Harold Marcuse: Eric Lichtblau's book, The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men

Kira Thurman's picture

Last month New York Times staff reporter Eric Lichtblau gave a talk at my university about his 2014 book, The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I was surprised when nearly half of his talk focused on his first chapter, which exaggerates how badly the US treated Jewish survivors in postwar Germany, implying that abysmal conditions (as described in August 1945 in Earl Harrison's report for President Truman) were intentional and lasted "for years."

Several local listeners expressed their "shock" to me about these supposed "revelations," and I tried to correct them within my local network. Now I see Lichtblau broadcasting them in the Sunday New York Times (and, upon searching, elsewhere):
"Surviving the Nazis, Only to Be Jailed by America" (NYTimes Sunday Review, Feb. 7, 2015)

Here are three links to reviews of Lichtblau's book when it first came out. 
The Oct. 29, 2014 Times of Israel reviewed the book, picking up that the Jewish remnant "languished for years ... often living in abject misery alongside the very Nazis ..."

Deborah Lipstadt's Oct. 31, 2014 review in the NYT doesn't pick up on this question--she doesn't examine the first book chapter on the DPs

The third link is Lichtblau's interview on NPR's Fresh Air from November 5, 2014, where he promotes his exaggerations even after host Dave Davies tries to correct him. Here's a Kostprobe:
"I really had no intention of looking at the survivors. It seems sort of irrelevant to what I was doing. And then the more I got into it and the more horrified I was by the conditions that the survivors lived in - where you had thousands and thousands of people dying even after the liberation of disease and malnutrition - I realized that it was relevant to the story because as easy as it was for the Nazis to get into America, it was just as horribly difficult for the Jews and the other survivors to get out of the camps. And it took them months - and in some cases a couple of years - to get out of these displaced person camps. And it made me realize that the liberation that, you know, I had learned about years ago was in some sense sort of a mockery.
[Davies then specifies that these conditions lasted "for weeks or months" because the US Army was initially not prepared for a humanitarian crisis; but EL continues:]
"General Patton believed that the Nazis were best suited to run these camps. In fact, he openly defied orders from then-General Eisenhower, who was in charge of the European forces after the war. Patton was in charge of the displaced persons camps. And Patton had sort of an odd fondness almost for the Nazis. And he believed that they were the ones - the most - in the best position to officially run the camps. And he, you know - he gave them supervisory approval to basically lord over the Jews and the other survivors."

I immediately posted a comment to the online article, but the NYT has not posted it among the 73 comments they did approve. The Sunday Times published ONE letter in response to Eric Lichtblau's book (‘Disputed People’ in Camps} --presuming the veracity of Lichtblau's exaggerations: "The callous attitude displayed by some of the American military was inhumane and disturbing. ..."

I contacted Atina Grossmann, whose 2007 monograph *Jews, Germans, and Allies* won the AHA Mosse prize and Wiener Library's Fraenkel Prize, and she submitted a hard copy letter to the Times pointing out many distortions. It remains to be seen whether they will publish it.

First, I am interested in what other H-German subscribers think of the article. (On-list replies, that we might have a discussion?)
Also, I would ask H-German members who are familiar with this period to read the article and, if they (you) deem appropriate, submit their own comments and letters. As Atina pointed out to me, this type of writing contributes to the "Jews as Victims" stereotype--as if the surviving DPs had no agency and did not soon create a vibrant cultural life of their own. Not to mention that the US Army remedied the situation by October 1945--as multiple stories in the NYT itself on Oct. 17, 1945 pointed out--not "years" later.

Here is my spontaneous response to Lichtblau's NYT article:
This article exaggerates numbers and bad conditions, and plays fast and loose with time frames. Mr. Lichtblau distorts historical reality by insinuating that the conditions described by Harrison in his report (published, by the way, in the Sept. 30, 1945 New York Times and now easily available on the Web) that Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) "remained for months" under armed guard, and that George Patton's virulently antisemitic attitude shaped policy for any significant length of time. But let us start at the beginning. He claims that "in the early months after the war … thousands of survivors died from disease and malnutrition." Many hundreds did die in the first days and, in Belsen only, thousands, in the first weeks after liberation (April 15 for Belsen), in spite of heroic efforts to stem the twin tides of starvation and epidemic disease. However, by the end of May the death rate had been stemmed. It is a huge distortion and disservice to, for instance, the many volunteer British medical students, some of whom died of typhus in Belsen treating survivors, to claim that such dying was allowed to go on for "months." 

