The Nazi-hunter has become one of the more compelling cultural echoes of post war history; whether these are real life Nazi-hunters or fictional ones, they continue to fascinate and intrigue. It is relatively hard to imagine now, but for the 50 years after the end of the second world war there was a worldwide scramble to bring the remaining Nazis to justice for the crimes perpetuated during the war and the Holocaust.
The Nuremburg trials brought large chunks of the Nazi leadership to justice but many more escaped; we now know that many of them did indeed find their way to Argentina and other far-off places in South America, thus proving that many of the old clichés are actually true. The search to find them and bring them to justice was done by real human beings such as Simon Wiesenthal, Yaron Svoray, Elliot Welles, and Efraim Zuroff; these were not moustachioed swashbucklers in the Captain Kronos mould but their achievements were in many ways more stunning than any fiction.
Our fascination with them is based upon a simple cultural understanding: that Nazism is the universal gold standard of evil. The struggle against fascism united most of the world and virtually all shades of political opinion at the time, and the understanding of the unique nature of the ideology has been the foundation of world history since the end of the war. It was the spine on which we hung the twentieth century. The Nazi-hunter was therefore the only real example of righteous vengeance that we could point to – we knew Dirty Harry was not meant to be considered a role model but what possible objection could there be to bringing Klaus Barbie, Adolf Eichmann or Josef Mengele to justice?
But the cultural portrayal of the Nazi-hunter does diverge somewhat from reality. In ‘X Men: First Class’ Magento is portrayed as man on a murderous vendetta against the men who sent his people to their deaths – and why not? – but his mission of revenge ultimately warps him into an amoral and ultimately malign force (although he still remains considerably more sympathetic than Charles Xavier). The Nazi-hunter of the Magneto archetype is therefore portrayed as a man who is ultimately destroyed by his need for revenge and who turns the anti-fascist slogan of ‘never again’ into a code which has no respect for human rights nor humanity in general.
In a way even V from ‘V for Vendetta’ is a Nazi-hunter too (if we expand the term to include other varieties of fascist) and he demonstrates much the same traits – twisted by his vengeance, ultimately alienated from the only person he cares about. Sure he has fun, but the moral of the story is that it’s no way to live.
The real Nazi-hunters, however, were quite a different matter; these were not sadistic figures overtaken by malice and the need for revenge, but real people with genuine but ordinary human failings. The battle between the forces of good and of evil may take on a cartoonish quality in fiction, whether this is a battle for the Arc of the Covenant or an attack of zombie Nazis in Norway, but it takes place in the here and now and is fought by real people. It pays to remember that the last Nazi that Wiesenthal brought to justice was only convicted in 2001, little more than a decade ago.
So although the Nazi-hunters of fiction may provide the inspiration for fighting evil, the actual work in the here and now is much more mundane and much stranger too... although all the more worth it for that.