On Wednesday, an 89-year-old Philadelphia man died just hours before a judge ordered his extradition to Germany for his role in the gassing of 216,000 Jews at Auschwitz. Johann Breyer, who served as an armed guard at the notorious concentration camp, was accused of being an accessory to murder, in what will likely be one of the last Nazi cases on American soil.
Nicholas Kulish's recent book, The Eternal Nazi: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Dr. Aribert Heim, co-written with fellow journalist Souad Mekhennet, tells the story of how one of the most hunted Nazi war criminals had been living a secret life in Egypt.
Below, Kulish discusses the enduring mystique of the Nazis, and the ongoing hunt for war criminals, with Neal Bascomb, author of the international bestseller Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi.
Nicholas Kulish: I once read a quote that all villains are Nazis now. When you watch Star Wars the bad guys are called storm troopers and Darth Vader wears the astronaut edition of an SS uniform. When Hannibal Lecter listens to classical music while perpetrating atrocities it’s Mengele whistling Wagner on the selection ramp at Auschwitz. What do you think accounts for the enduring interest in Nazis?
Neal Bascomb: There have been a lot of murky wars since WWII. Vietnam comes straight to mind, but Iraq, and others, as well. With the Nazis, it is very black and white, and at least in popular culture, they like black and white.
NK: In a way the Nazis mythologized themselves, through the films of Leni Riefenstahl, the emphasis on their polished black boots and lightning insignias. But I'm always struck going through the archives how the crimes of the Holocaust are more deeply evil than I remember them.
NB: Yes, when I first began digging deep into the oral and written history of the Holocaust, the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews, I could not sleep for weeks. It is in the details that the horror really comes out.
NK: I was struck reading your book by the way the Israelis hunting Eichmann had a personal stake in his capture, family and friends who were killed, using skills honed as they tried to survive the Holocaust. Was that part of what drew you to the subject?
NB: What drew me to the story of Eichmann is the legacy of his trial. By the late 50's, the world wanted to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Historians weren't studying to any great degree. Students weren't learning about it at school. And survivors, many survivors, did not feel like they could openly talk about what happened to them. It was not until Eichmann's trial, the recounting of the horrors that we've both referenced here, that this changed. So here was this great manhunt, spy operation, and it had tremendous positive effects on understanding of the Holocaust ever since.
NK: I found the evolution of German public opinion at the same time to be fascinating. The first great Nazi trials of the post-Nuremberg era were in the city of Ulm. This vacuum cleaner salesman named Bernd Fischer could not accept that his murderous service in the Einsatzgruppen made him unsuited to run a refugee camp. He was given every chance to go away quietly and finally prosecutors said, "We just have to put this guy on trial." The result was a surge of new information about the slaughter in the east and the creation of a dedicated Nazi-hunting team in Ludwigsburg, Germany.
NB: What drew you to the story of SS Dr. Aribert Heim?
NK: Heim was the opposite of Eichmann in many ways. He was a concentration camp doctor and committed terrible crimes but he was not a big fish and no one was really looking for him at first. So through his story, the peaceful life in postwar Baden-Baden, the sudden flight shortly after Eichmann was hanged, the evolution of attitudes toward Nazis can be tracked right up to his naming as the most-wanted Nazi war criminal six decades after the war. The fact that he hid in Egypt and converted to Islam made it irresistible.
NB: You did such a marvelous job of tracking his years in Egypt. Just fascinating how he transformed into this whole other life. And you see this again and again, even in such an ordinary life of Breyer, the Auschwitz guard recently arrested in Philadelphia.
NK: It's something you find in other genocides, in Rwanda or in the Balkans, both places I've worked as a journalist. People who would otherwise never have received so much as a speeding ticket commit monumental criminal acts. Can people really understand, looking at an 89 year old at an arraignment hearing, why these trials still matter?
NB: It is an understandable instinct to say about these individuals who are now and again arrested... "Look he's an old, old man. There's no more harm he can do. What's the point? Just let him live out his days in a shabby house." But then you have to take a step back, realize that the point is less about punishment against this one man, and more about the fact that seeking justice should be timeless. There should be no expiration date. When Ben Gurion gave the order to go after Eichmann, it had very little do with Eichmann and much more to do with two things: One, remind the youth of Israel why their state needed to exist; two, remind the world what the Nazis did to the Jews during the war. That's why these trials must continue.