“Anyone who seeks a balance between the crimes that were committed and the punishment will be ultimately frustrated“
- Andrew Nagorski
David Marwell, historian.
Given the vast numbers of people who were killed in the most appalling ways by the Nazi's extermination programme, as well as by their troops in the atrocities committed on the Eastern Front, then the above quotation is absolutely correct. The ultimate sanction in any civilised justice system is the death penalty and the guilty can only die once no matter how horrific were their deeds.
As early as 1943 the Allies agreed that they would jointly try the major German war criminals. The resulting International Military Tribunal condemned ten of the twelve top Nazis to death with the sentence being carried out at Nuremberg on 16th October, 1946. Bormann was tried “in absentia“ and Goring poisoned himself prior to facing the hangman.
However, even before the war had ended there were some already questioning the wisdom of hunting down and prosecuting Nazi war criminals, in their minds there was an even greater challenge to face, that of the Soviet Union. Sadly, with the start of the Cold War realpolitik won the argument. Fortunately there were people who refused to forget what had happened and who were determined on seeking justice on behalf of the millions of victims.
Andrew Nagorski's book is a timely reminder of not only the depths to which people can sink in their view and treatment of their fellow man, but also the tenacity, energy and determination that a disparate group of people, united by a common cause, displayed in bringing to justice some of those involved.
Nagorski highlights fifteen Nazis who were eventually tracked down and fourteen of the people engaged in tracking them ( and others ) before, in most cases, proving their guilt. The reader will be familiar with the names of Barbie, Bormann and Eichmann but the likes of Braunsteiner and Demjanuk will be less familiar although their actions are no less contemptible.
Possibly the most famous Nazi hunter featured is Simon Wiesenthal, but the author highlights others who were equally as successful in the pursuit of former war criminals, but maybe not so desirous of publicity.
One would expect that revenge would be the prime motivation for seeking out those perpetrators of such horrendous crimes and indeed it was in the early post-war years. However, both Nagorski and those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of the war criminals argue that bringing such people to a proper trial serves two purposes. Firstly, it is an ongoing educational process reminding the public of what can so easily happen when the state or one person has absolute power; secondly, there can be no forgiveness or forgetting of such crimes; age or distance provides no sanctuary.
Just over seventy years have passed since the end of the Second World War and the raison d’être of the Nazi Hunters has to all intents ceased to exist. For that very reason this informative and eminently readable, if at times harrowing, book is deserving of the widest readership.