Nazi revelations stir Germany's post-war ghosts

Klaus Barbie in Bolivia in 1972 and Adolf Eichmann (right) on trial in Jerusalem in 1961
Image caption Klaus Barbie (left) was put on trial in France and Adolf Eichmann was tried in Israel

What do you do with a nasty old Nazi? Let him stew in exile in South America or use him for the value he might still have?

The latter is what the secret services of post-war West Germany chose to do, according to Spiegel magazine.

The normally reliable news magazine reports that Klaus Barbie became an agent of the West German foreign intelligence agency when he was apparently in hiding in South America.

It has seen documents of the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, and these papers reveal that the "Butcher of Lyon" was helping German intelligence with information about his South American country of hiding even as he was on the run.

Barbie risked life in prison or even the death penalty had he been caught because he had been in charge of the deportation of Jews and others to death camps, including the ordering of the deportation of children from an orphanage.

He was eventually captured and put on trial in France, but Spiegel reports that long before that he was sending reports to the BND about the politics of Bolivia where he had become something of a figure in society under the false name, Klaus Altmann.

Image caption Barbie had been living in Bolivia under the false name, Klaus Altmann

According to Spiegel, the BND recruited him in 1960 and was well aware of his true identity.

At least Barbie might have had a use, but how do you explain the similar case of Adolf Eichmann?

There is no evidence that this organiser of mass-murder became a post-war spy, but there is evidence that post-war German intelligence knew where he was - in Argentina - nearly a decade before Israeli intelligence captured him.

The German mass-circulation newspaper, Bild, petitioned the government in Berlin for files and these, once produced, showed that the BND located Eichmann in Argentina in 1952, eight years before he was kidnapped by agents from Mossad and taken to Israel where he was tried and hanged.

Nazi sympathies

How do you explain the concealments? The harshest view is that post-war West Germany was not a complete break from its past.

Many people in post-war power had been Nazis who continued in official roles. The German foreign ministry, for example, has just published its official investigation and found that some diplomats did have a blood-stained past before 1945. And in this world, so the argument runs, sympathy for the Nazis meant precisely that.

According to this view, Germans tolerated Nazis because some post-war Germans were not repelled by their own country's past.

A more nuanced view is that as one war ended another one began and that the new battle was the one that had to be fought, and with whatever weapons - and personnel - were available.

With Germany defeated, the new threat to democracy was the Soviet Union so anybody who was useful in that fight was used, even if it was the Butcher of Lyon.

Space programme

The United States used the rocket science developed to destroy British cities as the basis for its own space programme.

Operation Paper Clip was set up by the US intelligence agencies to make sure scientists went West and not East. And so they did, including Wernher von Braun who designed the V2 (aimed at London) and the Saturn V (aimed at the moon).

Image caption The United States used Nazi rocket technology for its space programme

In her book, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Frances Stonor Saunders relates how even musical figures with a Nazi past (like the conductor Herbert von Karajan) were given an easy time for fear they would end up in the Russian sphere.

Many of the people involved are now dead and gone, from musicians who held party cards but who "merely" kept Berlin entertained to the active doers of genocide.

But revelation does still matter. Germany is still examining itself about what happened seven decades ago. There has been an outpouring of documentation, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it is thought that Stasi files may yet reveal more details of the dark past of prominent figures.

So, the post-war accommodation of Nazis reaches down to us today. Some in the generation of 1968 justified their violence as a continued war against what they claimed to see as the continuation of the Nazi state because the Federal Republic had taken a soft-line on former Nazis other than the very highest echelons who were tried and executed.

Few take that view now and perhaps few did then. But there is a debate about when Germany might be able to become a "normal" state, one which remembers the horrors Germans perpetrated but which is not permanently damaged by the memory.

Towards that end, the flow of information about what really happened after the war and the debate it has prompted may be a sign of hope: Germany is facing up to its own ghosts.

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