book cover imageThe Nazis Next Door: How America Became A Safe Haven For Hitler’s Men
by Eric Lichtblau.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014.
Hardcover, 231 pages (plus acknowledgments, notes, and index), $28.

Write a nonfiction history to read like a novel—offering suspense, interesting characters, both good guys and bad—and a bestseller is assured, perhaps even able to attract students said to be bored by history. All that is here, but it involves much of what Americans should have been informed about much sooner.

Eric Lichtblau writes that our World War II spy agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), employed Germans to spy on the Soviet Union as the Cold War evolved— and not just “nominal” Nazis, but such ardent Nazis as SS officers and both alleged and proven war criminals. Having performed their services as spies, they then came to the U.S. as immigrants, mention of their wartime services to Adolf Hitler being withheld from the Immigration officials. With but a few exceptions, hundreds of these new American citizens lived long and comfortable lives in their adopted fatherland.

Also covered by the author is Operation Paperclip, orchestrated to exploit Nazi technology and employ in the U.S. selected experts, the best-known being the late Wernher von Braun, Nazi Germany’s premier ballistic rocket expert. Though those employed were regularly described as “scientists,” few in fact were. Most, like von Braun and his brother, Magnus, were engineers. Many were technicians—explosives experts, skilled electricians, and metal workers. One, Herbert Axster, “was brought to America not because of any technological expertise—he was a lawyer by trade—but because of his management expertise …” Even more indicative of the minimal screening given the “rocket experts” was Walter Weisemann, “a Nazi public relations officer” whom von Braun called “an eminent scientist.” Arthur Rudolf, a high school graduate who became production manager in the Nazis’ underground rocket factory, came to the U.S. for employment as an Army civil service employee and later joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he received high honors. Subsequently, however, he was judged a war criminal, gave up his U.S. citizenship and voluntarily left the country in a deal to avoid prosecution (but retained his government pension!) His boss in both Nazi Germany and the U.S. was von Braun.

The story of Operation Paperclip (so named as paper clips were attached to the files of desired experts) begins at the end of the European conflict. The “unconditional surrender” of the Third Reich meant that the Allies had the ability to exploit German technology and technologists, high on the list being Germany’s long-range ballistic rocket, the A4, later designated the V2—the Vergeltungswaffe, which translates as “reprisal weapon.” The German rocket program was centered in the city of Nordhausen and a nearby underground factory producing the ballistic rocket. Outside the entrance to Mittelwerk, the underground factory, was Dora, a large concentration camp that once housed upward of 20,000 slave laborers procured by the SS and processed through the infamous Buchenwald.

On April 11, 1945, Nordhausen, including Mittelwerk and Dora, was captured by an advance unit of the U.S. 3rd Armored Division. What they found in the Boelcke Kaserne, an abandoned German army barracks in Nordhausen, shocked even these battle-hardened Americans: “Hundreds of corpses lay sprawled over the acres of the big compound. More hundreds filled the great barracks …” This was duly reported “up the line,” and the 104th Infantry Division was summoned to aid the living as the 3rd Armored Division unit continued their pursuit of Nazi forces. On April 17 the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper produced a front page account: “22,000 Nazi Slaves Made V2s in Deep Underground Factory.” The next week Nordhausen was visited by a congressional delegation to bear witness to the crimes associated with German rocket production; close behind was Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., attached to the Naval Technical Mission.

As the American forces closed in on the rocket complex, able-bodied prisoners were moved north to concentration camps still in German hands. When the SS guards learned they could not reach a Nazi-held camp, they had to deal with eliminating their prisoners as ordered by SS leader Heinrich Himmler. With the aide of a local resident, they found a large barn, forced some 1300 prisoners inside, blocked all exits and set the building on fire. It was still smoldering when a U.S. Army unit arrived. They interviewed a few prisoners who had escaped and photographed the barn. The incident is described in detail by French historian Andre Sellier.

This and other relevant information was available to the author of The Nazis Next Door, being public knowledge in 1945 and at resulting war crimes trials. Yet, the author writes, “The anonymity of Dora was no accident. General Patton and the military had eagerly publicized America’s liberation of Dachau and other concentration camps, but they wanted no such publicity surrounding the secrets of Dora.… It was as if the place never existed.”

