This essay is adapted from Useful Enemies: John Demjanjuk and America’s Open-Door Policy for Nazi War Criminals, which was recently published by Delphinium Books.
A trove of recently declassified documents leads to several inescapable conclusions about the FBI’s role in protecting both proven and alleged Nazi war criminals in America. First, there can be no doubt that J. Edgar Hoover collected Nazis and Nazi collaborators like pennies from heaven. Unlike the military and its highly structured Operation Paperclip — with its specific targets, systematic falsification of visa applications, and creation of bogus biographies — Hoover had no organized program to find, vet, and recruit alleged Nazis and Nazi collaborators as confidential sources, informants, and unofficial spies in émigré communities around the country. America’s No. 1 crime buster was guided only by opportunism and moral indifference.
Each Nazi collaborator that his agents stumbled upon, or learned about from the CIA, was both a potential spy and a potential anticommunist leader. Once they were discovered, Hoover sought them out, used them, and protected them. He had no interest in reporting alleged Nazi war criminals to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Justice Department, or the State Department for possible deportation or extradition. He appeared smug in his simplistic division of Americans into shadeless categories of bad guys and good guys, communists and anticommunists.
Hoover was careful about the number of former Nazis and Nazi collaborators he placed on the FBI payroll. If Congress or its investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, ever insisted on a tally, he could say with a straight face that there were only a handful of paid confidential sources and informants. But if one adds the war criminals he informally cultivated and used, the number ranges well into the hundreds. Although some of the snapshots may be out of focus, the big picture is now clear. Hoover and the FBI knew the identities, addresses, and backgrounds of up to a thousand alleged Nazis and Nazi collaborators on whom he had files but did not report to INS, Justice, State, or the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) unit of the Justice Department.
Among the newly revealed Nazi collaborators that Hoover and the FBI used and protected were John Avdzej, Laszlo Agh, and Vladimir Sokolov. During the war, Belorussian John Avdzej had been installed as the Nazi’s puppet mayor of the Niasvizh district in western Belorussia, once part of Poland. His first mayoral job was to rid his district of all Poles. As a first step, he gave the Gestapo a list of 120 Polish intelligentsia that included journalists, professors, priests, and former military officers, according to recently declassified intelligence files. Then he took part in their execution, as well as in the murder of thousands of Jews under his political jurisdiction.