A Safe Haven?

Safe Haven: The United Kingdom’s Investigations into Nazi Collaborators and the Failure of Justice

by Jon Silverman and Robert Sherwood, published by Oxford University Press 2023, pp.309

Thirty years ago, the late David Cesarani published Justice Delayed which revealed that many Nazi collaborators were living peacefully in Britain. This followed on the heels of the War Crimes Act (1991) which promised a swift investigation into the alleged killers living amongst us. Harijs Svikeris lived in Milton Keynes, Konrad Kalejs was in a nursing home for elderly Latvians in the Midlands while the Lithuanian, Anton Gecas, called Edinburgh home. Despite a working list of several hundred, only one trial had taken place and one conviction was secured when the process came to a close in 2000 — unlike similar investigations in Australia and Canada. 

Anthony (Andrzej) Sawoniuk was given two life sentences at the Old Bailey in 1999 and died in Norwich prison in 2005. He was the sole collaborator who faced justice — the others lived out the rest of their lives in peace and quiet. Why then did the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) apparently fall down on the job? 

The authors of this disturbing book, Jon Silverman, an emeritus professor and former BBC journalist and Robert Sherwood, a retired Detective-Inspector with the Metropolitan Police strip away the suppositions and narrow criteria to understand why this exercise ended in moral failure. 

One restriction was to investigate only those who were in a position of command. Small fry were therefore not bothered yet they had blood on their hands. 

Many belonged to platoons in Eastern Europe who saw it as their responsibility to eradicate Jews. Several came to the UK collectively through Operation Westward Ho in 1947 to provide labour during the post-war period. 50,000 Balts were living in the British Zone of post-war Germany. This included members of the Latvian Arajs Kommando who were responsible for the mass murder of the Jews of Riga.

This important book examines in considerable detail several trials in the aftermath of Nuremberg — and suggests that Britain was rapidly becoming disinterested after 1945. It preferred to let sleeping dogs lie. Perhaps this was a measure of the fact that the British mainland was not conquered by Nazi stormtroopers — and did not experience a brutal occupation. 

As in the case of Werner von Braun, the rocket scientist, the Allies were interested in utilising the expertise of Nazis and their collaborators to halt the advance of Communism. The authors hint at the employment of collaborators by MI6 after 1945. It is significant that British war crimes investigators in the 1990s were refused access to files held by both MI5 and MI6.

Unlike Britain, the authors conclude that the USSR, the one-time ally of Hitler, did carry out a root and branch excising of collaborators. The authors note that the British were highly suspicious of any request from the Kremlin to extradite suspects. In 1960, an extradition request from Moscow for Ain Edwin Mere, then living in Leicester, was rejected. He had been in charge of a camp at Jagala, Estonia and was said to be responsible for the deaths of 125,000 people. 

Many in British society such as former Conservative Prime minister Edward Heath were strongly opposed to the very idea of trying suspected war criminals because this supposedly imitated the USSR. As Lord Shawcross commented: ‘This is England. We do not indulge in show trials.’

The vast majority of suspects never saw a courtroom and lived to a ripe old age.

This is not simply a definitive book for legislators and lawyers to ponder over legal arguments but one which readers will conclude casts a shadow of shame over those who purport to be the purveyors of justice. 

Jewish Chronicle 25 January 2024

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