Secret? The Stars and Stripes issue of April 17, 1945 was read by thousands of Allied troops with many copies no doubt sent home. The congressional delegation that visited Nordhausen documented what they learned about the underground rocket factory, and Lindbergh described what he had experienced in his published journal. Dora is hardly a carefully kept secret. The fact is, American military and civilian leaders, determined to exploit German rocket technology, chose to deny that the German rocket experts had any connection to the thousands of prisoners who were starved, beaten, and executed. No doubt such information was considered irrelevant to Operation Paperclip. As historian Michael J. Neufeld expressed it in The Rocket and the Reich (one of Lichtblau’s sources): “The whole story of Mittelwerk and its prisoners was to be obscured as much as possible because it would besmirch Army rocket development.”

While the Nazi rocket experts were mainly engineers, there were scientists employed under Paperclip. Second only to von Braun in achieving fame and fortune in America was a former Luftwaffe officer, Hubertus Strughold, M.D. Once director of the Aviation Medical Research Institute in the Third Reich, he was recruited by the U.S. Air Force and rose to lead its School of Aviation Medicine in San Antonio, Texas. Air Force officials insisted that “we could not have achieved our pre-eminent position in space exploration without the contributions of the German-American. What was a long-held secret, however, is that this eminent scientist had been listed on the Central Registry of War Criminals for having used live prisoners in his research for the Luftwaffe.

And there is the tale of Major General Walter Schreiber, who joined Dr. Strughold at the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine. Schreiber, a Nazi doctor, was outed in a news article as having approved “some of the ghastly medical experiments which the Nazis performed on hopeless victims.” Unable to defend the indefensible, “the Air Force swooped him out of Texas—not to West Germany, where he might have faced trial for war crimes, but to safer confines in Argentina” (my emphasis).

Though the employment of Germans in the U.S. caused an immediate outcry, led by German-American immigrant Albert Einstein, the public was assured those selected had been carefully screened and included no “ardent Nazis” or “alleged or confirmed war criminals.” A reported 1700 “scientists” were employed in the U.S. under Paperclip. The “screening” was done, it seems, with clouded glasses.

The Nazis Next Door also covers those Nazis and alleged and convicted war criminals who slipped into the U.S. as immigrants, most recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet Union. Their service to the Third Reich served as a favorable reference since the Nazis were indeed “ardent anti-Communists.” In addition to revealing long suppressed facts, Lichtblau delivers truly “unbelievable” plots with suspense and well-drawn characters, both evil and good. Also exposed are American military and civilian officials who lied to the American public, even destroying or altering official documents.

SS General Karl Wolff, commander of German forces in Italy, “the onetime right-hand man to Himmler,” was expected to “surrender unconditionally” to Allied leaders. But Wolff also understood that he was a prime target as a war criminal, thus he moved to negotiate a deal, and the person to deal with was Allen Dulles, an American agent located in neutral Switzerland (and destined to become head of the postwar CIA).

Only weeks before the end of the Third Reich, General Wolff met with Dulles in neutral Switzerland “sharing a fireside scotch with Himmler’s former chief of staff.” They cut a deal. Wolff would provide his knowledge of the Soviet Union and Dulles would see to it that the general escaped prosecution for war crimes. In a few words author Lichblau reveals the Nazi mindset: Held in detention, where “he was allowed to continue wearing his German uniform and carrying a gun,” for two years while Dulles worked (successfully) to clear him from prosecution for war crimes, the general complained about his mistreatment: “A Jew is killed in the gas chamber in a few seconds.… My comrades and I have been allowed to die every every night for 21 months. This is much more inhumane than the extermination of the Jews.” Hubris extraordinaire. The man Allen Dulles considered a “gentleman” lived a long and comfortable life, something he had denied thousands.

The Nazis Next Door does an excellent job in reopening the story of our employment of many who served Nazi Germany; ardent Nazis, SS officers—even convicted or alleged war criminals were rarely excluded. Although these events occurred decades ago (as one American officer expressed it to those opposed to Paperclip, “Stop beating a dead Nazi horse”), this remains nevertheless an important story to remember, not only to honor all who had suffered and died during Adolf Hitler’s twelve-year reign of terror but as a reminder of the terrible things even victors in “good wars” can convince themselves are necessary. 

Robert Huddleston is a freelance writer and veteran of the European air war.