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Relying largely on court transcripts, Rashke recounts in exquisite detail the various deportation hearings and trials undergone by Demjanjuk. He painstakingly considers, and reconsiders, the evidence — from an identification card that seems to link Demjanjuk to a training school for concentration camp guards to vivid (but error-laden) eyewitness testimony.
As Demjanjuk’s fortunes shift, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that truth itself is often murky, and the American (or any other) justice system is not always well equipped to uncover it. The difficulties mount when complex political calculations and powerful emotions are involved, as they were here.
Why it took so long to find and prosecute Demjanjuk — as well as why he was prosecuted at all — is a question that is largely answered by the rest of “Useful Enemies.” Utilizing interviews with whistleblowers and documents uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests, Rashke sheds new light on America’s complicity in sheltering Nazis.
The outlines of the story are already familiar. The United States resisted even filling its immigration quotas for persecuted European Jews before and during the war. By contrast, this country was uncommonly receptive to fleeing Nazis and Nazi collaborators after the war, in large part because our onetime enemies were now seen as indispensable in countering the new Soviet Communist threat.
One notorious example is the case of Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who helped boost America’s space program. Though the extent of von Braun’s complicity remains unclear, Rashke ties him to the slave labor, torture chambers and corpses of Camp Dora (later, Mittelbau-Dora), where the Reich located its underground rocket factories. The camp, which Rashke describes in chilling detail, was an especially brutal place, “the worst of any SS camp, including Auschwitz.”
Scientists weren’t the only culprits whose past sins were ignored. Each American government agency seemed to have a separate program to identify “useful enemies” and give them cover. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, when the Cold War was at its height, the United States may have admitted as many as 10,000 Nazi collaborators.
Even as Germany held a series of war crimes trials, American bureaucracies guarded their secrets. It took a new generation to focus attention on finding those Nazis still at large here. Demjanjuk was swept up in that historical current, as he had been in so many previous ones.
But the book pivots on a larger question. “Was America’s use and shielding of these war criminals a repugnant but necessary and pragmatic choice to secure the nation during the Cold War? “Or was it illegal, unethical or immoral?” Some might say “All of the above,” but Rashke leaves no doubt about where he stands.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.