Monday, November 14, 2011

Hunting Monsters: Elusive Justice—the Search for Nazi War Criminals

If there is a distinction between justice and revenge Joseph Harmatz has no time for it. The former Jewish-Lithuanian partisan brought thousands of National Socialists to justice, permanently. He certainly got results, but his targets were the exception rather than the rule. Jonathan Silvers documents how so many Nazis evaded judgment for their crimes and the dogged efforts to finally capture and prosecute them in Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals (promo here), which premieres on PBS tomorrow night.

It was an incident the U.S. government still keeps tightly under wraps. Acting on inside information, Harmatz and his comrades poisoned a shipment of bread destined for SS officers in an American POW camp. According to Elusive, over 2,200 of the prisoners were executed as a result. Yet, tens of thousands of culpable National Socialists emerged from the war relatively unscathed. Many continued living in Europe with impunity, while thousands escaped to Latin America, where Juan Perón (Evita’s husband) was particularly welcoming.

At times, Elusive is a bit judgmental, particularly during the first half, which clearly blames the American government for not energetically pursuing war criminals until the 1980’s, when there was a sea change of policy. Yet, former Army prosecutor and current International Criminal Court official Benjamin Ferencz argues extensive prosecutions would have been nearly impossible if the allies were to keep Germany functioning on any level as a civil state.

Perhaps the strongest sequences establish the corrosive influence the fugitive war criminals had in Perónista Argentina. Uki Goñi, the eloquent crusading journalist who exposed the secret mass immigration of Nazi war criminals to Argentina, estimates their numbers in the thousands. Indeed, Elusive interviews some a number of relevant expert witnesses, including Goñi and Ferencz, with former U.S. Attorney and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani probably being the most prominent.

In general, Elusive is more compelling depicting the hunt and the hunters, rather than second-guessing the allies’ post-war conduct, as shortsighted as some decisions might have been. Indeed, there are stories of intrigue and retribution far more incredible than anything concocted in films like The Debt. If nothing else, viewers will gain a keen appreciation for the Israeli intelligence services. Revealing some fascinating under-reported history, rife with irony, Elusive is often eye-opening stuff. Overall quite educational and galling, it is well worth seeing tomorrow night (11/15) on most PBS outlets, including New York’s Thirteen, with a subsequent DVD release scheduled for December 13th.