Deconstructing Simon Wiesenthal

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, California, is named after the famed Austrian Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, a connection that turns out to be appropriate in disturbing but unexpected ways. That is, both Simon Wiesenthal and the Center named after him have been accused of flagrant lying, exaggerations and half-truths. Wiesenthal’s confabulations were never a matter of published discourse among scholars, so far as this writer can determine, nor were they popular knowledge until quite recently. In any case, it is now known that Wiesenthal, a born story-teller, rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story—in fact many of the things he claimed to have done were fabrications.

This recently came to light with the publication, in June of 2009, of Hunting Evil, by British Author Guy Walters, in which he characterizes Simon Wiesenthal as “a liar—and a bad one at that.” Wiesenthal, he maintains, would “concoct outrageous stories about his war years and make false claims about his academic career.” Walters found that there were “so many inconsistencies between his three main memoirs and between those memoirs and contemporaneous documents, that it is impossible to establish a reliable narrative from them. Wiesenthal’s scant regard for the truth makes it possible to doubt everything he ever wrote or said.”

Daniel Finkelstein, grandson of the founder of the Wiener Library in London, one of the oldest and most reputable institutions for the study of the Holocaust, had this to say in an August 2009 article in the London Times about Guy Walters’ Hunting Evil: “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.”

So far the Wiener Library itself has not responded directly to this revaluation of Wiesenthal. That is interesting because one assumes that they, like many others in the field of Holocaust Studies, may have been aware for some time that there were problems with Wiesenthal’s resume.

So what is the truth about Simon Wiesenthal? Born in 1908 in Galicia, Wiesenthal attended the Czech Technical University in Prague in 1929, where he had a reputation as a gifted raconteur. (Walters says he appeared as “a stand-up comedian,” which could be a British approximation of the cabaret theatre popular at that time.) Wiesenthal claimed to have graduated from Czech Technical, but records show that he didn’t. He also maintained that he studied at Lwow Polytechnic in Galicia in 1935, but there is no record of him ever attending classes there. Wiesenthal likewise claimed to have operated his own architectural office and built elegant villas, but again Polish records do not support this. Instead he appears to have worked as a supervisor in a Lviv furniture factory from 1935 until 1939, a somewhat more mundane occupation, and one that Wiesenthal himself acknowledged before he became a famous celebrity in Vienna.

During the Second World War, Wiesenthal was apprehended by the Nazis, and was in at least six different Nazi camps. For reasons unknown, however, he claimed later to have been in 13 of them. This raises the question that must inevitably come up when contemplating Wiesenthal’s stories about himself. Being in a single Nazi camp would clearly be a horrific, mind-blowing experience, much less being in six of them. (This writer cannot confirm which ones were death camps and which ones labor or concentration camps.) So why did Wiesenthal feel it necessary to inflate the number of camps he’d been in to 13, particularly since such claims were likely to be checked later?

Part of the answer seems to be that Wiesenthal was a natural-born confabulator and story-teller who had a powerful need to create the persona of a superhero. But that alone does not explain his behavior. The Holocaust raises questions about human nature, and there is a demand for accounts that can explain, rationalize, and create a moral context for it. Wiesenthal offered people a plausible narrative with a moral framework: Nazis incarcerated him; he miraculously escaped; he now tracked them down. The systemic evil of the Holocaust was so huge and so threatening that it could be successfully addressed only by a superman whose capacity to survive evil and punish transgressors was larger than life. Wiesenthal was acutely aware of this; and his heart-stopping accounts of last-minutes escapes from the Nazis played to this anxiety. And the fact that he was bringing masses of Nazi war criminals to justice was the happy ending to the success story, the kind peopled wanted to hear; but as Walters demonstrates in Hunting Evil, at least one of Wiesenthal’s accounts of last-minute escapes from the Nazis can be shown to be a fabrication, and others are questionable.

After the war, Wiesenthal founded two organizations that sought to collect and centralize information on Nazi war criminals at large. Sometimes these war criminals were “hiding in plain sight,” in the sense that governments knew where they were but lacked the political will to arrest them. The main function of Wiesenthal’s organizations, then, was to keep the issue current in the public eye—-and he had the kind of personality, and the journalistic and public relations skills, to do just that. This is the real reason for Wiesenthal’s notoriety. The organizations set up by Wiesenthal were research organizations, and had no real investigative functions, such as law enforcement might have, and no power to arrest people. Guy Walters concludes (correctly, in my opinion) that the disinterestedness of western governments in hunting down Nazi criminals was far more repugnant morally than Wiesenthal’s experiments with the truth. That said, the fact that Wiesenthal told so many unnecessary fibs, and that people who might have suspected this said nothing to challenge them, is one more example of the Holocaust’s ability to corrupt.

