clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Congress wants to cancel Social Security for Nazis. Here's why we can't just arrest them.

A 1938 photo of Nazis, some of whom later found comfortable retirement in the United States.
A 1938 photo of Nazis, some of whom later found comfortable retirement in the United States.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty

The House has just passed what might well be the most popular bill in American Congressional history: the "No Social Security for Nazis Act." It does exactly what it sounds like it does, blocking former Nazi war criminals from receiving Social Security checks. The bill passed unanimously and will next go to the Senate.

Congress took up the issue in response an Associated Press investigation, in October, revealing that "dozens of suspected Nazi war criminals and SS guards [living abroad] collected millions of dollars in U.S. Social Security benefits after being forced out of the United States."

The basic story turned out to be weirdly simple: the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting department had cut deals with Nazis in the US, many of whom had lived here for decades in freedom and comfort: leave the country voluntarily and we'll let you continue to draw Social Security benefits. The bill will forbid the Justice Department from doing that and cancel the payments.

All of this raises a question: If the US government knew there were a bunch of literal, actual Nazis residing in the United States, why didn't they just arrest them? Or deport them? Why did the most powerful country on Earth, a country that has had no problem detaining dozens of suspected insurgents at Guantanamo without trial, have to jump through these weird hoops to persuade — persuade! — actual known Nazis to leave the country?

It turns out that jailing known Nazi war criminals can be surprisingly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that some Nazis continue to live happily and securely in America. There are two big reasons for this.

Why Nazis in the US often live comfortably and unmolested

The first reason is that the United States can't put them on trial; their alleged crimes took place in central Europe, far outside of US jurisdiction. If all of their crimes were committed in Europe and against other Europeans, then there is simply no US law broken or legal standing for prosecution.

What the US can do to Nazi war criminals, legally, is deport them. But there's a problem with that, and ironically enough it's awfully similar to the problem that Obama has had in closing Guantanamo: if the US wants to deport a Nazi, there has to be another country willing to take them. And the countries that do have jurisdiction over Nazi war crimes — countries such as Germany, Austria, Poland — have no interest in accepting them.

Some countries, such as Romania, bar the entry of war crimes suspects. Germany has proven hesitant to try foreign nationals, which has included most of the remaining Nazis. Other states, such as Hungary, often simply refuse to accept the suspects, perhaps unwilling to go through the hassle or because of worries about resurfacing still-sensitive issues. Who needs the headache?

Eli Rosenbaum, who formerly led the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting outfit, said in a 2011 documentary, "Without any doubt, the greatest single frustration has been our inability, in quite a number of cases now, to carry out the deportation orders that we've won in federal courts. We can't carry them out because governments of Europe refuse to take these people back."

"Nazi dumping"

The US government did bring a number of deportation cases against Nazi war criminals living in the US. But the cases can take years — a number of Nazis have died of old age while the cases went on — and even Nazis who lose their case and are ordered deported might end up facing no real consequences because there is nowhere to deport them to.

So the Justice Department, desperate to get all these Nazis off of American soil, tried something new: convincing the Nazis to leave voluntarily. In one case, for example, they told a former SS guard named Martin Bartesch living in the US that he could continue to live a free man and to draw Social Security checks if he simply left the country. He flew to Vienna on his American passport; two days later, per the agreement, the US cancelled his citizenship. He became Austria's problem. But Austria didn't want to prosecute him so Bartesch lived out his days in American taxpayer-funded peace.

This practice became so common it even has a name — "Nazi dumping" — and continued for years, against the protests of the State Department. This new bill from Congress will not stop Nazi dumping. It will merely make it a little bit more difficult, forbidding the Justice Department from offering Nazi war criminals Social Security checks, essentially a cash bribe, to leave the country. America's Nazi prosecution problem is still a problem.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.