The Hunt for Nazi War Criminals

By Michael E. Haskew
8/19/1996 • Adolph Hitler, Anne Frank, World War II Archives

A recent wire service story proclaimed that German prosecutors had offered a bounty equivalent to $345,000 for information leading to the capture of "the last top Nazi officer." Alois Brunner, according to the report, was a senior SS officer who was at least partially responsible for the deportation and extermination of more than 100,000 Jews during World War II. Sources said that Brunner had been living in Syria since 1954 and that requests for extradition had fallen on deaf ears.

Wolfgang Weber, chief prosecutor in Cologne, Germany, disclosed that Brunner had moved to South America and that he was hopeful the Austrian citizen would finally be brought to justice because of the reward. The report ends with the statement, "All other top Nazis have died or been arrested." If the report is correct and Brunner is the last of his breed, we may in fact be witnessing the end of an era.

Since the end of World War II and the trials that followed, reports of suspected war criminals living among us and occasionally being brought to justice have surfaced. Perhaps the most celebrated such case was that of Adolf Eichmann, who was the administrator of the so-called Final Solution and who supervised the transportation of prisoners to concentration camps. Eichmann eluded justice in Germany for four years, working as a lumberjack in Hamburg before making his way to Rome. There, a sympathetic priest gave him a refugee passport bearing the name Ricardo Clement. He lived in obscurity in Argentina until 1960, when he was snatched off the streets of Buenos Aires by Israeli agents. Placed on trial in Israel, Eichmann was convicted and hanged on May 31, 1962.

Most people agree that Adolf Hitler killed himself in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, although the Führer’s death has become the subject of a new wave of investigative journalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann may also have died in the ruins of Berlin, on May 1, 1945 (West Germany officially declared him dead in 1973), but his body was never recovered, and some doubt still remains as to what actually happened to Bormann.

Further, it seems no one can speak with certainty about the supposed demise of Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" who conducted heinous medical experiments at Auschwitz. Reportedly, Mengele escaped to South America a few years after the war and lived in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. He is believed to have drowned in 1979.

Since the end of the war, the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, headed by former concentration camp inmate Simon Wiesenthal, has brought more than 1,000 suspected war criminals to trial. Others have been required to defend themselves against accusations of war crimes. In 1986, Kurt Waldheim, former Austrian president and United Nations secretary-general, denied allegations that he participated in atrocities as a German officer in the Balkans. The United States banned Waldheim from entry into the country the following year.

In 1987, John Demjanjuk, a retiree living in Ohio, was put on trial in Israel on charges that he was "Ivan the Terrible," a harsh prison guard at the Treblinka concentration camp. Also in 1987, Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyon," was sentenced to life in prison for authorizing the torture and murder of members of the French Resistance.

Some members of the 118-man group of German rocket scientists who were brought to the United States after the war to work on the fledgling U.S. space program had, to varying degrees, been aware of or involved in the use of slave labor in the Third Reich. The most famous of these scientists, who had developed the V-1 and V-2 rockets for Hitler, was Wernher von Braun. It was von Braun who led the team that developed the Redstone ballistic missile and the Jupiter C booster. He also became the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Nevertheless, von Braun had been a member of the dreaded SS and had reached the rank of major.

Is Alois Brunner the last? Possibly. Through five decades, the rumors and uncertainty surrounding the identification of Nazi war criminals, the assistance provided to them from various sources, and the efforts to find justice have created a web of intrigue. Whether or not all Nazi war criminals are dead or imprisoned, the stain of their shameful past will not fade with time.