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Professional Biography

Growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, history held little interest for me. At Vassar College, however, I became fascinated with European history. What drew my particular focus to German history was the experience of growing up in the segregated South. Since the age of 10, I had struggled to understand how people I knew, who seemed compassionate and who professed to be patriotic Americans and good Christians, could accept and even support a system that was blatantly contrary to the values they claimed to hold dear. Germany in the first half of the 20th century provides the ultimate example of this human conundrum.

While completing a Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia, I obtained a position as a historian in the Office of Special Investigations in the U.S. Department of Justice in 1983. There I worked to identify, investigate, and bring legal action to denaturalize and remove from the United States persons who had participated in war crimes or crimes of persecution committed by Nazi Germany or its Axis allies during World War II.  As OSI’s Chief of Investigative Research from 1988 to 1997, I was responsible for developing new investigations for the office by identifying suspected Nazi persecutors and tracking those who immigrated to the U.S. I also expanded and helped to enforce OSI’s program to bar entry into the United States by Axis criminals (for more information, see “Barring Axis Criminals from the United States: OSI’s ‘Watchlist’ Program"). 

In 1997, I became OSI’s Chief Historian and was named a Deputy Director in 2004, overseeing the office’s non-attorney staff (historians, area research experts, linguists, paralegals, technical information specialists, and administrative staff). When OSI’s mission expanded to include investigating and prosecuting naturalized U.S. citizens who had perpetrated post-WWII genocide, torture, and other human rights violations, I led efforts to adapt its successful model of pro-active investigations to its new work and to develop the contacts and in-house skills required for success. In 2008, I received the Assistant Attorney General’s Award for Human Rights Law Enforcement.

In addition to helping OSI enforce its mission, I participated in fulfilling some special assignments given to OSI to investigate specific activities of the U.S. Government during and after World War II. I authored the first U.S. Government report to acknowledge that the U.S. Army’s Counterintelligence Corps routinely employed as informants in postwar Europe former Nazi and SS officials and Nazi collaborators who it knew had allegedly committed crimes (see "Robert Jan Verbelen and the United States Government").  For a State Department-led interagency working group studying the postwar distribution of assets looted by Nazi Germany, I proved that gold looted by the SS from Holocaust victims was sold to Switzerland during the war and, after the war, transferred to Europe’s central banks by the U.S. This led to the establishment of a $60 million fund to help needy Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe. As a member of the interagency working group that implemented the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Records Disclosure Acts, I developed search terms and a database of 60,000 suspected Nazi criminals that became the basic tools used to identify relevant documents.

The Justice Department merged OSI with the Domestic Security Section in 2010 to form the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP). As Deputy Chief and Chief Historian of  HRSP, I supervised a staff of professional historians, area research experts, linguists and information technology specialists who developed and supported criminal and civil cases against perpetrators of genocide, war crimes, Nazi persecution, and other types of human rights violations. I also worked with U.S. and foreign law enforcement agencies to develop initiatives for denying safe haven to the perpetrators of international crimes and participated in interagency efforts to develop effective tools and policies for preventing genocide and atrocity crimes.

In 2012 I accepted the position of Research Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide (today the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide). My main duties were to develop a fellowship program that would foster innovative projects with practical application for genocide prevention; identify and monitor current cases of concern and advise on how to address them; and provide expert advice to the Museum, scholars, policy makers, and the public on genocide and its prevention. The principal situations of concern I tried to call attention to were: Syria, where the regime was increasingly resorting to mass atrocities and torture in response to a democratic uprising; the growing potential for genocide against the Rohingya in Burma (which has occurred); and the danger that sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic would devolve into genocide. A particular focus of my work was on dangerous speech, the term coined by CPG Fellow Susan Benesch for the type of hate speech that can catalyze collective violence. In 2016, I produced the work of CPG fellow Rachel Brown on strategic communication approaches to preventing dangerous speech from influencing its intended audience, "Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communication Guide to Counteract Dangerous Speech." Consisting of a reference work and three guide books, it is designed to be a tool for civil society organizations working in dangerous speech situations.

During my last years at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum until I retired in 2023, I served in the Senior Historian Division of the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies as an expert on the history of the Holocaust and World War II, post-Holocaust genocides, and international justice.

For more about my work see "An Interview with Elizabeth B. White," Federal History, 8:2016,

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