Simon Wiesenthal

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(Nazi hunter, writer)
Simon Wiesenthal.jpg
Born31 December 1908
Buchach, Kingdom of Galicia, Austria-Hungary, (now in, Ukraine
Died20 September 2005 (Age 96)
Vienna, Austria
NationalityAustrian
ReligionJudaism
ChildrenPaulinka Kreisberg
ParentsAsher and Rosa Wiesenthal
SpouseCyla Müller

Simon Wiesenthal founded and headed the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna, Austria and amassed "practically every honor known to the 20th century, over 100 of them."[1] A US Congressional Resolution said that he was "instrumental in the capture and conviction of more than 1,000 Nazi war criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi plan to annihilate European Jewry"[2] though, after his death, much of his success as a "Nazi-hunter" has been discounted. A list of 13 of his publications between 1962 and 1989 can be found at Wikipedia,[3] "The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness" (1976) probably being the most famous, it tells of Wiesenthal's experiences in one of the concentration camps (Lemberg) where he was held by the Nazis. Tom Segev writes that, in 1945, Wiesenthal claimed to spent time in four camps. During the 50s, the number grew to 9 and then 11. By the early 80s Auschwitz had been added, making 12. Joseph Wechsberg co-authored Wiesenthal's autobiography and wrote in the introduction that he had been in "over a dozen."[2]

Philosophy

Wiesenthal's take on the Holocaust emphasises that others beside Jews died in gas chambers, unlike Elie Wiesel, who has been criticised for treating the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish event.[1] Some of the issues raised in the blogosphere are further discussed by Guy Walters, author of "Hunting Evil".[4]

Simon Wiesenthal Center

The founding of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in 1977 in Los Angeles was followed by a terminal break between Wiesenthal and the SWC director, Hiller, so the Center was never in fact connected to Wiesenthal in any way. In an interview with Norman Finkelstein in CounterPunch in 2001, Finkelstein called those who run the Simon Wiesenthal Center "a gang of heartless and immoral crooks, whose hallmark is that they will do anything for a dollar". Quoting from his own "Holocaust Industry" book then being released, Finkelstein said that the "guy who runs their headquarters in Los Angeles, runs it as a family business, and in the mid 1990's they were collectively raking in $525,000 a year".[5]

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre is controversially building a "Museum of Tolerance" on a Muslim graveyard in Jerusalem.[6]

Well regarded in life

Like the Wikipedia biography of Elie Wiesel, which avoids any mention of factual problems in his Holocaust writings, most of the Wikipedia biography of the second grand old man of Holocaust survivors (as at Feb 2011, this may change) almost entirely ignores much of what is known about his activities during and after WWII. Currently there is only a short section of not-very-damning criticisms culled from "Hunting Evil".[7]

However, it's possible that Wikipedia is only to blame for being slow, since Wiesenthal enjoyed such enormous (and deserved) respect for the publicity side of his work while he was alive that the concerns about his claims of what he'd done, before, during and after the war were largely buried. Much of what was published about him while he was still alive accepted all his claims without question, eg Alan Levy's popular and un-critical "Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File", reviews of which can be seen here. Less noticed was the book by Isser Harel, head of Mossad at the time of Eichmann's capture, "The House on Garibaldi Street" which claims that, despite almost everyone accepting what he'd claimed, Wiesenthal was no help whatsoever - in fact, he had almost sabotaged the Argentinian operation by indiscretion. Lipstadt says that Harel was one of many to "denounce Wiesenthal as a self-promoter and even a fraud".[2]

... but much exposed after death

On the death of Simon Wiesenthal in 2005, the Main Stream Media lost interest in protecting his reputation. 4 years after he died, the book "Hunting Evil" on the subject of catching Nazis from Guy Walters came out and included much critical biographical material on Wiesenthal. The parts of that book on Wiesenthal were presently endorsed with a review in the Jewish Chronicle by Daniel Finkelstein, grandson of the founder of the Wiener Library, one of the world’s oldest and most reputable institutions for the study of the Holocaust.[8]

From the Daniel Finkelstein review, the first words of "Hunting Evil" read as follows: "Simon Wiesenthal’s reputation is built on sand. He was a liar and a bad one at that. From the end of the war to the end of his life, he would lie repeatedly about his supposed hunt for Eichmann as well as his other Nazi-hunting exploits. Wiesenthal would also concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic career". Popular blogger Mondoweiss took Guy Walters's thesis a bit further, suggesting that there were considerable exaggerations in the account of his pre-war life too - Wiesenthal claimed to have operated as an architect, whereas Polish records suggest he was a supervisor in a Lviv furniture factory from 1935 until 1939.

