Syria Sheltering War Criminals? Not the First Time

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Syria’s decision to grant haven to Iraqi war criminals should not be surprising–after all, Damascus welcomed many Nazi war criminals and shielded them from being punished for their role in the Holocaust. Will the United States take serious steps to counter Syrian harboring of Saddam’s henchmen–or will the U.S. quietly drop the issue of Syria protecting war criminals, as it did in the 1950s?

At the end of World War II, thousands of Nazi war criminals found refuge in South America and in Arab countries, including Syria. Damascus welcomed Nazis partly out of ideological sympathy for the Hitler regime, and partly because the German fugitives were useful allies in Syria’s war to prevent the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Israeli military intelligence reports during that first Arab-Israeli war were filled with references to the presence of Nazis, especially as commanding officers, among the Syrian forces attacking northern Israel. Indeed, there were so many Germans in the Syrian ranks that when the Haganah (the Labor Zionist militia that became the Israeli Army) defeated the Arab forces in Haifa in April 1948, its official terms for a truce included a provision that “European Nazis will be delivered to [the British] Military [authorities].”

During the 1950s and 1960s, the names of prominent Nazis living in Syria began to surface. One was SS Captain Theodor Dannecker, who had helped Adolf Eichmann implement Hitler’s genocide policy in France, Bulgaria, and Hungary. When the legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen took up residence in Damascus in 1962, his Syrian acquaintances introduced him to Karl Rademacher, a senior Eichmann aide who had been involved in the mass murder of Jews from Belgium, Holland, Croatia, and elsewhere. After the war, Radmacher had fled to Syria and became an official in the Syrian Secret Service.

The most notorious of the Nazis granted asylum in Syria was another top Eichmann aide, SS Lieutenant Alois Brunner. After being convicted in France in 1954 of responsibility for the murders of more than 100,000 Jews, Brunner disappeared. Two decades later, the famed French Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld tracked down Brunner in Damascus, where he was making a comfortable living as an adviser to the Syrian intelligence services.

U.S. government policy regarding Nazi war criminals was, from its earliest days, marked by a certain ambivalence. In 1942, President Roosevelt publicly pledged that Nazi war criminals would be punished, and the following year, the Allies established the United Nations War Crimes Commission. But the State Department wanted to limit postwar trials to those war crimes that had been committed against Allied forces, arguing that there was no legal basis to prosecute war criminals whose victims were citizens of Axis-occupied countries–chiefly the Jews.

State Department officials repeatedly undermined the work of Herbert Pell, the U.S. representative to the war crimes commission, because Pell was urging the White House to prosecute the murderers of European Jews as war criminals. In early 1945, the State Department informed Pell that his service had been terminated because it could no longer find $30,000 in its budget to fund his position. Pell then offered to work for free; State replied that it would be illegal for him to work without being paid.

Pell turned to a Jewish activist group, the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe (better known as the Bergson group), to help him publicize the scandal. The ensuing controversy embarrassed the State Department into reversing its position and agreeing to prosecute Nazi murderers of Jews.

But after the war ended, many U.S. officials regarded the prosecution of Nazi war criminals as less of a priority than building relations with postwar West Germany. As a result, many of the less-prominent war criminals were let off with minor penalties or not prosecuted at all. In addition, some U.S. government agencies considered former Nazis to be potentially useful allies in the Cold War. Many of them, including some known war criminals, were hired for U.S. military and intelligence purposes in Europe or even brought to the United States.

Given this postwar atmosphere of setting aside the pursuit of justice for the sake of other considerations, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. never took any serious steps –such as economic or diplomatic pressure– to secure Syria’s surrender of Nazi war criminals for prosecution. Improving American relations with the Arab world was considered a higher priority than bringing Alois Brunner and other murderers to justice.

A similar dilemma may now arise as the U.S. government ponders how to respond to Syria’s sheltering of Iraqi war criminals. Some in the administration are reportedly uneasy over Congressional efforts to impose sanctions on the Damascus regime, arguing that friendly relations with Syria are more important than the capture of Saddam’s deputies and military scientists. Will politics again triumph over justice?

April 2003