Simon Wiesenthal – Hero or Conman?

He was hailed as a great Nazi hunter, but was Simon Wiesenthal actually a liar and a fraud?

Simon Wiesenthal

A portrait of Simon Wiesenthal, leader of the Jewish Documentation Centre in Austria. (Photo from Nazi Hunters.)

SIMON WIESENTHAL: HERO

It seems unthinkable to question Simon Wiesenthal's reputation. Let's just remind ourselves: this is the man who endured the inferno of the Holocaust, who faced death every day of that experience, who was left emaciated and bereaved. It's thought that he and his Cyla lost almost 90 relatives by the end of the war.

And what did he do just weeks after being rescued from the camps? Did he rest and recover? No. He plunged straight into a mission for justice, preparing a list of hundreds of Nazi war criminals for American intelligence to look at. Despite being a frail skeleton of a man, he accompanied soldiers as they arrested Nazis, offering his services as an interpreter. That was the kind of person Wiesenthal was. And that was just the beginning.

As one of the founders of the Jewish Historical Documentation Center in 1947, he paved the way for decades of intelligence gathering, and ensured the world would pay attention to the horrors of the Nazi genocide. Shocking as it may sound to use now, the Holocaust was actually in danger of being forgotten in the years after the war.

As Carole Angier, author of The Double Bond, puts it:

Jewish attitudes to the Shoah [or Holocaust] have changed like everyone else's, and today it is at the heart of Jewish identity. Wiesenthal was the main agent of this change.

Austrian Nazi War criminal, Adolf Eichmann, became a member of the SS and organised anti-Jewish activities.

Austrian Nazi War criminal, Adolf Eichmann, became a member of the SS and organised anti-Jewish activities.

He was also instrumental in snaring the most wanted Nazi fugitive of them all: Adolf Eichmann, the man who "managed" the Holocaust. It was Wiesenthal who first alerted the Israeli government to the fact that Eichmann was still alive in South America. He even hired private investigators to photograph Eichmann's brother, so Israeli agents could get an idea of what Eichmann now looked like. It got the ball rolling on a mission that led to Eichmann being arrested, tried and executed for his crimes.

Wiesenthal also helped capture Franz Stangl, the thug who oversaw the Nazi euthanasia programme which killed thousands of disabled people. Stangl then became a terrifying, whip-wielding overseer at the death camps. He had somehow escaped justice when the war ended, but Wiesenthal kept on his tail, and his intelligence-gathering efforts helped lead to Stangl being put behind bars.

There was also Hermine Braunsteiner, a female camp guard who was known to seize children by their hair and throw them onto transports to the gas chambers. She was dubbed "the Stomping Mare" for literally kicking prisoners to death. After the war, this monster found her way to the United States where she began a new life as an ordinary American wife. Again, Wiesenthal tracked her down and got her noticed - she was extradited back to Germany and given a life sentence.

We could go on. Yes, Wiesenthal had his flaws. He was prone to exaggeration, and bought into his own legend as a crusading figure. But the fact is he made a huge difference. Tom Segev, author of Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, tells us:

His endeavours were remarkable, especially in view of the fact that after the defeat of the Third Reich, most of those involved in Nazi atrocities had gone unpunished.

Wiesenthal literally risked his life to get justice. Neo-Nazis placed a bomb outside his house, and he had to be given 24-hour police guard. Yet he carried on, staying on the trail of human monsters even when he was in his 90s. If that's not the mark of a hero, what is?

SIMON WIESENTHAL: CON MAN

First of all, it's not enough to say Wiesenthal was prone to exaggeration. He exaggerated ALL the time. Take his role in the Eichmann operation. From Wiesenthal's self-promotion (he actually wrote a book called I Hunted Eichmann), you'd be forgiven for thinking he went out there and nabbed Eichmann himself, James Bond-style.

In fact, he was just a tiny cog in the vast mechanism of espionage which led to Eichmann's capture. His role was limited to passing on minor snippets of information to Israeli agents about Eichmann. Indeed, the director of Israeli intelligence himself said that Wiesenthal had almost no influence whatsoever on the mission to get Eichmann.

Even Wiesenthal's basic life story is full of contradictions. In one account, he claimed to have gone to a certain university to gain an engineering degree. Yet, according to Guy Walters, author of Hunting Evil, "state archives have no record of Simon Wiesenthal having studied at Lvov Technical University. Wiesenthal never completed his degree... Despite a lack of academic credentials, he would fraudulently use his supposed engineering diploma on his letter paper for the rest of his life."

Wiesenthal also claimed to have been imprisoned in around 13 concentration camps. This is now widely regarded as a massive exaggeration, and when it comes to the Holocaust, these details matter. Accuracy is essential, or Neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers will use such exaggerations to "prove" their vile conspiracy theories right.

Having sifted through Wiesenthal's exploits, and weighed up the evidence for how many Nazis he actually played a meaningful role in capturing, historian Guy Walters says:

There were too many distortions and inconsistencies, too many outright lies... In my view, Simon Wiesenthal was a liar and a fraud.

There's also the scandal of Kurt Waldheim to consider. Waldheim was the UN Secretary-General in the 1970s, but was later revealed to have lied about the extent of his service as a Nazi soldier in World War Two. It's now clear he was complicit in war crimes and later lied about having no knowledge of them. Yet the so-called Nazi-hunter Wiesenthal, who was tasked with investigating Waldheim's past, cleared him of any wrong-doing.

According to Eli Rosenbaum, a brave US official who headed up what the Washington Post called "the world's most effective Nazi-hunting operation", Wiesenthal failed in his duty to uncover the truth about Waldheim, and then - even worse - tried to cover up his mistake by defending Waldheim's reputation.

Speaking generally about Wiesenthal, Rosenbaum said that "the stories of his investigative exploits were largely bogus", and that he had "wrongly accused innocent people", and whose habit of spreading false and exaggerated information actually scuppered real attempts to get Nazi war criminals. It's an unpalatable truth... But the truth nonetheless.