Daniel Finkelstein continues: "Walters’s documentary evidence on Wiesenthal’s inconsistencies and lies is impeccable. He shows how the Nazi hunter’s accounts of his wartime experiences are contradictory and implausible. He demonstrates that he had no role, contrary to his own assertion, in the capture of Adolf Eichmann. He pitilessly dissects Wiesenthal’s overblown claims about the number he brought to justice, suggesting it was not much more than a handful." Finkelstein says it is impossible to read the book "without feeling deeply uncomfortable" since it not only documents Wiesenthal's faults, but also describes how the book lays bare that "the victors simply let criminals, thousands upon thousands of terrible murderers, walk away after the war".

Another review of the Walters' biography by Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings (war correspondent and ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph, b.1945) said "The book takes a brutal view of the most celebrated Jewish seeker of vengeance, Simon Wiesenthal, who the author says invented much of his own autobiography and achievements: his "reputation is built on sand. He was a liar, and a bad one at that".[9] Hastings quotes Walters as believing Wiesenthal can claim credit for perhaps a dozen significant captures, rather than the 1,500 he claimed. Even this figure is contradicted by a 1990 letter published in the book from Neal Sher, director of the United States Office of Special Investigations, admonishing Wiesenthal for the quality of his leads. Sher wrote: "The bottom line is that, to my knowledge, no allegation which has originated from your office has resulted in a court filing by OSI." The Telegraph review of the book says Wiesenthal did help to catch some Nazis, but no famous ones. He'd briefly been a stand-up comedian when he was young and this led him to putting himself in the middle of every successful Nazi hunt, taking credit when it was mostly undeserved. The Telegraph review of "Hunting Evil" lists some of the other contents of the book and says that it is "gripping and well documented, and deserves a lasting place among histories of the war".[10]

Allegations of Gestapo collaboration

In addition to the, by now, fairly well accepted fact that Wiesenthal did not personally catch many Nazis, and almost nothing he has said about his activities can be trusted, there is also the accusation that he collaborated with the Nazis. The Jewish Chronicle article says only that there is "a mysterious period in the war when he comes back from a spell with the partisans but is not executed by the Nazis. Is it possible that in order to save his skin, he had gone on a spying mission? I can’t verify that. It’s pure conjecture. But there are holes in his accounts, and it’s possible he could have cut a deal."[8] Wiesenthal has given various accounts of what he did during the war, in some cases not even mentioning his time with the partisans. He also claimed to have been in 12 concentration camps[11] or 13, though in fact he had been in no more than 6 of them.[12]

The best known example of the accusations of Gestapo collaboration came about after Simon Wiesenthal started a fight with one of Austria's best and most long standing post-war leaders, Bruno Kreisky (1911 - 1990) at the start of the latter's Chancellorship (1970 - 1983). Kreisky was Jewish and had an impeccable record during WWII. Active in the Austrian Social Democratic Party from 1926 until it was outlawed in 1934 (ie after the coming of power to Hitler in Germany but before the takeover of Austria, the Anschluss), in 1935 Kreisky had been imprisoned for 18 months for political reasons and was imprisoned again in March 1938 when Hitler arrived. However, he had just graduated as doctor of law from the University of Vienna and in September 1938 (with the help of Nazi sympathisers[citation needed]) was able to escape to Sweden. Kreisky virtually disassociated himself from Judaim and was targetted as being most unsympathetic to Israel.

