What began as an interest in World War II history for Brian Crim has grown into a career teaching on the topic and most recently releasing two books simultaneously that deal with post-war fallout.
Crim, a Lynchburg College history professor, recently released “Our Germans, Project Paperclip and The National Security State” and “Class of ’31: A German-Jewish Émigré’s Journey Across Defeated Germany.”
As Crim explains it, one book grew out of the other during his research.
“Our Germans” looks at the moral complexity of how the U.S. used German scientists post-WWII. Crim came across reports from Walter Jessel during his research into the Germans in American employ. Jessel, a German Jew who emigrated in 1931, served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. military, where he interviewed German scientists who were captured at the conclusion of WWII.
“I encountered him because his name was all over these amazing reports on the German rocket scientists who had just surrendered,” Crim said.
Intrigued by Jessel, Crim sought to know more about him and started with a simple Google search, which turned up an obituary. From there, Crim reached out to the family to inquire about Jessel. He asked if Jessel had any papers, and the family shared an unpublished manuscript with Crim that detailed how, as an American soldier, Jessel returned to Germany in 1935 to interview acquaintances.
“He was so impressive I decided to spend a lot of extra time finding his story,” Crim said.
What started out as one book grew into two as Crim edited Jessel’s manuscript for publication.
“The question he had, which I start the book of with, was: ‘If we were in the same position in 1933 what would we have done?’ He went in from that perspective,” Crim said.
Though both books explore the aftermath of World War II, each comes at it from a different angle.
Crim described “Our Germans” as an adventure story — a human drama populated with characters.
Numerous German scientists came to the U.S. as part of Project Paperclip. The Soviet Union also heavily recruited German scientists as the Cold War began to heat up in the wake of WWII.
At the time, said Crim, there was a belief in the superiority of German scientists, despite the result of the war, a notion that bothered their American counterparts. Similarly, some of the scientists sent to work on space and defense programs for the U.S. and Soviet Union had backgrounds as Nazi war criminals. To the military, their employment was a matter of necessity as the Cold War escalated.
“This operation was controversial, and it was also, I think, overstated in its success,” Crim said.
The title “Our Germans” comes from a joke by Bob Hope, who quipped: “Their German scientists are better than our German scientists” at a time when the Soviet Union was leading the space race.
“They were our Germans, for better or worse,” Crim said.
He noted that they became citizens within a few years of their arrival, which restored a “veneer of respectability” the German scientists didn’t have when they were captured after WWII.
For Crim, this is the second book about WWII that he has authored. He first became interested in history in high school and then earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from James Madison University. He later expanded his history studies at Old Dominion University and Rutgers.
“I think, like a lot of young men, I was interested in military history but not in a very deep way,” Crim said.
At JMU, a professor inspired him to think in-depth about WWII and what war meant for society. As he probed WWII further, Crim became intrigued by the Holocaust and wanted to understand it.
Though he teaches a variety of classes at LC, Crim’s specialization is in WWII and the Holocaust.
“I was hooked on that rather dark subject,” he said.
Prior to beginning his career in academia in 2005, Crim took his talents to the Department of Defense and later to the Department of Homeland Security, serving as a civilian intelligence analyst.
Crim worked in intelligence from 2001 to 2005, where he leaned on his training as a historian, working on issues involving missing soldiers and prisoners of war, and later shifting to counterterrorism, briefing government officials on both foreign and domestic threats to the U.S.
“Taking that historical perspective and applying it to current events, to me, was a mission,” he said.
Though his personal interest leans toward WWII and the Holocaust, Crim’s role as the John M. Turner Chair in the Humanities at LC offers him a chance to promote history in a broad context.
According to the college’s website, the Turner Chair was first appointed in 1996, and honors John M. Turner Jr., a graduate of the class of 1929 who later served as a professor and administrator at LC.
Turner was the vice president for academic affairs at LC from 1933 to 1974.
According to information provided by Chip Walton, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LC, Crim is the seventh faculty member appointed to the Turner Chair since 1996.
In the role of Turner Chair, Crim said his mission at Lynchburg College is to “promote humanities, not just among history majors, which there aren’t that many of campus-wide, but to show the connection between history and what social problems they see around them every day.”
Crim is responsible for booking guest speakers to share how history connects to current events.
“I value this Turner Chair opportunity because it gives me more of a platform to promote the humanities [to students] as the best way to approach the world in their lives and careers,” Crim said.
Crim was appointed as Turner Chair in 2016 and will serve in that capacity through 2018. And while research and writing is vital to academia, Crim said teaching still tops his priorities at LC.
“Writing books is great, and I think the school appreciates it, but this is a teaching college,” said Crim, who has taught at the college since 2008. “What I do in the classroom matters more than this.”