It is right to ex­pose Wiesen­thal

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - DANIEL FINKEL­STEIN

‘SI­MON Wiesen­thal’s rep­u­ta­tion is built on sand. He was a liar and a bad one at that. From the end of the war to the end of his life, he would lie re­peat­edly about his sup­posed hunt for Eich­mann as well as his other Nazi-hunt­ing ex­ploits. “Wiesen­thal would also con­coct ou­tra­geous sto­ries about his war years and make false claims about his aca­demic ca­reer.”

With th­ese words, the his­to­rian Guy Wal­ters be­gins his ex­am­i­na­tion of the ca­reer of the world’s most fa­mous Nazi hunter. It forms one of the main themes of his new book, Hunt­ing Evil, a his­tory of the Nazi war crim­i­nals who es­caped and the ef­fort to bring them to jus­tice. And it is im­pos­si­ble to read it without feel­ing deeply un­com­fort­able.

There are two rea­sons for this, and only one of them is to do with Wiesen­thal. The first rea­son for dis­com­fort is sim­ply that Wal­ters lays bare, in what is a fine, very read­able but none­the­less im­por­tant, book about how the vic­tors sim­ply let crim­i­nals, thou­sands upon thou­sands of ter­ri­ble mur­der­ers, walk away af­ter the war.

A cou­ple of years ago, at the end of a drama doc­u­men­tary on the Wannsee con­fer­ence, the sen­tences handed out to the con­spir­a­tors were rolled on the screen just be­fore the cred­its. I re­mem­ber watch­ing aghast as I read that one af­ter an­other of th­ese mon­sters ap­peared to have gone back to Bavaria or wher­ever and lived a quiet life as a green­gro­cer. Wal­ters ex­plains how this hap­pened.

To start with, the Al­lies sim­ply had what they re­garded as more im­por­tant things to do. They didn’t want to spend any time or money catch­ing Nazis. Wal­ters prints a tragi-comic cor­re­spon­dence be­tween a set of war crimes in­ves­ti­ga­tors and their su­pe­ri­ors in which head­quar­ters de­clined a re­quest for an English-Ger­man dic­tio­nary, say­ing that it was out of print and wouldn’t be avail­able for a year.

The vic­tors were also fight­ing each other. Nazis were re­cruited to help fight the Sovi­ets, and thus pro­tected from jus­tice. The Al­lies were fear­ful, too, that le­gal pro­ceed­ings would ex­pose their own sol­diers to li­a­bil­ity.

They failed to com­pre­hend the scale of the Nazi crime un­til the units were dis­banded and it was too late. Into the vacuum stepped pri­va­teers. And Wiesen­thal was the most fa­mous. He did a won­der­ful thing. He kept the is­sue in the pub­lic eye, kept the mem­o­ries alive, kept the pres­sure on.

This made him a sec­u­lar saint. Un­til now, crit­i­cis­ing Wiesen­thal has been the oc­cu­pa­tion only of cranks and an­tisemites. Wal­ters is most def­i­nitely nei­ther of those. But has he erred by pro­vid­ing them with am­mu­ni­tion? Should Jews wel­come his book, or shun it? Very firmly the for­mer, in my view.

Wal­ters’s doc­u­men­tary ev­i­dence on Wiesen­thal’s in­con­sis­ten­cies and lies is im­pec­ca­ble. He shows how the Nazi hunter’s ac­counts of his war­time ex­pe­ri­ences are con­tra­dic­tory and im­plau­si­ble. He demon­strates that he had no role, con­trary to his own as­ser­tion, in the cap­ture of Adolf Eich­mann. He piti­lessly dis­sects Wiesen­thal’s overblown claims about the num­bers he brought to jus­tice, sug­gest­ing it was not much more than a hand­ful.

When you read Hunt­ing Evil, you know its au­thor is telling the truth. And, above all — above ev­ery­thing — the truth mat­ters. The truth how­ever painful, the truth how­ever em­bar­rass­ing, the truth wher­ever it takes you. Jews can never be hurt by the truth about the Holo­caust and must never fear it, never run away from it.

Ben Barkow, the di­rec­tor of the Wiener Li­brary, the in­sti­tu­tion that my grand­fa­ther es­tab­lished to doc­u­ment the truth, has lent his voice to that of Wal­ters, agree­ing that a reval­u­a­tion of Wiesen­thal’s con­tri­bu­tion was in or­der. Barkow ar­gues that a nu­anced view is pos­si­ble. That ac­cept­ing that Wiesen­thal was a show­man and a brag­gart and, yes, even a liar, can live along­side ac­knowl­edg­ing the con­tri­bu­tion he made.

Surely he is right. But even if he is not, Wal­ters has done a ser­vice to his­tory and there­fore to Jews. Daniel Finkel­stein is as­so­ciate ed­i­tor of The Times

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