Although Wiesenthal claimed to have brought over a thousand Nazi criminals to justice, he generated information leading to the arrest of less than a hundred at most. His most outrageous claim was that he participated in the tracking down of Adolf Eichmann. This was, and remains, a falsehood—-the tracking and kidnapping of Eichmann was the work of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, and Wiesenthal’s involvement was limited to passing on whatever information he had to them. This inconvenient reality was widely known—-certainly it was known to Mossad, which despised and resented Wiesenthal’s self-serving stories—-but apparently few people were willing to question Wiesenthal’s many claims.

Except in Austria, that is, where Wiesenthal was for a long time a controversial figure. It the 1970s, Wiesenthal publicly berated Austrian Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky for having so many ex-Nazis in his cabinet—-and in this, Wiesenthal was without question right. The controversy he stirred up was especially important because Austrians had, up to that time, generally avoided much public discussion about their own responsibility for Nazi crimes; and Wiesenthal may have welcomed the opportunity to open up this issue when he made his sensational—-but accurate—-accusations about Kreisky’s cabinet choices. Kreisky, a Jewish Social Democrat, hinted that Wiesenthal had survived the war only because he collaborated with the Gestapo; but Wiesenthal sued for libel and won. Wiesenthal also drew fire for emphasizing that others besides Jews died in the gas chambers, which brought him into conflict with Elie Wiesel, who took the view that the Holocaust should be seen as an exclusively Jewish event. Some of Wiesenthal’s initiatives were important and necessary ones—-how ironic, then, that his ideas were given serious consideration only because of the rough-and-tumble public persona that Wiesenthal had invented for himself as part of his entrepreneurial and overly-imaginative self-promotion as a swashbuckling Nazi-hunter.

Wiesenthal received practically every honor known to the 20th century, over 100 of them. Mainly because of his own self-promotion, Wiesenthal became much more than an author with some dubious and not particularly well-written books—-he became a secular saint. But of what secular religion was Saint Wiesenthal the exemplar? The trouble with Wiesenthal was not his extraordinary efforts to focus public attention on Nazi criminals—-the problem was, and is, that his accounts of his own experiences were never challenged by people who professed to have an interest in historical truth. His addiction to confabulation made him a prisoner of what Norman Finkelstein has called ‘The Holocaust Industry,’ which we may describe as the systematic use of the Holocaust for personal and organizational gain.

We are left with the sense that perhaps some who noticed discrepancies in Wiesenthal’s books said nothing because they were afraid of being denounced as anti-Semites. Author Guy Walters refers to this in his July 2009 article in the Sunday Times. “Some may feel I am too harsh on [Wiesenthal] and that I run a professional danger in seemingly allying myself with a vile host of neo-Nazis, revisionists, Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. I belong firmly outside any of these squalid camps and it is my intention to wrestle criticism of Wiesenthal away from their clutches. His figure is a complex and important one. If there was a motive for his duplicity, it may well have been rooted in good intentions.” Guy Walters made this caveat a month after his book came out last summer; the fact that he made it at all indicates the sensitivity with which a professional historian must approach anything having to do with the Holocaust.

In fact, the appearance of Walters’ book has some of the characteristics of a literary campaign, although not necessarily of pre-arrangement. Walters’ Hunting Evil was published in Britain on June 18, 2009, at the beginning of last summer. A month later, in July, an article by Walters appeared in the Sunday Times, which set forth his reasons for revealing Wiesenthal’s duplicities. (One might think that because something is true might be reason enough for a historian to reveal it.) In August, 2009, a month later, Daniel Finkelstein’s supportive review appears in the Jewish Chronicle, validating Walters’ research. Finkelstein’s review was pivotal, since—-as the grandson of the founder of the world’s oldest library on Holocaust history—-he is assumed to speak with an authority that others lack, including perhaps Guy Walters himself.

That is not to say that the above was part of a coordinated campaign. Walters wrote on his website that he does not know Finkelstein, and based on internal evidence this writer believes that to be true. It simply indicates how complicated telling the truth can become when one writes about the Holocaust, and how important it is for many historians to carefully consider the public-relations angle before revealing things that might make people uncomfortable. In Guy Walters’ case, he received support for his findings from a man whose credentials in Holocaust Studies cannot be challenged. (There is at least one new book about Wiesenthal coming out soon, which after the Walters’ revelations will almost surely be forced to deal with obvious discrepancies in Wiesenthal’s narrative.)

