Jonathan Cape, £20, 496pp, £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Book of the Week: Simon Wiesenthal - The Life and Legends, By Tom Segev

Trail of a mighty hunter

As one of Israel's "New Historians", Tom Segev is used to disinformation and conflict. That is just as well, for a biographer of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose story is packed with both.

This is a historian's biography, concentrating on the archives – many newly opened – and on sifting fact from fiction, both Wiesenthal's and his enemies'. The previous Life, by Hella Pick, was more personal and empathetic. So, for instance, Segev lists the depressions of Wiesenthal's wife, Cyla, and their roots in his Holocaust obsession – even at one stage accusing him of cruelty. Pick explores more vividly, but also more delicately, how Cyla suffered, and how little of his life she shared. "I am not married to a man," Pick quoted her. "I am married to thousands, maybe millions, of dead." Segev quotes this too.

His book does not lack drama. Segev is a fact man, but in Wiesenthal's case the facts are the drama. His war was extraordinary: escape from a forced-labour camp with the help of two "good Germans"; then three of the worst concentration camps – Plaszów (the camp in Schindler's List), Gross Rosen and finally Mauthausen, where he was liberated by the Americans, weighing 97 pounds and barely alive.

But every survivor's story is extraordinary. The unique drama came afterwards. Even stripped by Segev of Wiesenthal's many careless or compulsive exaggerations, his life is a thriller of almost unbearable tension.

Wiesenthal was not involved in the final capture of his main prey, Adolf Eichmann. But it was he who proved that Eichmann had not died, and he who traced Eichmann to Argentina. He played an even bigger role in the hunt for other Nazi criminals: Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, and Karl Silberbauer, the policeman who arrested Anne Frank. Even his failures – and they were many – make nail-biting stories: such as Franz Murer, "the butcher of Vilna", acquitted in Graz in 1961; Erich Rajakowitsch, one of Eichmann's aides, who got off with a sentence of 30 months; or Josef Mengele and Martin Bormann, who both died before Wiesenthal could find them.

Segev's facts are not always welcome. He shows that many of Wiesenthal's most vicious battles were not with Nazis, but with fellow Jews – rival Nazi hunters, the Jewish communities of Linz and Vienna, the Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, the head of the American Holocaust centre set up in his name. This is distressing but true. The problem is that Segev devotes almost as much time to it as to the main business of Nazi-hunting (especially to the quarrel with Kreisky, who appears to have been almost insane). In-fighting took up much of Wiesenthal's life; but it is anti-climactic and should have been given less room.

On the other hand, Segev draws a vivid portrait of Wiesenthal the man. He was a classic "organiser" – the name given in the camps to the wheelers and dealers who were most likely to survive. He went straight to the top, pretended to have a huge organisation behind him – which he never had – and was a consummate showman, who could turn his genuine anguish on and off like a tap.

He was obsessive from the start, presenting his first list of Nazi criminals to the Americans days after liberation. He was egocentric, ambitious and easily offended, with many admirers but few friends. Despite the thousands of victims with whom he lived every day – or because of them – he was a lonely man. He was not a great thinker or writer, as he would have liked to be. But he was something more important: a man of unshakeable moral instinct, who fought for the victims of Nazism alone for decades, until the rest of the world caught up with him.

This is where the historical focus of this biography comes into its own. Segev documents in detail how no one cared about Nazi criminals or their victims for 20 years after the war, and how it took another 20 for the Holocaust to become the (almost) universally known symbol of evil it is today. It was the Eichmann trial of 1961 that began the change, and we know Wiesenthal's role in that.

The fact that it took Mossad seven years to follow his lead to Argentina – and even longer to find Stangl, living under his own name – demonstrates the tragic divide that runs through the Jewish world. Neither Israeli nor American Jews can accept defeat or humiliation; and neither did enough to help the victims of the Shoah at the time, or to bring their murderers to justice after.

America never punished Nazi criminals for killing Jews, but only for lying to US immigration. Germany and Austria never treated Nazi crimes as unique, but handled them as ordinary offences. The British did still less than the Americans – so little that Segev doesn't discuss it. Even the Germans did too little too late: nine out of ten suspects were never brought to trial, and more than half acquitted for "lack of evidence". Only 6,656 Germans were found guilty, and only 200 convicted of murder. Most received light sentences, while longer ones often ended in commutations and pardons. And let us not speak of the Austrians, who all suffered until recently from Waldheimer's Disease – forgetting what you did in the war.

Jewish attitudes to the Shoah have changed like everyone else's, and today it is at the heart of Jewish identity. Wiesenthal was the main agent of this change, and a conservative in both Austrian and Israeli politics. Nonetheless, in the post-Eichmann Jewish divide (because Jews, alas, always divide) he took the left-liberal side.

Like Primo Levi, he sought justice, not revenge – he even argued against the execution of Eichmann. Because of his own experience of good Germans, Segev suggests – and because of Cyla's experience of good Poles, he might have added – Wiesenthal firmly rejected collective guilt, and insisted that every case must be decided on its own merits. So, on the evidence, he exonerated both Waldheim himself and John Demjanjuk, one of the last suspects to be tried.

Like Levi again – but against the Jewish establishment – he insisted that the Holocaust was not unique, and not only a Jewish tragedy. He spoke up for contemporary victims of genocide, including the Muslims of Bosnia; and no one did more than he, Segev says, for the remembrance of Hitler's Roma victims. He even agreed with Hannah Arendt that the Jewish leadership, and all other Jewish collaborators, were criminally responsible, not (as Levi argued) victims as well; and he pursued them equally, or tried.

In his rejection of some of our most basic instincts, for revenge and tribal loyalty, this instinctive man showed the greatest courage of all. And in writing his biography, so has Segev. His other books have all been published in Israel, despite being critical of Israeli policy. But Simon Wiesenthal has been translated from "an unpublished Hebrew-language work". After 40 years, Wiesenthal's last enemies faced the truth, but after 65 he still hasn't succeeded with his friends.



Carole Angier's biography 'The Double Bond: Primo Levi' is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker