Why did the U.S. fight against the Axis in Europe? Was it to eradicate the world of the evils of Nazism? That’s what we are told, yes. Much the same, we are now told that the war in Iraq was fought in order to rid the world of a dangerous evil (Saddam Hussein). Forgoing analysis of the Iraq issue for now, let us remember that the Second World War is considered “The Good War,” the one in which our “Greatest Generation” fought against oppression and tyranny– yada, yada, yada. Keeping that in mind, consider the following news item, which my wife just forwarded to me, bless her lovely self:

Science & Society

Comfort to the enemy

By Charles Fenyvesi

In May 1960, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced that Israeli agents had captured Adolf Eichmann, Adolf Hitler’s man in charge of the war on the Jews. The CIA was stunned. Its agents hadn’t been able to figure out whether Eichmann was hiding in Argentina or Kuwait. Even worse, top officials feared that his trial would expose the agency’s protection of some of his closest Nazi associates.

But the CIA was lucky. It wasn’t until last week, when newly declassified files from the CIA, the FBI, and the State Department were released, that its cover was officially blown. A team of scholars pored over the last batch of 8 million World War II documents to be declassified under a 1998 law and produced U.S. Intelligence and the Nazis , a book that reveals the deep postwar ties between former Nazi enemies–many of them war criminals–and their Allied conquerors.

The Eichmann cronies who worried the CIA were local henchmen “whose individual acts of cruelty reflected the murderous policies of their superiors,” says Timothy Naftali, a historian at the University of Virginia who traced their paths through the CIA files. Leopold von Mildenstein preceded Eichmann as head of the SS bureau that was set up to eliminate Jewish influence from German life. Otto Albrecht von Bolschwing helped 13 leaders of Romania’s ultrafascist Iron Guard escape the country after a pogrom that left 600 Jews dead. Theodor Saevecke ordered the shooting of civilian hostages in Italy. In the Netherlands, Erich Rajakowitsch expropriated Jewish property and deported Jews. Aleksandras Lileikis ordered the death of thousands, if not tens of thousands, in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius.

Desperate. The CIA knew about most, if not all, of these men’s crimes before their recruitment. But it didn’t matter because the United States was fixated on a new enemy–the Communist Party.The Soviet Union was “a black hole for U.S. intelligence,” thenCIA Director Richard Helms later explained, “and we scrambled for information.” Bolschwing managed to convince the CIA it needed his Romanian contacts, while the agency approached Rajakowitsch because after the war he ran an export-import firm in Milan trading with East Germany and China.

The intelligence value of the others was less clear, but the benefits to these former Nazis were not. The CIA got Saevecke a position with the West German federal police, a job for which the former SS officer was legally disqualified, while both Bolschwing and Lileikis obtained U.S. citizenship. (The Department of Justice revoked their citizenship decades later when the two men were prosecuted for war crimes.)

In return for protection, “the CIA got very little,” says Naftali. Bolschwing was described by German intelligence as an “operational blowhard,” and the others weren’t much better. But some Nazi recruits were downright dangerous. The declassified documents reveal that the Gehlen Organization, the CIA-funded West German intelligence service, hired at least 100 former members of the SS and the Gestapo. Many of them succumbed to Soviet blackmail. Those, in turn, recruited others as double agents. Ultimately, says historian Gerhard Weinberg, “the Gehlen Organization was run from Moscow.”

The British probably had more luck with Horst Kopkow, a former Gestapo official who actually specialized in communist activities in Germany. He knew how the Soviet Union operated agents in Germany, and how the Germans destroyed the Soviet Red Orchestra, a European espionage network. According to War Office records, he died of bronchopneumonia in Britain in June 1948. But another Gestapo official claims the British faked his death certificate and employed him in intelligence. Richard Breitman, a historian at American University who contributed to the book, found reports that Kopkow changed his name and died in Germany in 1996.

According to Kopkow, Heinrich Himmler, the head of both the SS and the Gestapo, may have thought that he, too, would be shielded by the Allies. Himmler had attempted some last-minute peacemaking, which included releasing a few thousand Jews from the death camps. Kopkow reported that on May 4, 1945, Himmler addressed 15 SS officials who had fled Berlin for the north. “Total military defeat is a fact,” Himmler acknowledged. But, he continued, “the possibility might exist that the Allies would leave a small preserve to a still existing German government.” Instead of swords, its men would wield hammers, and their assignment would be Germany’s reconstruction.

Himmler had “delusions,” says Breitman, who wrote a biography. But the newly declassified British and American documents, rich with CIA justifications for protecting Nazi war criminals, makes one wonder if Himmler’s notion of a hidden Nazi zone for diligent workers was more than just a fantasy.

I believe it is important not to get too caught up in the official line; it isn’t healthy to an open democracy for citizens to become enamored of self-glorifying propaganda when it comes to foreign military engagements. As I mentioned somewhere earlier in this space, WWII was anything but a simple “good vs. evil” conflict. (For more on that war, check out this book.)

It is important for us to know as much about our own history as possible, if our own praise of our democracy is to be anything more than pitiful self-mockery. Only well-informed citizens can make good decisions, both with their votes and with their dollars.

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