There is ongoing fallout to the Walters’ book in other areas. On November 26, 2009, there appeared a sensational Associated Press report (carried on Walters’ website) that 12 members of the 15 member international advisory board of the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies have resigned, apparently after an uproar about the availability of research material to scholars. (The AP report gives as the reason for the international hullabaloo certain objections by scholars “that restrictions on access to files made independent research impossible.”) Inevitably, one of those involved in the AP report warned that unrestricted access to the Institute’s files might encourage “holocaust deniers.” The opposite seems much more likely. The longer people are denied access to primary sources, the more doubts it will create about how objectively historians are able to write about the Holocaust.

Beginning with the publication in 1961 of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, people on the Left, political and cultural progressives, and some psychologists sought to deconstruct the Holocaust so that they could learn how systemic evil operates. If the Shoah was history’s greatest crime, why not try to understand how it happened, so such crimes could be thwarted in the future? That was the right approach to take, but it quickly led to a kind of truth that many people did not want to accept—-that there is a Nazi in every person, and that any tribe, national group or country in the world could experience the same moral collapse as Germany experienced, given the right conditions. That was too threatening for many people, because they did not want to acknowledge how deep evil ran in human nature.

And it was, also, the ultimate threat to the neo-cons that were beginning to gain power in the US. If the same moral collapse that happened in Germany could happen elsewhere, such an analysis could be applied anywhere, which meant that the big neo-conservative foundations could not control discourse about the Holocaust. An objective deconstruction of the development of evil in Germany could even serve as a guide to what is happening in Israel under its right-wing government. The neo-cons did not want that to happen, because of their position that Israel’s government should never be criticized; and because the neo-conservatives did not want a truly objective deconstruction of the Holocaust that could teach people how to recognize various kinds of systemic evil. In that happened, people could recognize and describe the operation of systemic evil in the state of Israel, and in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Invoking the Holocaust in social and political discourse became a way for the powerful neo-cons and the US Israel Lobby to use the unresolved trauma of the Holocaust, in some cases to generate ideas and in other cases to suppress them. The use of the Holocaust to manipulate people and societies to uncritically support Israel depends on a particularization of the Holocaust—-it insists, in other words, that Nazi evil cannot be compared to any other form of systemic evil. It insists that the causes of German moral collapse (violent nationalism, fanatical identification with victim status, deep feelings of inferiority, a longing for apocalyptic solutions) cannot be applied anywhere else. That is despicable nonsense.

Not only can the causes of German moral collapse be seen in other nations and situations; such an analysis must be applied to other nations and situations, if we are to learn anything about how systemic evil works. Neo-cons generally dislike that, because they wish to discuss the Holocaust only within a context of Jewish exceptionalism. But sadly, there’s a Nazi in everybody—-in fact, that’s the most important thing that the Holocaust teaches us. As Avraham Burg writes, today’s Israel feels a lot like Weimer, not because Israeli culture is similar to central Europe’s culture, but because the decline into evil is generally similar wherever it occurs. How could Israel not look like Weimer, when so much of what passes for a national consciousness in Israel is simply trauma from the Holocaust, which people do not attempt to deconstruct along universal lines but to which they cling as personal as well as national identities?

It was not until after Simon Wiesenthal died in 2005 that a British historian was able to write frankly about the duplicity in Simon Wiesenthal’s stories. Again I must ask, why did not the people who may have known about Wiesenthal’s casual relationship with the truth speak up about it? Predictably, the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, California, is in no hurry to accept this new historical appraisal of their namesake—-their website, in fact, faithfully replicates many of Wiesenthal’s lies and inaccuracies. But that should not surprise us, because the Simon Wiesenthal Center, like Simon Wiesenthal himself, is not interested in historical truth, nor is it committed to teaching about the history of the Holocaust in all its complexity. The Simon Wiesenthal Center is, rather, committed to using the Holocaust to raise money, and using the trauma associated with it to promote the Center’s extremist political perspectives.

This essay appeared at the Mondoweiss website January 3, 2010. It generated many comments. My belief is that we must see Wiesenthal for who he was—an important if flawed figure whose very confabulations tell us a great deal about the trauma of the Holocaust, and the way he—and his supporters—tried to manage traumatic memory.

Lawrence Swaim

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