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Amazon’s new series, Hunters, tells the story of a group of 1970s New Yorkers who spend their time tracking down Nazis hiding in America and bringing them to bloody justice. It’s only based on real history in the loosest possible sense—real Nazi hunters pursue legal justice, not extrajudicial vengeance.
But that doesn’t mean that everything in the series springs purely from the imagination of its writers. In the show’s first episode, we see FBI agent Detective Millie Malone investigating the murder of German-American NASA scientist Gretel Fischer, only to find a photo of a young Fischer posing alongside Adolph Hitler. Gretel Fischer isn’t real—but it’s very true that NASA hired former Nazis.
Though the Allies thankfully won World War II, Hitler’s forces had developed a terrifying arsenal that included biological weaponry and advances in rocketry. With the Cold War dawning, American authorities wanted to beef up their military and scientific might with the help of Nazi experts. In 1946, the US government embarked upon a secret project that would become known as “Operation Paperclip,” which hastened the immigration process for hundreds of Nazi scientists who sought to enter the US. The initiative earned its name from the paperclips that were attached to these applicants’ files. (For their part, Britain, France, and the USSR all also enlisted top Nazi researchers.)
And Operation Paperclip worked pretty much as planned. One of the project’s most famous recruits was aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun, who would later serve as one of the architects of the Apollo program that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969. He became a US citizen, and in 1977 was awarded a National Medal of Science. But Braun was also a former SS member, one who was not only fully aware of the Nazi concentration camps during the war, but who visited Buchenwald to personally hand pick slave laborers for his rocket building efforts.
Knowing that taking in high-ranking Nazi scientists was a pretty terrible look, government officials attempted to whitewash the histories of some of the recruits. Still, there’s little doubt that many were full-fledged Nazis. “You have to be a Nazi ideologue to move up that chain of command so high,” Annie Jacobsen, author of Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, told NPR in 2014. “It’s almost like someone who is a hedge fund manager in the United States trying to take the line that they don’t believe in capitalism, you know?”
Braun wasn’t the only Operation Paperclip recruit to have personally participated in atrocities. Rocket expert Arthur Rudolph was brought to the US in 1945, and he worked for the Army and NASA. He too helped develop the rocket technology used in the Apollo program, and was awarded NASA’s highest honor, its Distinguished Service Medal. In 1984, Rudolph surrendered his American citizenship and moved to West Germany to avoid prosecution after an investigation by Eli Rosenbaum, of the US government’s Nazi-hunting bureau the Special Investigations Office, uncovered evidence of his participation in war crimes. Rudolph had worked at a factory attached to a concentration camp in which at least 20,000 people died, used prisoners for slave labor, and been present at hangings.
Hubertus Strughold was another aerospace expert who came to America with the help of Operation Paperclip, and he worked with NASA and the Air Force on space exploration and nuclear weapons. But in his years as a Nazi scientist he’d participated in horrific war crimes, including overseeing torturous and often fatal experiments on Dachau detainees that involved locking them in pressure chambers and ice water tanks. One of his fellow former Nazis later said that Strughold could have intervened on behalf of the Dachau victims had he chosen to, because he was the head of the facility behind the experiments.
In Hunters, American Nazis attempt to install a “Fourth Reich” in the United States—which isn’t a plot that really happened. But as the scientists of Operation Paperclip prove, it is true that former Nazis were deeply embedded in powerful and respected areas of American life.