By Tony Rennell
Friedrich Buchardt was a clever man, an intellectual and a polymath equally at home practising law or writing papers on economics and geography.
He was also a cold-blooded killer of monstrous proportions.
In Nazi Germany, he put his great brain to twisted issues of race and, in particular, the distribution of Jewish communities in the areas to the east of the Reich – Poland and Russia.
When Hitler’s armies then invaded these lands, he came up with a scale for measuring the ‘German-ness’ of the overrun people on a scale from one to five.
But the handsome, thirty-something academic was a soldier as well as a scholar. He was a lieutenant in the Schutzstaffel, the feared SS, and in that evil organisation no one was allowed to hide in the back office.
Heinrich Himmler, the SS leader, insisted on what was called ‘blood experience’ for all his men. The ideology had to be blended with practice. And the practice was extermination, at which Buchardt turned out to be rather a dab and deadly hand.
In the Polish towns of Lublin and Lodz, he crossed the line from categorising ethnic types to killing them and from studying population control to carrying it out.
The SS hierarchy was impressed.
Here was a man who would go far. He impressed further by supervising the deportation of 80,000 Jews and gipsies to the Chelmno extermination camp.
Promoted to major, he commanded a notorious death squad that came in behind the front line of Nazi military conquests in the Soviet Union to round up and slaughter tens of thousands of Jews and communists.
Einsatzgruppen (death squads) like his killed mercilessly and in large numbers, herding men, women and children from villages and towns to the edge of pits and shooting them in the back of the neck one by one or mowing them down with machine-guns. They murdered without compunction on a medieval scale.
For all these activities, Buchardt, a lieutenant-colonel by now, deserved to be condemned as a war criminal and could – almost certainly should – have shared the fate of SS commanders who were hanged or shot at the end of the war.
Instead – as a new book published next week reveals – this unsavoury and unspeakable man with the blood of thousands on his hands was not only allowed to live but was given a job and a future. He was hired as a spy – by, of all people, Britain’s MI6.
Buchardt was by no means the only Nazi who came out of the war not paying for his crimes but profiting from them. But his newly discovered story will fuel the concerns of many people who suspect that, in the post-war era, not enough effort was put into bringing the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice.
Many escaped to new lives in faraway places such as South America, and only a handful – such as Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyons, and Franz Stangl, the commandant of two death camps – were ever brought back and convicted.
Josef Mengele, the doctor at Auschwitz who selected victims for the gas chambers and performed genetic experiments on children, was never apprehended, even though his number was in the Buenos Aires phone book.
Others, particularly those lower down the pecking order, concealed their identities and, in the chaos of post-war Germany, slipped back undetected into ordinary lives.
But, extraordinary as it sounds, Buchardt, despite being in Allied hands and despite his crimes being known, was not only saved from the gallows but given a special mission on behalf of His Britannic Majesty.
What made him useful to the British was the very knowledge that had also been his strong point in the SS. He was an expert on the Soviet Union and all those eastern lands now under the Soviet heel. He had run spy networks there and recruited agents and collaborators from the local populations.
Captured and under investigation in a British PoW camp, he produced a document he entitled ‘The Handling of the Russian Problem during the Period of the Nazi Regime in Germany’ and showed it to his captors.
It was a complete rundown of his espionage operations in Eastern Europe. For MI6, scrambling to make the sudden switch of its intelligence-gathering operations from Hitler’s Germany to Stalin’s communist regimes, this was gold dust.
MI6 made it the blueprint for its own spying activities behind the Iron Curtain.
What precisely Buchardt got up to in his new role remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps his new masters were too ashamed to record anything of his activities in documents. But historian Guy Walters – whose book, Hunting Evil, reveals MI6’s pact with Buchardt – concludes that ‘his knowledge of the Baltic states, Poland and Russia, as well as his numerous anti-communist Russian contacts, would have proved immensely useful’.
The association was not a long one. After two years, MI6 dropped Buchardt for reasons unknown and it seems he transferred his services to the Americans.
What they used him for Walters has also been unable to establish with any certainty, but it must have been considered very important. His links to the Central Intelligence Agency were enough to stymie a proposed war crimes investigation into him by the West German authorities.
He was left to live out most of his days in the university city of Heidelberg – also, and perhaps significantly, the headquarters of American forces in Europe. He died in 1982, aged 73, never having had to face up to the crimes he committed on that murderous trail into Russia four decades earlier.
