The plot of Hunters, in which Al Pacino assembles a ragtag team to hunt and kill Nazis in the 1970s, might sound like a Quentin Tarantino fever dream, but it's not as ridiculous as you think.
Amazon's marketing claims that Hunters is based on a true story, and in a sense it is. It's actually based on several true stories weaved together with plenty of fiction to create an entertaining new original series, including a real-life team of Nazi hunters and an actual government program meant to bring German scientists to America after World War II.
Light spoilers for Hunters below.
The premise behind Hunters is simple: Nazis are hiding in America and it’s up to Al Pacino and a covert team to stop them from pulling off a terrorist attack. The characters never give much thought to how these Nazis made it into the country (they snuck in with fake names seems to be the going consensus), but a subplot featuring an FBI detective (Jerrika Hinton) helps fill in the blanks.
It turns out that multiple German scientists working for the Nazis (either willingly or unwillingly), were covertly brought to the U.S. after the war. Hinton’s character uncovers this potential powder keg while investigating the death of a Nazi rocket scientist who was murdered with poison gas piped into her own shower. As Hunters continues, it becomes clear that this was Nazi scientist wasn’t an anomaly, but a part of a much larger trend.
Believe it or not, the first part of that story is actually true. The United States scooped up over 1,600 scientists, engineers, and technicians from Germany after WWII in what was referred to internally as Operation Paperclip. Approved by President Truman in 1946, the reasoning behind it was that if the U.S. didn’t welcome these scientists with open arms, the Russians would take them by force. (The U.S.S.R. still got 2,200 German scientists, even with competition from the U.S.)
Among the most famous subjects of Operation Paperclip was Wernher von Braun, a rocket scientist who helped America win the space race against Soviet Russia. Famous American songwriter, satirist, and mathematician Tom Lehrer even wrote a (very funny) song about it in the ‘60s:
In his lyrics, Lehrer jokes, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun." Hunters take this one step further, imagining that the ex-Nazis brought over to America were not just politically agnostic but actively working to undermine the U.S. and bring about the Third Reich of Aryan rule.
The truth is a little less exciting. Even though some of the scientists brought over German were former Nazi party members and even leaders — a few were even convicted of war crimes later on — not a single incident of an Operation Paperclip member conspiring against the U.S. was ever reported.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre
There wasn't actually a group of Nazi hunters running around New York enacting their own form of brutal justice on former Nazis in the 1970s. However, was a group with similar overall goals.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre was established in 1977 (the same year Hunters takes place). It's self-described as a human rights organization that researches the Holocaust and hate. It's named after Simon Wiesenthal, a concentration camp survivor who devoted his life to tracking down escaped Nazis after WWII so they could be tried for their crimes (not tortured and killed in secret). Wiesenthal even played a minor role in catching Adolf Eichmann, one of the leading architects of the Holocaust.
It seems likely that Al Pacino's character is at least partially inspired by Wiesenthal and the organization that bears his name. However, Hunters obviously takes things in a much more violent (and entertaining connection).
The characters and plotlines of Hunters are mostly invented, but one character is directly inspired by a real person. The main character’s grandmother, Ruth Heidelbaum, is based on showrunner David Weil’s own grandmother, Sara Weil, who survived the concentration camps during WWII.
In a letter written by David Weil and shared with the press, he explains how his grandmother’s story inspired Hunters. Here’s a relevant section:
This story was inspired by the greatest superhero I’ve ever known. She was my grandmothers, my Safta, Sara Weil.
To me, my grandmother was the ultimate badass of wartime Poland. She was a teenager when war broke out in Europe. And though she was later imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, through she was starved and beaten, she fought and suffered and ultimately survived. She survived. The only one of her immediate family to do so.
When I was little, my grandmother, ever the hero, realized that her story was a weapon, a see, and — with a sense of duty — she needed to tell it. And so, when I was young, she started to tell me and my brothers her story. About the truths of the camps, the horror of her experience, the human capacity for evil, but most importantly, as she would always stress, the ultimate goodness of humanity, the light of a righteous few, and the resilience of the human spirit. At the time, her stories felt like the stuff of comic books and superheroes. Grand battles between good and evil. And that’s become the lens through which I saw the world. A world of heroes and villains, colored by injustice and darkness, but a world where light and hope were possible.
Unlike in Hunters, where it turns out that Ruth was secretly chasing down Nazis with Al Pacino as an old woman in the ‘70s, Weil’s own grandmother used her story as a weapon against evil and ignorance. So, again, while there’s a kernel of truth to this story, Hunters take some serious liberties in the name of entertainment.
Hunters premieres February 21 on Amazon Prime.