Over the weekend, the death of Alois Brunner, the world's most wanted Nazi, was all but confirmed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Brunner, who was the top aide to "Final Solution" architect Adolf Eichmann, is thought to have died four years ago in Syria, where he lived for decades after sending nearly 130,000 Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II.
Though the death was first suspected nearly four years ago, the ongoing Syrian civil war made independent confirmation impossible. Brunner would have turned 102 two years old on Monday.
In a conversation with Jodi Rudoren, Efraim Zuroff, the noted Nazi hunter, summed up Brunner's legacy thusly:
He was a notorious anti-Semite, sadist, fanatic Nazi. The only known interview we have with him was to a German newsmagazine in 1985, in which he was asked if he had any regrets, and he said, ‘My only regret is I didn’t murder more Jews.’
Brunner's presumed 2010 death is more than a surreal historical footnote for a number of reasons. His story is not just one of a mass killer who escaped, but rather a man who found a way to continue killing long after he fled Europe. To put this all into some context, I spoke with Deborah Lipstadt, a professor and Holocaust historian at Emory University, about Brunner's post-war legacy.
"Brunner ended up in Syria, a regime in a place with less than friendly relations towards Jews, with a human rights record that is pretty despicable, and he participated," Lipstadt told me. "He didn't just go fishing for the next 30 years. He participated and apparently advised [former Syrian dictator Hafez] Assad."
In a separate interview, Zuroff noted that while living in Syria under the pseudonym Dr. Georg Fischer, Brunner had taught the elder Assad how to torture. (In the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Hafez Assad's son Bashar has carried on this legacy of terror and torture on an industrial and unfathomable scale.)
Despite the singular-seeming nature of Brunner's story, Lipstadt warns against viewing Brunner as an anomaly. Adding that Brunner was not "an exception to the rule," she noted that serious Nazis war criminals had escaped with the help of the Vatican and United States government and went on to live relatively ordinary lives. (The Mossad did target Brunner twice with letter bombs, causing him to lose an eye and three fingers.)
On a related note, last month Congress announced an agreement that would close a loophole that currently allows alleged former Nazis who made it to the U.S. to continue receiving Social Security payments.
But Brunner's case also matters far beyond reminding us of all the mechanisms by which former Nazis fled and survived after the war. Lipstadt offers Brunner as another vital knock against Hannah Arendt's seminal "banality of evil" theory in which Arendt argued that Eichmann and his ilk were petty bureaucrats, who clinically carried out their work, rather than monstrous murderers.
These weren't banal people who happened to be told to kill Jews and they went and killed Jews, but if they had been told to love Jews, they would have loved Jews. They were committed anti-Semites, committed to the job, committed to doing it, committed to not only killing Jews in large numbers, but to going after individual Jews wherever they could find them.
She proposed that if Eichmann had ended up in Syria instead of Argentina, he "would have been happy to advise Assad as well." While the circumstances might be have been different, "they weren't accidental killers, they weren't accidental anti-Semites. They believed it before, during, and after."