Stevenson’s information is often less than trustworthy, but the emotion behind his book is not. He speaks with rage and loathing of Klaus Barbie, the unrepentant “Butcher of Lyons,” peddling his memoirs in South America; of Josef Mengele, “The Angel of Death,” the doctor in charge of “experiments” at Auschwitz (and on whom the character of Christian Szell, the villain of Marathon Man, is based), living easily in Argentina off Nazi money smuggled out of Germany more than 30 years ago; of the thousands of free criminals they represent. Stevenson writes with real horror of the corruption of the Allied victory by the Allies’ subsequent toleration, acceptance or recruitment of Nazis in the years that followed, and of the obvious consequences—for Israel, for Western foreign policy and for domestic politics, as affected by Nazified right-wing pressure groups active in Germany, South America and the United States. To Stevenson, mere toleration of Nazi war criminals corrupts a society with claims to a respect for limits on human action, which is what Western political society is supposed to be about and what Nazism—in Hannah Arendt’s words, a society whose very principle of justification was the committing of crimes against “the human status,” against human diversity itself—attempted to destroy. To Stevenson, given that the war-criminal situation moved well beyond toleration from the beginning, the result can only be a thinly disguised legitimization of the Nazi past as a kind of normal, went-too-far history, which implies the legitimization of similar actions in the future.The assumptions of this view of the world are shared—on paper, at least—by almost all writers of Nazi-hunting thrillers, but of the many such books I’ve read over the last year, only one—Thomas Gifford’s The Wind Chill Factor—communicates the sense of dread and chaos appropriate to that view. The power of Gifford’s riveting 376-page novel is in the author’s ability to lead his hero, and his reader, into something close to an acceptance of the legitimization of Nazism Stevenson describes with such fear in The Bormann Brotherhood—though in The Wind Chill Factor, it is an acceptance of political power, exercised secretly in the present day all over the West, on a scale far beyond anything suggested or probably imagined by the nonfiction writer.
Set in 1972, the book begins with a blizzard, which has cut off from the rest of the world the northern Minnesota town where the hero’s late grandfather, one of the many powerful Americans who in the Thirtites actively supported Hitler, lived, and where the hero, shamed by his grandfather’s politics, grew up. There is a stunning scene in which the hero returns to his grandfather’s home and, wandering through the deserted house, comes upon the pictures that still hang in the library: pictures of his grandfather with Goering, with Hitler, with Eva Braun. Before long the town is under siege: citizens are killed, public buildings are blown up. The siege is conducted, under the cover of the storm, by the legatees of the man whose friendship with dead Nazis seemed so safely frozen in the past. The assailants are protected by the debilitating cold—by what Minnesotans call “the wind chill factor,” which can lower the effective temperature to 70° below zero—but as the story moves forward a different sort of cold settles over the book: it is a quality of horror similar to the wind chill factor only in that it paralyzes, and mocks the will to act. Finally, the heroes task is reduced not to solving the mystery he has stumbled into but to escape it; he doesn’t, and the book is made to insure that at least for the time it takes to read the tale and sleep it off, you don’t either. As one approaches the end, the specter of Nazism as an inevitable and proper system for the ordering of human affairs cries out for acceptance, not because it is proper, but because the weight of its power, as exercised across 300 pages, has come to seem so ubiquitous, so well-disguised, so unsurprising, that when a reader—certainly, the hero—reaches for the comfort of institutions and friends on whose motives he always depended, they dissolve at the touch, and in their place appear precise replicas, but with intentions presumed by most to have died with the Third Reich. The book creates a complete conspiracy, a conspiracy that mocks the naivete of those who refuse to believe it is real, because the conspiracy has overthrown reality. The hero, eager for any certainties, listens as the mystery is defined for him:
I have been in constant touch with Europe all through the years or, I should say, they’ve been in touch with me. Sometimes through Washington, the Pentagon, sometimes through your grandfather, but always in close touch… I funneled our agents into key positions in our own government, in Canada, all through Central and South America—all our people. We chose which ones would escape from Germany, which ones would take over the postwar government there and in the other free countries of Europe, which ones would stand in the dock at Nuremberg. Obviously, we didn’t want to keep the most famous ones, the symbols, and we didn’t want the monsters, the real war criminals—those we would either sent to Nuremberg or feed to [the Nazi-hunter] Simon Weisenthal… We wanted to make sure the able men got out, got to safety. The only one we really failed with, the only one we really wanted and didn’t get was Albert Speer… In any case, we have made great use of the scientists, the administrators, the intelligence operators. Gehlen is only the most famous and Allen Dulles wanted him very badly, particularly in the years immediately after hostilities ceased, when we knew so little about the Communist apparatus and he knew so much…
“What will be difficult for you to understand, of course, John,” he said like a gentle schoolmaster, “is that what I am discussing with you is not a mad plot to rule the world—”
“But a perfectly serious, rational, right-minded plan to rule the world,” I said.
I felt lightheaded, like giggling. Or crying. I tightened my grip. I was fighting the icicle.
“Not a mad plot, John, but United States policy, a continuing policy, but beneath the surface. Elected officials have seldom been involved or even informed of the movement. We don’t need figureheads, you see—all we need are the intelligence people, the operations people, the diplomats, the professors, and a handful of Congressmen at key points, on the proper committees, and so on. You see…”
Such a situation parallels—with an insane inflation of realities—the beliefs of some private Nazi-hunters described in Howard Blum’s forthcoming nonfiction book, Wanted! The Search for Nazis in America (Quadrange; an excerpt appeared in the October Esquire), who have come to think, after years of efforts to expose war criminals have been subverted by bureaucratic dissembling, that the U.S. Immigration Service is either infiltrated by ODESSA, controlled by functionaries that American members of ODESSA have bought, or sabotaged by politicians whose crypto-Nazi sympathies insured they would not even have to be bought, but only pointed in the right direction. But just as I have tried to avoid setting forth the plot of The Wind Chill Factor—which, though it derives from Keeper of the Flame, an all-too-believable 1943 Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn movie about a secret American fascist that cannot be summarized without appearing ridiculous—the impact of the book, and its relevance to the subject I have been chasing for the last three issues, cannot really be conveyed by reference to this fact or that. I don’t believe that because Nazi war criminals live in safety or hold political power the Reich will rise again, and I doubt Gifford does either. But I do believe that nothing is more difficult—if it is possible at all—than to reestablish limits that have been shattered.
I wrote last issue that there were authentic fears surfacing in Nazi-hunting thrillers that these days could find a voice nowhere else; The Wind Chill Factor is frightening because, drawing on the brief contained in nonfiction books like The Bormann Brotherhood, it gives voice to the fear that, contrary to our day-to-day assumptions, we are living in a world in which the principle of the destruction of all limits on human action has been reestablished, and not the limits themselves. For me, anyway, few things have brought home the weight of Nazism, as a fact of history and idea about action, more than this pulp novel about how the world the Nazis made could be placed within our own. The quality of incomprehensibility that can adhere—I sometimes think, must adhere—to a contemplation of Nazi crime isn’t lessened by Gifford’s pretense that Nazis control the West, but it is made palpable by the very shock of that pretenses and by the dim echoes of that pretense in contemporary reality. What is then beyond easy definition is not some mere disturbance of the past, or an incident in the history of the Jews, which is how Nazism is more and more commonly seen, but a fantasized subversion of the present, which, once perceived, then makes the past real, and thus makes real its legacy of broken limits—symbolized by those Nazis who will never be hunted down—upon which the present society rests.
Rolling Stone, December 2, 1976