A Critical Look at Simon Wiesenthal Examining the Legacy of the Nazi Hunter
Part 2: 'Sleazenthal'
Those words were written at the peak of Wiesenthal's feud with Bruno Kreisky, Austria's charismatic Social Democratic chancellor. Kreisky, who was Jewish, ironically came into power in 1970 with the help of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Because he led a minority government, he was forced to bring several ministers with unappetizing pasts into his cabinet. The ministers of agriculture, construction, transportation and the interior were all former members of the Nazi Party.
By publicizing the histories of the new ministers, Wiesenthal provoked Kreisky, who saw himself as a man of the people and sensed that Austrians were not interested in rehashing the past. "I'm just waiting for Mr. Wiesenthal to come up with proof that I was in the SS, too" the chancellor once caustically quipped. He was quoted in the press as saying that Wiesenthal was a "Jewish fascist."
Kreisky even had his staff search for incriminating information about Wiesenthal. Although he was never able to prove the allegation, Kreisky told the press that Wiesenthal only survived the war by collaborating with the Nazis. In 1987, the two rivals ended up in court. In the end, Kreisky was found liable for defamation, but he died soon thereafter without having paid the court-ordered fine. Segev characterizes the conflict as a dispute between two Jews who desperately wanted to be a "part of Austrian society."
Wiesenthal's behavior in another Nazi affair underscored his yearning for approval. When it was revealed that Austrian President Kurt Waldheim had concealed certain aspects of his service in the German military during the war, Wiesenthal backed the politician, with whom he was in close contact.
Wiesenthal's reputation suffered as a result. In internal World Jewish Congress documents, he was dubbed "Sleazenthal." During an interview on German television for a 1996 documentary on Wiesenthal, Eli Rosenbaum, the US Justice Department's chief Nazi hunter at the time, described Wiesenthal as "incompetent," "an egomaniac," "a spreader of false information" and "a tragic figure." Rosenbaum's office once wrote to Wiesenthal's center that not a single one of its accusations had led to a trial.
It is practically impossible to verify whether Wiesenthal truly brought 1,100 war criminals to justice, as he himself claimed. He was always more of a PR man than a serious investigator -- perhaps his primary service to a society determined to forget the past.
Today, the Simon Wiesenthal Center continues to perform this PR role. Derided by criminal prosecutors, the center issues a list of the most-wanted Nazi criminals as well as an annual assessment of the efforts of individual countries to track them down.
Wiesenthal died in September 2005, at 96, two years after his wife Cyla. Speaking about her life at the side of the famous Nazi hunter, she once said: "I am not married to a man I am married to thousands, maybe millions, of dead."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Examining the Legacy of the Nazi Hunter
- Part 2: 'Sleazenthal'