“Inspired by real life events” often precedes Hollywood biopics these days, but rarely are the true stories as harrowing as in Hunters, Amazon Prime’s sweary new series starring Al Pacino.
Set in late-’70s New York, the show follows a diverse band of vigilantes as they track down unrepentant Nazi officials embedded in US society. Hidden away in top government jobs, the antisemitic villains will stop at nothing to create a Fourth Reich in America.
Over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, there are frequent bloody flashbacks to concentration camps during the Second World War. Stylised and obviously embellished – it’s clear the show doesn’t want you to think these scenes happened exactly the same in real life – the depictions of Nazi Europe are grisly in the extreme, with some critics labelling the on-screen action as ‘torture porn’.
In fact, the The Auschwitz‑Birkenau Memorial and State Museum went as far as to condemn the show outright, tweeting that the series was “dangerous foolishness” and encouraged future Holocaust deniers. They took issue with one scene in particular which involved a game of human chess, where extermination camp inmates were forced to play to the death.
Auschwitz was full of horrible pain & suffering documented in the accounts of survivors. Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature. It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy. pic.twitter.com/UM2KYmA4cw
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) February 23, 2020
Despite the controversy, fans of the show are still asking how far Hunters strays from history – and how much of the plot really happened. We asked Dan Stone, Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway university, to fact-check the series.
Were there actually former Nazis living in post-war America?
“Yes. At the end of the war, there were people who had been Nazis who managed to escape by disguising themselves and altering their identity, some of whom did end up in the US. Not in huge numbers, more fled to Latin America, Syria, Egypt and places like that. But some did end up in the US.”
Is there any evidence of high-ranking Nazi officials reaching the US?
“Not really for high-ranking Nazis. The high-ranking Nazis who escaped… ended up primarily in South America.
“They lived out quiet lives on the whole. There were a few cases of quite high-ranking Nazis that made careers for themselves in West Germany after the war. The East German regime took great pleasure in outing them. Every so often they published lists or so called ‘brown books’ to reveal them.”
Were there vigilante groups in the US who hunted Nazis?
“No. There were people like Simon Wiesenthal. He was based in LA and tried to identify Nazis around the world, but he wasn’t personally hunting them down and killing them. What they were doing was primarily on the basis of documents – talking to people, trying to identify high-ranking Nazis, if possible, anywhere around the world. There weren’t that many in the US. The idea of a vigilante group actually hunting down Nazis off their own back in the US is kind of implausible. After the war, there were small groups of Jewish survivors who thought about and in a couple of cases actually tried to carry out revenge actions against Germans, but that was on German soil not in the US.”
Did former-Nazi scientists go to work for the US government?
“That is true, I think. When the allies occupied Germany, the western Allies anyway, carried out a process of de-Nazification. People who were not quite well-known enough could lie low, but people who were famous scientists were easily identifiable. However, the Americans in particular did deals with these people and took them to the US to work on the Manhattan Project [to build nuclear weapons] and so on.”
Are any of the torture scenes based in fact?
Scene: Concentration camp officials force Jewish inmates to take part in a murderous game of human chess, in which every taken piece is stabbed to death. The winning side are allowed to stay alive.
Dan Stone says: “I think this highly unlikely. This is torture porn in a sense, but on the other hand, there are unbelievable stories of horror [from the camps], including vicious forms of game-playing and theatricalisation of brutality. So while I think this human chess scene is something that probably never happened, there are things like it [that did happen].
“I think readers should know that scenes of brutality along these lines are not implausible. They happened on a daily basis.”
Scene: In a particularly grisly moment, a camp official forces some inmates to stand in a circle while he plays music on a gramophone. As they sing along, he listens out for bum notes or wrong lyrics. The price of failure? A bullet in the head.
Dan Stone says: “I can’t recall having read an account of this precise thing happening, But there are certainly lots of things like it. There are many accounts of camp guards randomly shooting people. A good on-screen example is in Schindler’s List, where Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the Commandant of Plaszow [Death Camp], who takes pot shots at Jews in the camp from his balcony. That’s well-accounted for, that he did that. And there are lots of [accounts of] ‘games’ where guards would make prisoners torture and beat each other.”
Scene: During a story told by Al Pacino’s former camp inmate Meyer Offerman, we flash back to a scene involving a Nazi doctor experimenting on Jewish prisoners. In this particular moment, the German physician forces gallons of sea water down the throats of his victims. According to Meyer, it’s supposed to assist in the understanding of how much sea water downed Luftwaffe pilots can ingest before dying.
Dan Stone says: “They certainly did [experiment on prisoners]. Whether that precise experiment took place, I don’t know, but they did conduct experiments along those lines. For example, dunking prisoners in freezing salt water to see how long they would survive – which was supposedly to assist in understanding how long downed pilots could survive and so on. That has a ring of truth about it, but this sounds slightly embellished to me. There were experiments at many of the camps. Not just on Jews but on Roma for example. Some of it is very brutal, castrating men or blasting women’s ovaries with really strong x-rays, injecting people’s eyeballs and infecting people with diseases and seeing what happened. There’s a lot of documented evidence of this.”