That Nazis were hired by US intelligence services after World War II to spy on the Soviet Union has been known for a while. Now researchers can give an estimate of their number and how useful they really were for the US.
The case of Klaus Barbie, the notorious Nazi war criminal also known as the "Butcher of Lyon," who was extradited from Bolivia and tried in France in the 1980s, first brought to light for a general public that high-ranking Nazi officials had worked for US intelligence after the end of the war.
Barbie, it was revealed, had not only been recruited by US Army counter intelligence, but his escape from Europe had been orchestrated with American help. Barbie later also worked for the newly created German intelligence service BND.
US researchers can now provide an assessment of the broader phenomenon and analyze the usefulness of the information provided by these Nazis-turned-spooks.
After studying declassified US files, the historians working on the project estimate that there were at least 1,000 cases. "The number 1,000 is a conservative estimate," Norman J.W. Goda, a professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida and one of the researchers, told DW. "It's based on several years of reading these records. The truth is we don't have an exact figure."
That is because not all files have been declassified and some may have gone missing. The number 1,000 also does not include indirect relationships, that is, informants recruited themselves by the new spies, and the large number of non-German, Nazi-affiliated individuals hired by US organizations in places like Hungary, Romania or Ukraine.
While the exact number of Nazis-turned-American spies after World War II remains unclear, there is no doubt about the poor value of the information produced by the newly minted spooks for US intelligence agencies.
No vital information
"There isn't a case that we know of that you can say so and so provided vital intelligence on the coming Berlin blockade or anything like that," said Goda. "It simply never happened."
He cites the case of Wilhelm Höttl, an Austrian Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) officer, who was recruited by US intelligence after the war.
"The CIA at one point figured out that Wilhelm Höttl…was writing intelligence reports based on newspapers he was reading."
The Germans hired by American spy agencies simply were not very good intelligence specialists, noted Goda. As a result, many of them were doubled by the Soviets.
But what really surprised the researchers was the lack of information about their new recruits that US intelligence services often had - even though the relevant files about them were often readily available and under US control. "In other words, it would have been very easy to do a trace," said Gota.
The lack of resolute background checks led to the hiring of individuals that were personally implicated in major Nazi crimes.
"There was one case in the early 1950s where Army counterintelligence hired a man named Hermann Höffle, and Höffle had been the sort of chief of staff for Odilo Globocnik during 'Aktion Reinhard,' (Austrian Nazi and SS leader who oversaw the extermination of over one million Polish Jews - the ed.)," explained Goda. "So he was not some obscure Gestapo official, he was a senior officer in a major extermination campaign in Poland."
Höffle was recruited by US authorities to gather information on right-wing groups around Munich without a real sense of who he was. "The fact that there was a relationship at all with a man like this who was later arrested by the West Germans was quite stunning."
Still, it is too easy to simply blame US agencies with today's hindsight for recruiting compromised figures to produce useless intelligence.
The United States were in the grip of McCarthyism
"In the US there was a general feeling of being threatened," Micha Brumlik, the former head of the Frankfurt-based Fritz-Bauer Institute for Holocaust Research, told DW. Questions of morality were thus not as important as containing the Soviet Union.
"One must not forget," added Brumlik, "the so-called McCarthyism in the US in the early 1950s, this hysterical, paranoid fear of communists, and against this backdrop one also did not shy away from recruiting criminals to fight this seemingly incredibly dangerous opponent."
Asked whether we can learn something from this episode for today, both Brumlik and Goda are skeptical, as the nature of the intelligence business is to work with often shady and compromised characters.
"The lesson insofar as there is one is really to know something about your sources," noted Goda. "When they are working for you they are not really working for you," he said, referencing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq on the basis of dubious intelligence from Iraqi sources that predicted American forces would be welcome there.