After the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, comedian Bob Hope was to have said something on the lines of, “All this proves is that their Germans are better than our Germans.” The Germans he was joking about were the former Nazi scientists recruited by the U.S. and Soviet Union after World War II. They were coveted by both world powers for how they might advance science and what would ultimately be known as the “Space Race.”
These scientists are the subject of a new book by Dr. Brian Crim, John M. Turner Chair in the Humanities at University of Lynchburg, “Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State.” The book was released this month by Johns Hopkins Press.
Project Paperclip — sometimes called “Operation Paperclip” — is the code name for the secret, joint-intelligence operation that brought more than 1,500 Nazi scientists and engineers to the U.S. Among others, they included renowned rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.
Not surprisingly, bringing 1,500 Nazis into the U.S. after World War II created a situation that Dr. Crim describes as “the exact opposite of the ‘extreme vetting’ we hear about today. We covered it up.”
“It” refers to the fact that the German scientists had worked for Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich, designing and building weapons of war, and supporting a regime that killed millions of people, including six million Jews.
A former U.S. intelligence analyst himself, Crim was intrigued by this ethical dilemma. “As an intelligence analyst, I was always interested in the ethics that were going on and prided myself in not engaging in that [kind of] activity or contemplating it, but that wasn’t always the case in U.S. history,” he said.
Crim also was fascinated by the “bitter rivalry” between U.S. government agencies. “The Cold War was emerging and each department had a different perspective, and that played out in Paperclip,” he said. “The State Department was opposed to granting 1,500 Nazis citizenship as a reward for providing something of value. The military thought this was a way to control their movements and compensate them.
“The bitterness and personal vindictiveness of people working on this issue was really amazing and tells a human drama. It’s such a personal story between the personalities I discuss and it’s very revealing about how U.S. politics can work in this way.”
Crim first heard about Project Paperclip 20 years ago as a graduate student, but it wasn’t until 2011, after the release of about eight million classified documents relating to World War II, that he started seriously pursuing “Our Germans.”
“The paper trail is really amazing and formed the basis of a lot of the book,” Crim said. “I was familiar with the more famous ones — the rocket scientists — but we brought over 1,500 of these people and their dependents, and those stories are really untold. Who are these people? Why were they deemed valuable? In some cases, they weren’t and were sent back. I built a collective profile of who these scientists were. Our Germans.”
During his research, Crim discovered a memoir that became his second new book, “Class of ’31: A German-Jewish Émigré’s Journey Across Defeated Germany” (Academic Studies Press). It was written by Walter Jessel, a German Jew who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s and worked for the CIA for many years. After World War II, Jessel went back Germany to find out what had happened to his former classmates.
Crim edited and wrote an introduction for the memoir. “The minute I read [it], I thought this type of memoir should be read in classrooms,” he said. “It’ll have a huge appeal to anyone interested in World War II, what it was like to be a German Jew, and the question of why did Germans follow the Nazi party.
“He’s into all of that and he’s writing it from the perspective of someone who lived through that whole period: ‘What happened to all of these people that I used to call friends? Did some become Nazis? Did some of them resist?’ Curiosity and passion to find the truth about people he grew up with drove this month-long exercise. I can imagine him, driving around in his jeep from shattered village to shattered village, finding these people.”