The affair started after Wiesenthal publicly attacked Kreisky for including four former Nazis in the first cabinet of his government (ie 1970). One of them (Öllinger) resigned but Kreisky chose as his successor another former member of the Nazi Party, Oskar Weihs. In response, Kreisky implied that Wiesenthal had been a Gestapo collaborator, and is alleged to have said something like (in translation): "This engineer Wiesenthal has done during the Nazi years things I could tell you about, but I won't."

The feud between the two most prominent Jews in Austria fizzled throughout Kreisky's 13 years as Chancellor, in 1975, Kreisky's party was negotiating with the Freedom Party before an election with the result that, if Kreisky had not had an overall majority, the FPO leader, Friedrich Peter, would have been given a cabinet post. Wiesenthal waited until after the election (which Kreisky won, making the point moot) to disclose that Peter had served in the First SS brigade that had committed major atrocities in the Soviet Union against Jews and others.

In 1986, after Kreisky had retired (about the time when the Kurt Waldheim affair blew up) he again made the accusations of Nazi collaboration against Wiesenthal. Holocaust scholar (and scourge of David Irving) Deborah Lipstadt says that Kurt Waldheim, while he was Austria's foreign minister in the 1970s, had defended Wiesenthal from allegations "spread by Communist bloc countries" that the latter had collaborated with the Nazis. According to Lipstadt, this explains why Wiesenthal later defended Waldheim - "Wiesenthal, who should have known better (and probably did), dismissed the case against Waldheim as mere "gossip" spread by his political adversaries".[2] (Incidentally, Wikipedia puts the opposite gloss on it, emphasising that Wiesenthal accused Waldheim of knowing full well of the murder of Jews while he was an officer in the mounted corps of the SA (Sturmabteilung) and an ordnance officer in Saloniki, Greece, from 1942 to 1943.[13] - but their only accessible reference, an article in the Guardian, does not say this, only that Wiesenthal "confirmed there was no evidence that Waldheim had committed war crimes".[11])

According to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs "in 1986 Kreisky repeated these accusations, whereupon Wiesenthal took him to court and in 1989 Kreisky was found guilty of defamation and had to pay a fine".[14]

However, even the final consequences (let alone the truth of the Gestapo collaboration allegations) of the Kreisky-Wiesenthal affair according to Wikipedia seems shrouded in mystery if not wilful distortion. Wikipedia's page on Bruno Kreisky incorrectly claims that he suffered a "substantial fine" for making the allegations though its (vehemently Zionist) source says only "pay a fine".[14] The Jewish Chronicle ("took him to court on that and won") and Mondoweiss ("sued and won") agree it was a civil case, with damages to pay. However, the 2005 Guardian obituary of Wiesenthal (overwhelmingly complimentary to him as a "motto was: Justice, not vengeance - and to the end of his days he contended that in democratic societies the rule of law was paramount") claims that the threatened libel case was simply dropped "Wiesenthal's initial suit for slander was withdrawn after Kreisky was persuaded to withdraw at least part of his allegations".[15] No mention is made in the Guardian obituary of either a civil case or a criminal prosecution,[15] though it is still possible that Kreisky was forced to pay for Wiesenthal's costs or make other recompense for an accusation unproven at the time and not much publicised since.

Perhaps the most complete and certainly the most credible version is that of Guy Walters - "Kreisky’s claims were supported by unsubstantiated evidence provided by the Polish and Soviet governments, and when Wiesenthal took Kreisky to court, it was Wiesenthal who won".[16] Post-war Austria (partially occupied by the Soviets in 1945, but allowed to self-govern in permanent neutrality in 1955) was a cockpit of the cold war and the Soviets believed that the hunt for Nazi war-criminals was being prosecuted as a western plot. According to the communists, every Nazi useful to NATO intelligence had been allowed to escape justice, protected by numerous US agents such as Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal had a particularly strong motive to collaborate with the Americans and protect war-criminals since, while he'd obviously not been a Nazi himself, the Soviets were utterly convinced he'd been an important collaborator with the Gestapo.[17] The dispute over this court case, and the result, is only a relatively small detail - but it should be easy enough to check. Did an Austrian court really rule against their most famous Chancellor, then 78 years old (and who was to die just one year later)? Weisenthal lived a further 15 years and the version that acquits him of collaboration was pretty much publicly accepted until his obituaries and the history of Nazi-hunting started to be written.

