Words by Lucy Colpitts
You may be familiar with the Prime Video show, “Hunters”, starring Al Pacino and Logan Lerman, a seemingly fictional series following the lives of vigilante Nazi hunters in 1970s New York City. But did you know that this was based on a true story?
During World War II, the Nazis developed a terrifying arsenal of highly destructive weaponry, from biological nerve agents that carried the bubonic plague, to the feared and coveted V-1 and V-2 rockets. As the Cold War dawned, the U.S. government was itching to get a hold of Nazi technology to strengthen their military and scientific might, leading them to embark upon a secret project in 1946 that would become known as “Operation Paperclip”. This top-secret operation hastened the immigration process for over 1600 Nazi doctors, physicists and chemists, as well as their families, who sought to escape prosecution in Germany for the atrocities they committed during the Holocaust. Knowing that taking in high-ranking Nazi scientists was morally problematic, U.S. officials were keen to shroud this operation in secrecy, whitewashing the histories of some of the recruits.
A member of Adolf Hitler’s elite and a major in the SS, Wernher von Braun, was a prolific war criminal brought over to America as part of “Operation Paperclip”. Due to Braun’s aerospace engineering experience, the Americans chose to ignore his full awareness of the Nazi death camps and personal involvement in hand-picking slave labourers from Buchenwald concentration camp, handing him U.S. citizenship, a job at NASA and in the U.S. Army, and assigning him as chief of the US Army ballistic weapons program. Braun went on to develop U.S. missile arsenal during the Cold War, and later served as one of the architects for the Apollo program, which sent man to the moon in 1969. In 1977, Braun was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, and never faced any implications for the atrocities he committed in WWII. He died later that year, aged 65, in Alexandria, Virginia.
President Carter viewed Braun as a beloved figure, issuing an official statement after his death:
—- “To millions of Americans, Wernher von Braun’s name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work….”
The many unnamed victims of his torture and forced labour during the Holocaust remain forgotten, seemingly erased from history by Operation Paperclip.
Another prominent Nazi war-criminal that was granted U.S. citizenship as a result of Operation Paperclip was Hubertus Strughold, a man who, during the Holocaust, used inmates from the Dachau concentration camp, as well as young children from a psychiatric asylum, as guinea pigs for human experiments. His victims were subjected to surgeries without anaesthetics, immersed in frozen water to examine the effects of hypothermia. Brought to America post-war, Strughold became the head of NASA’s Department of Space Medicine, working alongside Wernher von Braun on the Apollo space mission. He later went on to become known as “The Father of Space Medicine”, and every year from 1963 – 2013, the Space Medicine Association gave out the Hubertus Strughold Award to a top scientist or clinician for outstanding work in aviation medicine. Like Braun, Strughold never faced any implications for the atrocities he committed during the Holocaust. He died in 1986, aged 88, in San Antonio, Texas.
Kurt Blome was another high-ranking Nazi scientist that, despite conducting deadly experiments on thousands of prisoners at Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, aswell as heading a German institute that developed biological warfare agents, was recruited by the U.S. government. Blome infected Jewish prisoners with typhus-carrying lice in order to study how to best cause an epidemic. Additionally, he tested lethal nerve agents such as Sarin and Tabun (now considered weapons of mass destruction) on Auschwitz inmates, causing respiratory paralysis, lung blisters, which lead to death. Blome was hired by the US Army Chemical Corps to work on top secret chemical and biological warfare projects that remain classified to this day, and never faced any charges for the crimes he committed during the Holocaust. He died in 1969, aged 75, in Dortmund, West Germany.
Blome worked alongside one of the highest-ranking physicians at Auschwitz, Josef Mengele. Known as the “Angel of Death”, Mengele was given full licence to mutilate or kill his subjects, performing an extensive range of often lethal experiments on Jewish and Roma twins, with the majority of them being children. He performed various surgeries without anaesthesia, including organ removal, castration, and amputation. Mengele would inject diseases, including typhus and tuberculosis, into one twin and not the other. When one died, the other was brutally murdered to examine and compare the effects of the disease on the twin bodies. He also attempted to fabricate blue eye colour, injecting chemicals into the eyes of his victims, which often resulted in permanent blindness. Josef Mengele eluded capture and drowned in 1979, aged 67, after suffering a stroke whilst swimming off the coast of São Paulo.
Over 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, along with millions of others, and only a tiny percentage of Nazis were brought to justice. Only 6,656 Nazis were convicted of war crimes, when there were (at the very least) 200,000 individuals who actively played a part in the persecution of men, women and children during the Holocaust. After the CIA shared the details of Operation Paperclip to the public, it makes one question the ethical cost of ignoring the abhorrent war crimes of Nazi soldiers, as the United States ensured that Blome, Strughold, Braun, and thousands of others could live out their lives without punishment or accountability for their atrocities.
Picture Credits: NASA