President Truman received Harrison's report in late August and General Eisenhower immediately implemented improvements in September. The Oct. 17, 1945 New York Times reported at length about the changed situation. Already in June many Jewish DPs had been traveling freely across occupied Germany and back to their homelands. Lichtblau's statement that DPs of any sort (Jewish or not) were forced to remain "on the same grounds as the concentration camps" is flat out wrong--care was taken to find other facilities, such as Nazi boarding schools and military hospitals, where they could be more properly housed and cared for. By June 1945, even in Belsen, DPs had been moved to the neighboring former Wehrmacht (Germany Army) camp, and soon formed a vibrant Jewish community, albeit one that dearly wished to emigrate. The infamous "Exodus" incident in 1947, in which the British turned back a ship full of Jewish refugees from the shores of Palestine, testifies to that. 

Lichtblau further claims that "hundreds of thousands of war refugees from Eastern Europe ... gained entry to the United States in the first few years after the war," but that it was "scarce" for camp survivors to receive visas. Hundreds of thousands? In the early years? I would like to see evidence of that. In fact, until the DP act of 1948 was signed, very few Europeans of any sort were allowed in, and not until 1950 was a quota of 55,000 Volksdeutsche allowed to immigrate, compared to 400,000 DPs. Of course especially some of the big fish Nazi scientists were spirited into the US already in June 1945, but before 1950 I would guess this group numbered in the hundreds at most.

I could go on and on.  "In limbo for as long as five years"--once the state of Israel was founded in May 1948, only a relative handful of DPs who would not or could not immigrate there remained in Germany, although indeed the very last DP camp was not closed until 1957. Harrison's report has survivors complaining less about wearing their striped uniforms, but having to wear German army or SS uniforms, and in fact in many locales in the first weeks after liberation German communities were forced to turn in civilian clothing for liberated inmates.

This kind of sensationalizing is beneath the standards of the New York Times. You would do well to ask a specialist such as Atina Grossmann, who has published an excellent, nuanced book about DPs in Germany after the war, to write a piece correcting your misinformation. Your column inches would be better devoted to portraying the conditions in today's DP camps in Iraq and Turkey.
Harold Marcuse, Santa Barbara, California
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Well, I will add one little tidbit for those who have made it this far. The introductory "hook" of Lichtblau's book talk was that someone had told him about a report from an internal US Justice Department investigation into the use of former Nazis by US government agencies. I asked him whether he had ever received a copy, and he answered in the affirmative. I then checked his book for evidence of it--and found it in one footnote, to his epilog, in which he cites his own NYT report about the report, not the report itself. Thus readers have no indication how much of his source material was derived from that report.

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Commenting on my own comment: Since writing the post above I have looked more carefully at Lichblau's book, Nazis as Neighbors. Although he did do some digging to get the information he presents on Nazis in the US, there too he is ham-fisted, bolstering prejudices instead of taking the opportunity to educate. For example, his chapter on the Demjanjuk trial tells us little that is new, in contrast to Richard Rashke's 2013 book Useful Enemies (New Books in History Interview), which is SO much better. As is Elizabeth Kolbert's piece in the Feb. 16, 2015 New Yorker: "The Last Trial: A great-grandmother, Auschwitz, and the arc of justice."
I also need to correct the postscript in my initial post. The 'secret' Justice Dept. report that prompted Lichtblau to write Nazis as Neighbors is not cited only in the epilog to the book, but in other places as well (e.g. top of p. 242), although it is hard to recognize. It is Judy Feigin, "The Office of Special Investigations: Striving for Accountability in the Aftermath of the Holocaust" (2006 [not 2008]), available in full on the NYT website.