The Nazi Hunters
    By Andrew Nagorski
    Simon & Schuster
    416 pp.
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There's a certain neat symmetry between Andrew Nagorski's popular and critical success "Hitlerland" and his latest book, The Nazi Hunters: The earlier book chronicled the sordid rise of the Nazi state of bullies, psychopaths, and demagogues, and this newest one tells the often sordid story of the Nazi regime's last stragglers, the war criminals who slipped out of the country in the apocalypse of the Third Reich's fall and managed to create new lives for themselves in a world that mostly just wanted to watch a few high-profile prisoners stand trial at Nuremberg and then consign both the war and the war criminals to the forgotten past.

Nagorski's book energetically tells some of the most famous stories of the quest to push against that historical complacency. It's an epic tale, as our author knows full well. “The efforts by those who refused to give up on the notion of holding at least some Nazi war criminals to account,” he writes, “developed into an ongoing postwar saga unlike any other in the history of mankind.”

A great many Nazi malefactors – soldiers, guards, officers, sympathizers – received summary justice at the hands of Allied troops long before they could even think of fashioning new lives for themselves in foreign lands. (They were, as Nagorski politely puts it, “at the receiving end of immediate retributions at the end of the war.”) 

But the famous exceptions are all here: Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoss; the infamous “Dr. Death” of Mauthausen, Aribert Heim; the rocket scientist Arthur Rudolf, who worked slaves to death in the construction of his war weapons; Herbert Cukurs, “The Hangman of Riga,” responsible for the death of over thirty thousand Jews; death camp guard John Demjanjuk; evil Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele; the “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie; and of course Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, who was apprehended in Buenos Aires in 1960 and put on trial before the entire world, earning him a death sentence and inspiring Hannah Arendt's masterpiece "Eichmann in Jerusalem."

These fugitive Nazis fill Nagorski's narrative scope, alongside the men and women who refused to let their crimes go unpunished – people like Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who sought war criminals in the United States, or Beate Klarsfeld, who hunted the Nazi criminals of occupied France and whose husband Lars said of Barbie, “He is the very symbol of the Gestapo as it raged in our land. The higher-ups of the Nazi police had no contact with their victims; they acted through the Barbies.”

And of course the premiere spot among the Nazi hunters necessarily goes to Simon Wiesenthal, the concentration camp survivor who did more than any other individual to put a sympathetic human face on the survivors' dogged pursuit of justice. Nagorski's account gives him the prominence any such account must, but it also deals squarely with the controversies that surrounded Wiesenthal, particularly accusations that he exaggerated his role in several of his high-profile cases. And it's not just Wiesenthal: All of the book's main actors are painted with a complex but unsparing clarity.

Nagorski is equally frank about the deeper questions his story raises. In fact, he asks them himself: “Why pursue an aging camp guard during his final days? Why not let the perpetrators quietly fade away?” These kinds of questions have been asked of Nazi hunters from the earliest days of their work, and the urgency of the questions has only increased as the decades have rolled on. The Nazis opened their first concentration camps in 1933, which means that even the most ideologically die-hard 18-year-old German doing duty in such places would be 83 in 2016 – and his older superiors, the men and women who could not use simple enlisted obedience as a cover for their evil, would certainly be dead by now. Even two decades ago, the problem of finding reliable witnesses for war crimes trials of septuagenarian defendants raised serious doubts about justice and vengeance, and as the 21st century approaches its third decade, those doubts become crippling just as they pass into irrelevance.

"The Nazi Hunters" has a self-consciously valedictory air no prior such book has felt comfortable assuming; Nagorski knows that on one level he's recounting a tale that's effectively over. The genius of his book's final segments derives from its knowing echoes of what the prosecutors at Nuremberg saw 70 years ago: These trials, these pursuits of the guilty into the comfortable parlors of their second lives, were always as much about the future as they were about the past. “The point of the lessons,” Nagorski writes, was “to demonstrate that the horrendous crimes of World War II and the Holocaust cannot and should not be forgotten, and that those who instigated or carried out those crimes – or others who may carry out similar crimes in the future – are never beyond the law, at least in principle.”

It's a thin enough hope, particularly in a new century as bloodthirsty as the old one, but "The Nazi Hunters" does everything it can to keep that hope alive.

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