Saturday, September 19, 2020
September 19-20, 2020: Nazis in America: Project Paperclip and Hunters
[On September 20, 1945, the first group of Nazi scientists repatriated to the US under Operation Paperclip arrived at a landing point in Boston Harbor. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of histories and stories of American Nazis, leading up to this special post on that fraught anniversary.]
[NB. Serious SPOILERS for Amazon Prime’s Hunters in this post’s final paragraph!]
On a more historical and a more fictional side to a recent TV show’s depiction of Nazis in America.
Like all the histories about which I’ve written in this week’s series, the US government’s Project Paperclip program needs a great deal more of a place in our collective memories. The program’s very name reflects the idea that the Nazi pasts of the scientists brought to the United States in the months after the war’s end would be excised from their files, these personal and collective histories elided so that the US could advance its Cold War and (eventually) Space Race goals and deny the Soviet Union the same opportunities. We can debate whether bringing the scientists over and employing them was the right or wrong decision (I’d side with “wrong,” but I understand the other arguments), but to my mind the purposeful erasure of their Nazi histories was unequivocally wrong, and frankly an implicit recognition that there was a shameful side to this program that was always intended to be withheld from the American people. So any means by which we can better remember Paperclip and those fraught decisions and questions is a very good thing indeed.
One such means, and I’ll freely admit the one through which I learned most directly about Project Paperclip (I had already written in this space about von Braun, but I don’t think I had known about that overall/official frame for the operation until watching the show earlier this year), is Amazon Prime’s controversial alternate history show Hunters. I understand and largely agree with that hyperlinked article’s critiques of the show’s depiction of the Holocaust, but would say that when it comes to the histories of Paperclip and Nazis in America, Hunters get a couple of seemingly contradictory, equally accurate things impressively right. On the one hand, the show depicts the ways in which the majority of the ex-Nazis disappeared into everyday American life, many of them in Huntsville, Alabama (site of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center). And at the same time, the show recognizes that some ex-Nazis (like von Braun) ended up instead in far more prominent public positions—while the show’s choice to make the first ex-Nazi we meet the US Secretary of State is as exaggerated as everything else about Hunters, I’d argue that exaggeration (and perhaps especially the fact that his Nazi past has been kept secret) is not all that far from the truth of von Braun’s influence on the US government for decades.
The last ex-Nazi we meet in Season 1 of Hunters is also a prominent figure who has been hiding his Nazi past—but in this case, I would argue that in service of a “twist” the show does a significant injustice to its historical subjects. [Again, SPOILERS from here on out.] Throughout the show’s arc, Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman serves as a mentor and father-figure to Logan Lerman’s Jonah Heidelbaum, bringing Jonah into the team of Nazi hunters who are tracking down these hidden figures and delivering vigilante justice to them. But in the final episode’s final minutes, Jonah learns that Meyer is himself an ex-Nazi, none other than “The Wolf” who terrorized Jonah’s grandparents during their time in a concentration camp. The revelation allows Jonah the chance to make his own final decision about vigilante justice and murder (something he’s been struggling with throughout the show), but it doesn’t quite work within the show’s plot—and much more importantly, to my mind it doesn’t work at all within the show’s historical and cultural themes. After all, this twist literally collapses the distinctions between Nazis and Jews, Holocaust perpetrators and victims/survivors—and that’s an injustice not only to the Holocaust itself, but also to better remembering the histories of those Nazis who found their way to the United States in the decades after committing those horrors.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?