An Imperfect Nazi Hunter

By Klein, Daniel | Moment, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

An Imperfect Nazi Hunter

Klein, Daniel, Moment

Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends

By Torn Segev Doubleday 2010, $32.50, pp. 448

Early in his career as a Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal enlisted the help of a handsome, 24-year-old Austrian Jew named Manus Diamant in his pursuit of Adolf Eichmann. Diamant's parents had been murdered by the Nazis, and after the war he posed as a Dutch SS officer in his personal search for Nazi criminals. Eichmann's wife, Veronika, and their three young children had been located in the Austrian lakeside village of Altaussee, so Diamant was dispatched there. He quickly ingratiated himself with Eichmann's family, so much so that one day he was entrusted to take the children out on the lake in a rowboat. Diamant thought how easy it would be "to drown Eichmann's three children to punish the chief butcher, so that he would feel what millions of Jewish mothers and fathers had felt when their children were torn away from them by force and murdered by his orders." This became Diamant's plan of action, but first he consulted Wiesenthal.

"There is no room for revenger Wiesenthal adamantly replied, and Diamant's plan was abandoned.

Such is the man at the center of Tom Segev's artful portrait: a deeply committed humanist philosopher, guided by moral precepts of the highest order. This characteristic is also central to the tragedy of Wiesenthal's post-war life, the one that led him to acrimonious relationships with many prominent Jews, including Elie Wiesel, and to his astounding and highly questionable friendship with the former Third Reich minister, Albert Speer.

Segev's fascinating, exhaustively researched, painstakingly balanced and very readable biography delves into many other aspects of Wiesenthal's personality and life: his egocentrism, his proclivity for exaggeration and outright mendacity, his gift for public relations and political maneuvering, his stubbornness and contentiousness. But it is Wiesenthal's profoundly felt and constantly reexamined moral-mindedness that emerges from these pages as the essence of the man.

As a Jew who survived the Holocaust through both good luck and acts of honor by decent Germans, Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, was an outspoken critic of the idea of the "collective guilt" of the German people, a concept that had been embraced by many Jews immediately after the war. For Wiesenthal, there were only individuals and their decisions and deeds that should be held to account, a principle that compelled him to also investigate Jews who had been complicit with Nazis during the war, a pursuit that caused rancor among many Jews as well as many gentiles.


Indeed, it was Wiesenthal's insistence on equal accountability for Jewish collaborators that initiated his lifelong clash with Elie Wiesel. Recounts Segev: "Wiesel ... observed that Wiesenthal had tried to persuade him that it was not just six million Jews but 11 million human beings" of various (or no) religious persuasion who had perished in the death camps, including Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Germans, homosexuals and gypsies, and not one of them must be forgotten. "All of the victims must be united in a single memory," Wiesel quoted Wiesenthal as saying.

"Wiesel was incensed," Segev writes. "He said that there was no historian who cited the number 11 million and Wiesenthal lost his temper. 'You think only of the Jews!' he exclaimed. Tor you, they were all saints. I can prove to you that among them there were the worst kind of scoundrels, worse than the non-Jews."'

Wiesenthal apologized for his outburst, but the line between them had been drawn. In this incident, we see Wiesenthal's penchant for playing fast and loose with the facts--the figure, 11 million, is arbitrary at best--and for ugly hyperbole in the words, "worse than." But we also see Wiesenthal's unwavering moral conviction about the "brotherhood of all the victims."

Later, when Wiesenthal and Wiesel were in competition for the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize--which Wiesel won after an active campaign--their rift was complete.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

An Imperfect Nazi Hunter


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?