The whole field of Holocaust memoirs and writings is full of discrepancies but those of the war and immediate post-war chaos are often easy to understand. Less easy to understand is why the results of fierce political battles which should be well known (or at least, one version well documented), cannot be found. For instance, the Wikipedia article on Kreisky says that Kreisky (perhaps resentful of the western and Zionist influence he'd already suffered) once claimed (over the 1973 hostage taking in Austria) that he was "the only politician in Europe Golda Meir can't blackmail". There is no reference offered for this information. The Jerusalem Post described a fierce argument between Kreisky and Golda Meir over the 1973 incident wherein the word "blackmail" is used twice. But it is her accusing Palestinians of blackmail, not him accusing Israel of the crime.[18] Why has a reference based source got it wrong? Needless to say, this article has been written (to Wikipedia standards) as carefully as possible and should not be hosting any such glaring errors. Please check and correct if you find them.

Deborah Lipstadt (see below) has attacked Simon Wiesenthal, accusing him of inventing on "no basis in historical reality" a figure for the Holocaust of eleven million, being 6 million Jews and 5 million others. She believes that the number of non-Jewish civilians killed by the Germans for racial or ideological reasons "does not come close" to five million (though she is quick to add that it would have done in the event of a victory by Hitler). She believes that speaking of "5 million non-Jews in the Holocaust" is historical revisionism but admits that the reactions she gets range from skepticism to outrage and a conviction that she is ethnocentric and unable to feel the pain of anyone but her own people. (A charge Wiesenthal laid at Wiesel).

Other Israeli historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman also challenged Wiesenthal on this point and he admitted that he had invented the figure of eleven million victims, choosing it as almost, but not quite, as large as six million. However, Wiesenthal may have won this argument - in 2011 Lipstadt claimed that a group of rabbis and imams who visited Auschwitz under the aegis of the US State Department issued a statement after their visit referring to the "twelve million victims, six million Jews and six million non-Jews" and "Now we have parity. One wonders what's next".[2] Scholarship seems divided on this point - the "The Columbia guide to the Holocaust" by Niewyk lists the alternatives. Only the handicapped (from 1939) and the Gypsies (from 1943) were targetted for complete extermination. (Eg homosexuals, though persecuted, were mostly released from prison and not sent to concentration camps). Others studying the Holocaust include all those people killed solely because they were members of "groups". Some of these "groups" are linked by ethnicity eg Polish and Soviet civilians (along with Soviet prisoners of war) while some are more ideological eg political prisoners and religious dissenters. These other groups account for 5 million or so, for a total figure of around 17 million.[19]

Ongoing discussion

Phillip Weiss (author of the well respected Mondoweiss blog) claims there has been ongoing fallout over Guy Walters' book[1] as people have realised that hiding the truth about Wiesenthal might tend to encourage Holocaust Denial. However, Walters responded that restriction of access to historical records was not the cause of the resignation of 12 members of the 15 member international advisory board of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies.[4] Walters also disputes that he was the first person to publish the criticisms (Philip Weiss had never heard previously seen them in scholarly discourse) and cites the book "Betrayal" (1993), Eli Rosenbaum’s account of the Waldheim investigation (Wiesenthal seems to have been something of an apologist for Waldheim). The Guardian obituary of Wiesenthal claims that the World Jewish Congress had a vendetta against Wiesenthal and the "Hunting Evil" book was part of it - "virtually bracketed Wiesenthal with [Kreisky] as co-conspirators to deceive the world about Mr Waldheim's involvement in war crimes in the Balkans".

