Ocsar Wilde championed the notion that life imitates art. He believed the old saying “results not merely from life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.” Wilde was a miraculous writer and thinker. But sometimes the classic Aristotelian worldview he opined against proves just as accurate. Sometimes art imitates life. To my disgust, such is the case with Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier film and the history of the United States. Kind of.
[*Spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run to follow.]
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely seen it. Cap 2 made over 700 million dollars worldwide. It was a success commercially (still only fifth highest grossing of 2014), but more than that it was respected by critics for its political-thriller/espionage flare that set it squarely in our post-Patriot Act, drones at the ready, NSA decrypted Western world. The film tapped into the American zeitgeist; It also echoed the themes and tone of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run.
Brubaker did a masterful job using history as both a haunting tonal mechanism and as a plot device throughout his run, threading the tentacles of HYDRA into the inner-circles of the US government itself. He implemented old Red Skull ally Dr. Faustus as a sleeper agent posing as a SHIELD psychiatrist. Red Skull’s mind, meanwhile, is taking refuge in an aging, Eastern European Nazi sympathizer named Alexander Lukin who’s been carrying on a secret relationship with the US government since the War. Skull’s ultimate plan was to install a puppet administration to control the United States, something he had been working on since the days of the Cold War… in the pages of a comic book.
Those of you who’ve seen The Winter Soldier know that the crux of the movie (similarly) lies in the revelation of Arnim Zola roughly a third into the film. Using data from a flash drive given to him by Nick Fury, Cap along with Black Widow discover a secret Cold War era bunker containing a CPU run by the consciousness of Zola. Zola reveals that in the fleeting years of the War, when the United States was founding SHIELD, HYDRA successfully implanted several agents into the organization from the very beginning. This naturally spread as the agency grew over the years. In the modern day, the amount of HYDRA agents in SHIELD is unknown but it seems to be a fairly large percentage (see: Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD television show). This was a clever way to flip Roger’s Greatest Generation patriotism on its head, examining the grey areas in how nation states and their governments operate and the nature of freedom vs. security.
Sadly, this aspect of the film and those aspects of Brubaker’s run on the character might prove more accurate than not. Earlier this week the New York Times posted a pretty scathing article of the use of ex-Nazis as spies by the CIA in the Cold War.
Now, I’m no under-rock dwelling patriot. I knew previously of Wernher von Braun’s history: the Nazi’s lead rocket engineer during the War being recruited for the now public Operation Paperclip by the United States government. Von Braun eventually designed the Saturn V rocket, the propulsion system that would get NASA to the moon. And he was part of the Third Reich of course. (He is depicted wonderfully in Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects. A comic that takes the whole “secret history of the…” concept to its absolute limits and probably beyond. But shit, where else can I get the backstory of Einstein as an inter-dimensional monster slayer and revolutionary?) But look, Wernher von Braun designed rockets. He was a scientist and an engineer.
Not only does the NYT report point out that 1,000 ex-Nazis in the ranks of the CIA may be too conservative of an estimate (the dissolution of programs and destroying of documents makes any actual estimate impossible), but counted among these 1,000 are some of the worst humanity has to offer. One such man, Otto von Bolschwing, was the right-hand man to Adolf Eichmann, the man behind The Final Solution. Bolschwing is said to have come up with aspects of the plan: new ways to terrorize and mass-murder Jews, gypsies, the handicapped and whoever else deemed appropriate by The Fuhrer.
Bolschwing’s post-War story is perhaps more disturbing. After a few years working as a spy throughout Europe, the CIA relocated him to New York City for his “loyal post-War service.” Yes, the following is speculation: I’m guessing his new living situation for him and his family was anything but squalor or even average. When his former collaborator Eichmann was captured by Israeli Nazi hunters in Argentina in 1960 (a scene straight out of X-Men: First Class), Bolschwing feared he may be next. The agency perhaps had more to fear: the outing of Eichmann and Bolschwing’s parts in The Final Solution and the fact that one had been hired by them. So they promised to disavow any connection. This kind of secrecy would go on for decades.
“U.S. agencies directly or indirectly hired numerous ex-Nazi police officials and Eastern European collaborators who were manifestly guilty of war crimes” says Norman Goda, a University of Florida professor and historian who was a part of the declassification team for the report. At one point in the report the CIA describes these agents’ Third Reich histories as “moral lapses.” The wide-ranging, large-scale use of ex-Nazis as spies was the brainchild of former FBI and CIA directors Herbert Hoover and John Foster Dulles, arguably the founders of the United States intelligence apparatus as we know it today.
Throughout the 80s and 90s the Justice Department — supposedly having an arm of “Nazi hunters” themselves — tried to prosecute and deport many of these ex-Nazis under the employ of the CIA. The agency would time and time again conceal the agents’ ties to the Reich or even destroy pertinent documents. The most public case was in 1994 when they went after one Aleksandras Lileikis, an Eastern European member of the party who at the very least was a part of the massacre of upwards of 60,000 Jews in German occupied Lithuania in 1944, this according to the CIA’s own files. The CIA warned against the prosecutor filing the case and eventually they reached a compromise that the Agency would divulge all kinds of of documents relating to the Nazi recruitment program if the Department didn’t go after Lileikis. That never came to fruition and Lileikis was deported.
Was Aleksandras Lileikis possessed by the dispatched mind of the Red Skull like the Alexander Lukin character from Brubaker’s run? Was Otto von Bolschwing’s consciousness inputted to a CIA supercomputer under the surface level of Langley ala Arnim Zola? Well… obviously not. But the level of fiction vs. reality in this case is a little too close to comfort for me.