Book Review: Fugitives: A History of Nazi Mercenaries During the Cold War


by Danny Orbach

New York: Pegasus Books, 2022. Pp. xiv, 288. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $28.95. ISBN: 1643138952

Hitler’s Henchmen in the Post-War World

Danny Orbach, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote an intriguing account of post-war Nazis becoming arms profiteers and intelligence agents in Europe, Middle East, and South America. At the same time, their activities and past involvement in the Holocaust led to attempted and sometimes successful assassinations by the intelligence agencies of France and Israel. The Israelis succeeded in kidnapping Adolf Eichmann but repeatedly failed to kidnap or kill Alois Brunner who found refuge in Syria. Former Nazis divided in their choices. Some sided with the West out of anti-communism working as intelligence sources for western agencies, like the CIA., while others hated the West and worked for the Soviets. Nazis who retained their obsession with the Jews preferred to become anti-Israeli and chose to work for Arab governments or revolutionary movements in Syria, Egypt, and Algeria. A majority became arms merchants and/or intelligence sources, mercenaries for anyone who would pay them. Most had no information of any use but successfully conned intelligence agencies, especially in West Germany to pay them.

Orbach concentrated on 1945 to 1963 and gave a detailed account of every significant Nazi’s activities since the war. Israeli and West German intelligence archives gave the author widespread access to sources. American sources were not as open and are mentioned less frequently although American intelligence was quite willing to use Nazis like Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, and hide their use of mass murderers as intelligence sources. France kept its historic files closed to Orbach because of France’s extensive attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to kill Nazi arms merchants selling to Algerian revolutionaries on German soil. Both France and West Germany kept France’s assassination attempts quiet because they interfered with the Franco-German entente after World War II. Obviously, Orbach did not have access to Soviet sources about the important double agents the Russians used in the West German intelligence agencies. Almost everything collected by West German intelligence ended up in the hands of the East Germans and Russians.

Because of the development of the Cold War, neither the United States nor the new West German government looked too closely at the former Nazis who found employment in the government or the intelligence services.

Former Nazis, including those active in the mass murder of Jews, worked for German intelligence from 1940-1963. General Reinhard Gehlen, a former Nazi intelligence commander, who became solidly pro-western, headed West German intelligence, and was later embarrassed by several former Nazis he hired turning out to be double agents for the Russians. Gehlen turned out to be a bad judge of the loyalties and value of the information provided by former Nazis. A German Jew, Fritz Bauer, who became attorney-general of the State of Hesse, in 1956 pressured the German government to finally prosecute some of the Nazis on German soil. The capture of Eichmann added to the pressure on the German government to distance itself from the use of Nazis but did not end their use by Gehlen.

After the capture and trial of Eichmann, the Israelis had their own dilemma. West Germany provided arms to Israel and eventually established diplomatic relations. With the exception of Brunner, Josef Mengele, and a few other top and middle level Nazis, the Israeli government did not want to upset German-Israeli relations by too vigorous a hunt for former Nazis. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the Mossad became obsessed with a group of German scientists and technicians, some with a Nazi past, working on Egypt’s rocked program, which the Israelis viewed as an existential threat to the security and survival of the Jewish state. Nasser publicly revealed the rocket program on Revolution Day, July 23, 1962. Fearing a second Holocaust, Israelis wanted to assassinate the German scientists, technicians, and military advisers. However, the Israelis arranged with the German government and German business leaders to offer jobs back in Germany, thus undercutting the rocket program, and eventually realized that Nasser lacked the resources and technical knowledge to develop a rocket program that would threaten Israel.

This an excellent study of the machinations of former Nazis from 1945-1963, and of the mistakes made by the West German, French, and Israeli governments and intelligence agencies in dealing with them. In the end, most of the information the Nazis provided was useless, and often fictional. I would have liked more about the American use of the Nazis, and there is little mention of the British handling of the Nazis. Orbach does not compare Israeli concerns about Iranian missile and nuclear programs today with those about Egypt in the early 1960s. Is there a fundamental difference between the Iranian capabilities and the Egyptian?


Our Reviewer: Henry Strum is professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College and 2021-22 Sherman David Spector Faculty Fellow in Humanities. He previously reviewed Contested Commemoration: The 1876 Centennial, Independence Day, and the Reconstruction-era South




Note: Fugitives is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Harvey Strum   

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