Pursuing the profiteers of Nazism

Stuart Eizenstat has written a truly remarkable book. His first-person account of the more than 50-year search for justice for victims of the Holocaust, including his own central role in winning settlements totaling $8 billion for victims of the Nazis — Jews and non-Jews alike — is a political and diplomatic tour de force.

Eizenstat, who lead the Clinton administration’s efforts on Holocaust-related issues while serving as U.S. ambassador to the European Union and in three other top-level posts, offers an authoritative inside look at the high-stakes negotiations with Germany and other European nations that shared responsibility for Nazi barbarism.

It is also an intensely personal story for Eizenstat. He grew up in segregated Atlanta in a Jewish family, whose Eastern European grandparents lost three siblings in the Holocaust, but had little interest in the Holocaust until reading a book in 1968 about President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration’s failure to confront the slaughter of European Jews.

In addition to recounting the terrible human, financial and moral legacy of the Holocaust, Eizenstat provides revealing insights into the different forces that separate American interests from those of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has dismissively termed “Old Europe.”

“Political and economic self-interest, realpolitik, is the primary force behind European foreign policy,” he writes. “Not so in the United States. Even the most sophisticated Europeans fail to appreciate that U.S. foreign policy is a unique and complicated mixture of morality and self-interest.”

Eizenstat argues that the balance between the pragmatic politics of self interest and moral issues like fostering democracy and human rights — as the Bush administration is trying to do in Iraq — changes with each administration, and causes internal frictions — as those between Rumsfeld’s Pentagon and Colin Powell’s State Department.

“But more than in any other industrial democracy, domestic politics always helps shape U.S. foreign policy, to the chagrin of Europeans and the American foreign policy establishment alike,” the author, a former domestic policy adviser to President Carter, writes.

In fact, some of the most riveting sections of the book involve domestic politics, including the key roles of then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.), who at the time was the chief congressional antagonist of President and Mrs. Clinton in the Whitewater investigation, and Edgar Bronfman, billionaire head of the World Jewish Congress and a strong supporter of the Clintons.

Declaring that “domestic Jewish political pressures” were a major reason for high-level U.S. engagement in the Holocaust negotiations, Eizenstat says Bronfman urged the Clintons “to take a personal interest in providing belated justice to Holocaust survivors.”

He also spurred D’Amato, who was facing a tough reelection campaign in a state with more Holocaust survivors than any other, to hold congressional hearings into the activities of Swiss banks that refused to release dormant World War II Jewish bank accounts.

There was nothing insidious about the political influence of the American Jewish community in helping Holocaust survivors press their claims, Eizenstat
asserts in a passage that offers one of the best descriptions I’ve seen of the American way of making foreign policy:

“European parliamentary governments are largely immune from the political pressures of the well-organized groups that interact with the United States’ more open, boisterous, contentious system with its independent congressional branch.
Policy is made by the clash of interests,” ranging from organized labor, big business, environmentalists and human rights advocates.

It was a combination of these traditional American foreign policy concerns and high-minded moral principles, along with Eizenstat’s dogged determination and finely-tuned political skills during six years of extremely difficult negotiations, that finally brought Holocaust survivors the belated, but imperfect, justice that provides the book’s title.

“Without American involvement, U.S. relations with friendly countries and close allies would be negatively affected by the lawsuits and the threats that surrounded them,” he writes. “The Swiss banks, and later the German, Austrian and French companies who were sued, enlisted the help of their governments, which in turn wanted the U.S. government to find a solution in order to lift a cloud over their companies doing business in the United States.

To achieve those difficult goals turned out to be much more difficult than even Eizenstat expected. The most absorbing chapters of the book deal with the excruciatingly difficult negotiations Eizenstat and his colleagues conducted with the sometimes duplicitous officials of European governments and companies.

The details of those negotiations, which are as fascinating as a well-told detective novel, are much too complicated and extensive to be accurately described here. But they are filled with dramatic personal accounts of the torturous path that led to a final accounting for some of history’s worst crimes against humanity.

In the end, even though Manfred Gentz, the chief financial officer of DaimlerChrysler, almost derailed the final negotiations over the timing of German industry’s requirement to pay half the $8 billion settlement, and branded the U.S. team as a “dictatorship,” Eizenstat kept his eye on the prize.

“… Gentz’s final outburst could not detract from the magnitude of what Germany had done,” he writes. “Even though for mixed motives, German industry as a whole finally accepted accountability for their unsavory contributions to the Third Reich. … They agreed to pay all surviving coerced laborers, even those for companies that no longer exist.”

Surprisingly, considering the current frayed state of U.S.-German relations caused by the war in Iraq, Eizenstat has words of praise for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his country.

“… In an era when political leaders rarely display courage, Chancellor Schroeder deserves a chapter in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage,” he writes, adding that “I concluded my negotiations holding a firm conviction that postwar Germany is entitled to full acceptance as a ‘normal’ nation, with a well-ingrained set of democratic values.”

Eizenstat has accomplished the rare feat of writing about one of the most important and morally uplifting diplomatic achievements of our time in which he was the central figure, but without embellishing or distorting his own role. It will be perfect justice if Imperfect Justice wins a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.