Buchardt was not unique but one of a number of Nazi killers who enjoyed similar protection from the Allies after the war.
As a Gestapo officer, Horst Kopkow had been responsible for the execution in prison and concentration camps of some 300 British agents sent behind the lines by the Special Operations Executive, including the celebrated Violette Szabo, immortalised in the film Carve Her Name With Pride.
But it wasn’t just British spying operations and underground activities that Kopkow had known about. He had also gathered copious information about Soviet spy rings in Germany and, when he fell into British hands, he saved himself by revealing the lot.
As he gave MI6 inside information and his interrogators could barely believe their ears, war crimes investigators from other agencies were kept away. Even SOE, whom he had so badly wronged, was not allowed to get its hands on him.
Finally, in 1948, these war crimes groups were informed that Kopkow had died from pneumonia while still in custody and had been buried alongside other German PoWs in a military cemetery. A death certificate was produced.
His death was a fake, cobbled together by the secret service. He returned to Germany under a false name and even went back to his family under the guise of a long-lost relative called ‘Uncle Peter’, a cover story he and his wife kept up by sleeping in separate beds.
Walters believes Kopkow remained an agent for the British, organising a network of contacts behind the Iron Curtain for the next eight years. He died – for real this time – in 1996.
Another war criminal given a new name with MI6 help was Viktors Arajs, head of a special unit that slaughtered Jews in Latvia and partisans in Russia. The body count amassed by him and his commandos between 1941 and 1944 may well have been 100,000. Yet, after several years as a prisoner, he was released by the British in 1949 and, under the name of Viktor Zeibots, was given a job as a driver for the British military authorities in West Germany. He claimed that the intelligence services tried to recruit him to undertake spying missions in Soviet-controlled Latvia.
His past eventually caught up with him. In 1979 he was brought to justice in Frankfurt and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in captivity in 1988.
Of all these monsters with whom Western agencies did deals after-World War II, it is Buchardt that Walters thinks the worst. He was the most murderous because he not only supervised killings, ‘but also helped to construct the flawed academic easel upon which the Nazis mounted their picture of racial superiority, which led to genocide’.
Many people might be tempted to see the use of such monsters as evidence of the moral bankruptcy of MI6 and the CIA. Walters, however, suspects that the men running these organisations took little pleasure in hiring someone of such obvious evil and culpability.
‘Today, it is easy to be moralistic about such activity,’ he says, ‘but this is to ignore the reality of espionage work and the scale of the perceived risk that the Allies faced from the Soviets.’
If Nazi criminals had access to information behind the Iron Curtain, he argues, it was reasonable for dirty deals to be done in the cause of the greater goods of democracy and liberalism.
The common agreement in that post-war era was that a man with information and contacts was more valuable working on your side and against your mutual enemy, the Soviet Union, than dangling from a rope. The Russians were themselves using ex-SS men to infiltrate Western intelligence agencies.All this double-dealing was a far cry from the pledge given by the Allies a year-and-a-half before the war ended that war criminals would be ‘pursued to the uttermost ends of the earth’.
In reality, once the top Nazis had been dealt with at Nuremberg, the drive to track down all those guilty of atrocities slowed to a crawl.
The problem was the realisation that the evil of Nazism had seeped so deeply into German society. The sheer volume of criminality now emerging was of tidal wave proportions. Moreover, the investigation teams were hamstrung by an acute lack of resources.
The British Army’s investigation unit had only 12 officers – less than half its scheduled complement – and its search team, whose job was to find the culprits, just six.
In November 1946, the British government – believing the public was in favour of ‘wiping the slate clean’ – decided to stop hunting for any more Nazis and the following year 2,000 suspects for whom there was insufficient evidence or where the crimes were deemed relatively trivial were let off.
By 1948, the British held fewer than 200 suspects. That August, the whole investigation was abandoned and the war crimes unit disbanded.
For one of its members, Sergeant Greville Janner – later the Labour peer Lord Janner – this was shocking.
‘We still had 10,000 criminals, murderers and concentration camp guards on our books – and the authorities disbanded it because they wanted to concentrate on the Russians. It was just filthy politics.’
• Hunting Evil by Guy Walters (Bantam Press, £18.99).