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Book Review: Useful Enemies – Richard Rashke

Donna Brown1 comment445 views
Useful Enemies
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About Useful Enemies (2013)
Useful Enemies - Richard RashkeJohn “Iwan” Demjanjuk was at the center of one of history’s most complex war crimes trials. But why did it take almost sixty years for the United States to bring him to justice as a Nazi collaborator

The answer lies in the annals of the Cold War, when fear and paranoia drove American politicians and the U.S. military to recruit “useful” Nazi war criminals to work for the United States in Europe as spies and saboteurs, and to slip them into America through loopholes in U.S. immigration policy. During and after the war, that same immigration policy was used to prevent thousands of Jewish refugees from reaching the shores of America. 

The long and twisted saga of John Demjanjuk, a postwar immigrant and auto mechanic living a quiet life in Cleveland until 1977, is the final piece in the puzzle of American government deceit. The White House, the Departments of War and State, the FBI, and the CIA supported policies that harbored Nazi war criminals and actively worked to hide and shelter them from those who dared to investigate and deport them. 

The heroes in this story are men and women such as Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and Justice Department prosecutor Eli Rosenbaum, who worked for decades to hold hearings, find and investigate alleged Nazi war criminals, and successfully prosecute them for visa fraud. But it was not until the conviction of John Demjanjuk in Munich in 2011 as an SS camp guard serving at the Sobibor death camp that this story of deceit can be told for what it is: a shameful chapter in American history.

Riveting and deeply researched, Useful Enemies is the account of one man’s criminal past and its devastating consequences, and the story of how America sacrificed its moral authority in the wake of history’s darkest moment.

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Review: Useful Enemies

I had read Escape from Sobibor and appreciated the immense amount of work that had gone into it. It’s clear that Useful Enemies is no less of a labour of love. Beyond that, it is very difficult to compare the two books. They tell very different stories. Although both are biographical works surrounding time in the camps, the circumstances are so very different that I found it best, for the sake of clarity, to try not to think back to my reading of Escape From Sobibor.

The book tells of John Demjanjuk who, after moving to the United States, was accused of being ‘Iwan the Terrible’ who had caused immense suffering to those under his supervision. In reviewing this, and Demjanjuk’s subsequent experiences once it had been determined that he was not Iwan the Terrible, the book really covers three main areas:

1) Demjanjuk’s life, role in WWII and the Holocaust and the morality of his own actions. It also raises many questions about the strain that the allegations and trials had on Demjanjuk’s later years.

2) The psychology of false memory, needing someone to blame, needing a sense of closure. Clearly the horror of living through the Holocaust is something that is unimaginable but the book – very carefully and sensitively – questions how reliable witnesses could be after facing so much trauma and then so many years having elapsed.

3) The fallibility – or perhaps even corruption – of a US government that seemed to fail at every single turn to prosecute those they had clear and damning evidence against (providing those people could be of ‘use’ in some way) but also turned away a great number of Jewish people through cold and calculating policies, designed – if only subconsciously – to make it easier for a Nazi to enter the country than a Holocaust survivor.

As a Brit, I feel compelled to say that we in the UK were far from blameless and sadly, as a nation, even our current attitude towards immigrants in need can be extremely callous. That said, the focus of the book is largely on US practices and Demjanjuk’s trial in Israel.

Prior to reading this, I had seen an hour long documentary on Demjanjuk and after reading this, I realised it barely even touched the surface of the intricacies of this particular tale. You might initially wonder why this book is so much longer than Escape From Sobibor, when that told the story of so many. Upon reading, it becomes clear that Rashke is telling a different kind of victim’s tale. This one is so morally complicated that it is hard to know whether or not Demjanjuk was victim, persecutor, scapegoat or demon. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.

Where Escape From Sobibor was almost black and white in its stark – and fully accurate – portrayal of innocent and evil, Useful Enemies paints a much more abstract picture. I believe you could ask 100 people about this book and every one would give you a different answer about the questions it left them with or the opinions they have. I am inclined to think that Rashke has brought some questions to the surface that really must be considered, if never fully answered.

Verdict: 5/5

(Book Source: Netgalley)

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Donna Brown
Avid reader/audiobook listener, fan of podcasts, prone to the odd Netflix binge. Mum to six crazy and incredible rescue cats. Occasional writer of short stories and poetry.

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