A subsequent "exposure" of Wiesenthal is less scathing. A year after Guy Walters book on Nazi-hunters in general, an Israeli historian, Tom Segev produced a biography of Wiesenthal. Deborah Lipstadt says that Segev shows "uncharacteristic enthusiasm" for his subject, describing Wiesenthal as a man of "broad humanity," a "tireless warrior against evil and a central figure in the struggle for human rights." Segev quotes an official at the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles' observation that "if he had not existed, Wiesenthal would have to be invented" but does not exonerate his subject from the charge of fraud - he "fabricated" evidence, "fantasized", was "often inaccurate," and "claim[ed] credit" for things he never did.[2] In the UK Daily Mail, a review of Segev's book by Guy Walters entitled "Why I believe the king of the Nazi hunters, Simon Wiesenthal, was a fraud" drew readers comments which are much more positive to Wiesenthal, some 75% of whom defend him.[20] Walters remains very careful to distance himself from those who would use his information to deny the Holocaust.

References

  1. a b c Deconstructing Simon Wiesenthal, Mondoweiss blog, January 4, 2010.
  2. a b c d e f Simon Wiesenthal and the ethics of history a review of Tom Segev's "Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends" Deborah Lipstadt, Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2011.
  3. "Simon Wiesenthal as an author" a list of publications, Wikipedia.
  4. a b Deconstructing Simon Wiesenthal at the Mondoweiss blog, includes some corrections by the author of "Hunting Evil", Guy Walters. 5th Jan 2010.
  5. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People A Conversation with Professor Norman Finkelstein, CounterPunch, December 13, 2001.
  6. Descendents appeal to UN over latest Mamilla Cemetery demolitions "The families have been engaged in a lengthy legal and public relations battle in defense of the cemetery. On 10 February 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York filed a petition for urgent action with the U.N. to protect the cemetery from further desecration" August 18, 2010.
  7. Criticism of Wiesenthal at Wikipedia is limited, all from "Hunting Evil".
  8. a b It is right to expose Wiesenthal "Accepting that the great Nazi hunter was a braggart and, yes, a liar, can live alongside acknowledging his contribution. Jewish Chronicle, Daniel Finkelstein, August 20, 2009.
  9. "Hunting Evil" by Guy Walters review by Max Hastings, Times, 19th July 2009.
  10. Hunting Evil "A fascinating history traces the mundane lives of Nazi war criminals". Special mention of Simon Wiesenthal. Daily Telegraph. 21 Aug 2009.
  11. a b Kurt Waldheim, Austrian president and UN secretary-general who lied about his wartime service in the German army [British and] Wiesenthal ... confirmed there was no evidence that Waldheim had committed war crimes. "The belated furore in 1986 ludicrously implied that higher standards were needed for the Austrian presidency than for the UN general-secretaryship." Guardian. 15th June 2007.
  12. Walters, Guy (2009). Hunting Evil. Bantam Press, cited by Wikipedia.
  13. International Committee of Historians case against Kurt Waldheim, endorsed by Wiesenthal. Wikipedia.
  14. a b "In 1986 Kreisky repeated these accusations ... in 1989 Kreisky was found guilty of defamation and had to pay a fine." Austria’s Attitude Toward Israel: Following the European Mainstream by Anton Pelinka, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, September 2006.
  15. a b Obituary Simon Wiesenthal "motto was: Justice, not vengeance - and to the end of his days he contended that in democratic societies the rule of law was paramount." Guardian. 20th Sept 2005.
  16. The head Nazi-hunter’s trail of lies Simon Wiesenthal, famed for his pursuit of justice, caught fewer war criminals than he claimed and fabricated much of his own Holocaust story. Times, Guy Walters, July 19, 2009.
  17. "The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed The Jewish People" by Mark Aarons and John Loftus, 1997.
  18. The Schoenau ultimatum Golda Meir "And is it also not a humanitarian duty not to succumb to terrorist blackmail, Herr Chancellor?" Jerusalem Post September 1973.
  19. "The Columbia guide to the Holocaust" "broader definition of the Holocaust ... as many as 17,000,000 victims".p.45. Niewyk
  20. Why I believe the king of the Nazi hunters, Simon Wiesenthal, was a fraud Guy Walters reviews Tom Segev's book. Comments from readers are much more positive to Wiesenthal, some 75% of comments defend him. Daily Mail. 10th September 2010.