Operation Paperclip, abandoned refugees, and the careers of ex-Nazis after the war

In a few of my previous articles, I mentioned Operation Paperclip, the secret US programme to bring Nazi scientists to America. Only cursory comments were made on this topic; it is time for a closer examination of this episode. Why? It contains relevant lessons for today, not only because of the rise of Eastern European ultranationalist politicians, but also because of what this historical undertaking indicates about the current nature of American society.

In brief, Operation Paperclip involved secretly capturing and bringing Nazi German scientists, engineers and technical experts to the United States. Their expertise in military and scientific matters was considered valuable to the political objectives of the US (and Britain), and they were put to use during the Cold War. In all, approximately 1600 personnel, and their families, were brought to the United States.

A project carried out by US Army intelligence services in conjunction with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the latter reorganised as the CIA in due course – the Nazi past of these scientists, and their involvement in the Nazi party, the SS, and complicity in war crimes – was overlooked or whitewashed.

The definitive account of this operation is the book Operation Paperclip: The secret intelligence program that brought Nazi scientists to America (2014) by Annie Jacobsen. Originally, the programme was called Overcast, it was renamed after the practice of denoting the files of these Nazi scientists with a paperclip. The culpability of the scientific personnel in war crimes was ignored.

A key goal of the American authorities was to ensure harnessing the vast knowledge capital of the Nazi German scientists. Capturing information about the development of German non-conventional weapons – biological, chemical, nuclear – was important, but not enough. What mattered was the acquisition of the scientists, engineers and technical people themselves.

Located near Nordhausen, Germany, the Mittelwerk-Dora concentration camp complex, was the site where thousands of slave labourers, working in atrocious conditions, provided materials for the Nazi rocketry programme. Many died of starvation, malnutrition and rampant disease. Those who were too slow were killed outright. Wernher von Braun, one of the main rocket scientists employed by the Americans after the war, visited Mittelwerk and oversaw the conditions of the forced labourers himself. The rocket factories were places of exhaustion by overwork and death.

One other person who witnessed the death and inhumanity of the rocket factory complex was American soldier John Risen Jones Jr, Private First Class and sharpshooter with the 104th infantry division. He was so traumatised by the sight of emaciated slave labourers, the stench of death and decaying bodies, and the depravity of condemning so many thousands to death through overwork, he could not talk about what he saw for 51 years. He was just one of thousands of American WW2 soldiers who witnessed first hand the horror of the concentration camps.

While Nazi scientists, engineers and technicians were being spirited away to safety in Britain and the United States, millions of the victims of the Holocaust and the concentration camps – slave labourers, displaced persons and their families – were struggling to rebuild their lives, languishing in makeshift camps across war-ravaged Europe. The testimonies of American war veterans – such as those of Risen Jones mentioned above – were dismissed in the interests of Cold War power politics.

Holocaust survivors and displaced persons were definitely not welcomed with open arms by Britain or the United States. The contrasting treatment of the Paperclip scientists, who were welcomed, and the plight of displaced persons (who were largely ignored) highlights the ethical bankruptcy of postwar American capitalism.

An opinion piece in the OpIndia publication is subtitled, How the USA helped Nazi criminals from WWII evade justice to advance its own military ambitions – not a bad summary. It is useful at this point to highlight that Operation Paperclip was not an exception or unusual undertaking by the United States. Read the account by journalist Eric Lichblau (2014) The Nazis Next Door: How America became a safe haven for Hitler’s men. Not only did Nazi aerospace engineers find sanctuary in the United States, but also former SS and Gestapo personnel, officers involved in the most atrocious war crimes.

Karl Wolff, former Nazi functionary and general, was a personal liaison to Hitler and Himmler. This SS general, considered a ‘moderate Nazi’, met with and was recruited by Allen Dulles, head of the OSS. The latter, morphing into the CIA, continued this practice of shielding former Nazi intelligence officers.

What kind of nation claims to be an exceptional country, priding itself on its democratic institutions, yet recruits white supremacists and murderers into its ranks? This is the ultimate act of disrespect not only to the millions of displaced persons in Europe after the conclusion of hostilities, but also to the American WW2 veterans themselves, who witnessed the degradation and inhumanity of what the Nazi regime and its practitioners established.

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