Editor’s Note: Lev Golinkin writes on refugee and immigrant identity, as well as Ukraine, Russia and the far right. He is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last weekend, the United States deported Friedrich Karl Berger, an ex-Nazi concentration camp guard. The deportation was seen as a triumph of justice. When commenting on the case, Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson lauded the efforts of law enforcement involved in the process, while affirming America isn’t “a safe haven for those who participated in Nazi crimes.”
Except that it has been.
The US, of course, played a crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany. Over 400,000 Americans lost their lives in the war against Adolf Hitler. But there’s also a dark postscript to this story, one that began when World War II ended and one that we need to address now.
America’s been a haven for thousands of Nazis and Nazi collaborators who served in concentration camps and death squads and SS units. Several were even leaders of Nazi-allied governments. And we didn’t merely take them in – in some cases, we welcomed and protected them; we kept them safe from justice. It’s far past time we acknowledged it.
Besides the obvious ethical reasons for historical honesty, there are also social ones. We’re in the middle of a heated national conversation fueled by a hunger for racial justice. But how can we hope to acknowledge the impact of centuries-old institutions like slavery and Jim Crow when we can’t be honest about coddling perpetrators of the Holocaust, which still has living eyewitnesses, victims and veterans? We can’t get to 1619 if we can’t get past 1945.
The rare occasion when the American government does acknowledge working with Nazis is Operation Paperclip, which brought over some 120 Third Reich rocket scientists, such as Wernher von Braun, to work for NASA. Their labor paid off, enabling America to land on the moon. Along the way, von Braun and others became superstars, lauded by the media and in the halls of power.
However, Nazi scientists like von Braun were far from oblivious savants sheltered in labs. They gave Hitler rockets which Germany used to shell civilians in London and elsewhere, and these rockets were built using slave labor from concentration camps. There are lurid testimonies of von Braun’s calm presence in these hellish factories, where prisoners were savagely beaten and bodies piled up daily. (According to Smithsonian historian Michael Neufeld, von Braun mentioned the slave labor only obliquely, never coming close to fully taking responsibility).
Operation Paperclip is tacitly portrayed as a one-off example of making a deal with the devil. Yes, these men were Nazis, but the US had a space race to win. (Indeed, the UK and the USSR were also involved in snatching up Third Reich scientists, often at gunpoint.) However, even if we accept this grayest of gray area compromises, Operation Paperclip represents only a fraction of the Holocaust perpetrators and Hitler lackeys America took in.
The Ukrainian collaborator Yaroslav Stetsko didn’t have an aptitude for astrophysics; what he did have was a knack for organizing the butchers of Jews. On June 30, 1941, as Germany invaded Ukraine, Stetsko welcomed the Nazis, proclaiming the creation of a Ukrainian state which would “work closely with the National-Socialist Greater Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler.” As this was happening, members of Stetsko’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) were slaughtering thousands of Jews across Ukraine.
At the end of the war, Stetsko – who had eagerly written about the need to adopt Germany’s genocide methods to exterminate Ukraine’s Jews – decamped for America, where he spent decades running the OUN from the US while traveling in the highest circles of Washington, DC. Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush celebrated Stetsko as a staunch anti-communist freedom fighter. He died in 1986.
Fighting communism is part of the reason Stetsko and thousands of others were welcomed by Western governments. As World War II rapidly transitioned into the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies recognized the potential of nurturing anti-Soviet groups in order to weaken the Kremlin’s hold over Eastern Europe. As a result, those who fought against Moscow became welcome assets. Some of the most organized and zealous assets also happened to be fascists and anti-Semites whose vision of freedom – and wartime experience – involved cleansing Jews and other ethnicities from their homeland.
Such was the vision shared by Kazys Škirpa, who led the Nazi-allied Lithuanian Activist Front, which played a leading role in the slaughter of Lithuanian Jews. After the war, Škirpa settled in the United States, working for the Library of Congress. And yet his obituary portrayed him as a victim of the Nazis.
Juozas Ambrazevičius Brazaitis, another collaborator who signed orders acknowledging the creation of Lithuania’s first mass-murder camp, also found a home in America. So did Albert Wass, the anti-Semitic Hungarian poet who fought alongside the Nazis. And so did Ferdinand Ďurčanský, the foreign minister of Slovakia’s Nazi-allied regime who deported 68,000 Jews to their deaths.
In 1959, when the Anti-Defamation League brought up Ďurčanský’s past in an attempt to prevent him from receiving an immigration visa, the State Department replied that “Membership in or affiliation with the defunct Nazi Party in itself no longer constitutes a ground of ineligibility.”
It’s far from the only time the West actively protected its assets. In 1992, The New York Times reported about Nazi-hunter John Loftus, who detailed the sickening campaign of ethnic cleansing of up to 100,000 Polish villagers organized by mass murderer Mykola Lebed. Lebed, another Ukrainian nationalist who spent decades supplying the CIA with intelligence on the USSR, was protected. Indeed, a US National Archives report based on declassified CIA files showed the agency actively sheltered Lebed, tracking his media coverage and working to have federal investigators ignore his case.
America wasn’t alone in this. Great Britain, which lost 384,000 soldiers in World War II, recruited men like Estonian collaborator Alfons Rebane, an officer in the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS – the military wing of the Nazi Party responsible for the Holocaust. During his service, Rebane received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, Nazi Germany’s highest military honor; after the war, he had a long career with British intelligence running weapons to anti-Soviet rebels in the Baltics.
Canada also took in Nazis and Nazi collaborators, including at least 2,000 Ukrainian Waffen-SS soldiers and collaborators from numerous other nations. In Canada’s case, the collaborators served an additional role: suppressing domestic labor unions. The Eastern European “anti-communists,” as Nazi collaborators invariably branded themselves, became strikebreakers, helping stem socialism at home. Unsurprisingly, several industrial magnates, who had the most to lose from organized labor, were instrumental in bringing these individuals to Canada.
These and thousands of other Holocaust perpetrators got far more than safe haven. They got a chance at the American Dream. For the past 70 years, as their victims lay in pits deprived of so much as a proper burial, they grew old and raised families, built communities, churches and schools. They even have monuments – America has memorials to Nazi collaborators from Serbia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Ukraine, France and the Soviet Union. You can find them in Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Indeed, it’s telling that in three years of long-overdue debates about statues of slavers and colonizers, America’s Nazi collaborator monuments barely made headlines.
That is precisely why we must end the comforting but false narrative of living in a country with zero tolerance for Nazis. Deporting men like Berger (who told The Washington Post the case against him was built on “lies” and that he was 19 when he was “ordered” to go to the camp) is certainly righteous, but we must do more.
We must not only deport any remaining Nazis in our midst, but acknowledge the reason they got here in the first place.