This article only came to its existence as an extension of this travel piece I wrote about the Patagonian locations about Puerto Varas and Bariloche. In the original article, I’ve intended to include one paragraph about the 1995 scandal that uncovered two former SS officers that lived in Bariloche. However, as I was reading further about the subject I got hooked on the whole complex topic of escaped Nazis as well as numerous conspiracy theories, like ‘Hitler is alive’ and so on. Suddenly I caught myself writing about Nazis in South America, instead of about the Puerto Varas and Bariloche, hence this separate piece.
Please note that I am aware that this is a very serious subject to which many historians and Nazi hunters dedicated their entire lives. While we’ll be working with proper academic studies and historical facts, the following piece will take the form of commentary. Knowing myself, I’ll most likely resist expressing my subjective opinion about the “justice” that met the Nazi caught in Bariloche as well as about a few other issues and politics in the post WW2 period.
We’ll talk about Nazis in South America, more particularly in Bariloche as well as the Nazi-related conspiracy theories tight to the city. We will also briefly talk about the post WW2 situation and the issue of escaped Nazis, to South America as well as other countries. Please note that this is a very complex subject, so given the space, this piece will reveal only the tip of the iceberg, but I’ll upload links to all sources I’ve been inspired by, in case you wanted to dig a bit deeper.
Nazis in Bariloche
At the dawn of the millennium, Bariloche made it to the front pages of the international press, although this time, it wasn’t due to the natural beauty that surrounds the city. Following a brilliant research work by the ABC News team in cooperation with various archives in Buenos Aires, Washington, London, Berlin and Jerusalem, in April 1994 the ABC journalists travelled to Argentinian Patagonia to confront the subject of their investigation. It was the former SS Hauptsturmführer, the director of the German School of Bariloche Erich Priebke as well another former SS officer Reinhard Kopps.
The team caught up with Kopps first, who confirmed the identity of his fellow SS officer Erich Priebke. When the ABC team confronted Priebke, after the initial hesitation, the SS Hauptsturmführer felt confident enough to admit who he really was. In the interview, he spoke openly about his role in the 1944 massacre of 335 prisoners, the alleged Italian resistance movement members, including children and elderly, an atrocity that became known as the Ardeatine massacre.
The justice shit show
First Priebke‘s lawyers have managed to delay his extradition for seventeen months, but then the Argentinian supreme court finally extradited the Nazi to Italy to face the trial. This was the beginning of one terrible shit show for the Italian justice system. In court, Priebke pleaded “not guilty”, denying any moral responsibility, but not denying his actions. The military court first found Priebke guilty of complicity in the massacre but not guilty of “cruelty and premeditation”. Based on “following orders only”, it ruled to set Priebke free in 1996.
The prosecutors’ appeal however ensured that Priebke was rearrested only hours later the court ruling, in order to face possible extradition to Germany. According to Emily Langer from Washington Post, Priebke claimed to be targetted because, according to him, he was “the last of the Mohicans” and “Jews were playing a dirty game” on him. After nearly a year-long trial, the Italian Supreme Court convicted him of murder and sentenced Priebke to 15 years in prison. It was however reduced to 10 years because of his health conditions.
Now it was Priebke‘s turn to appeal because he obviously wasn’t happy with 10 years for taking 335 souls and singing for transfers of 6-7 thousand Italian Jews into death camps. However, it proved to be a wrong move because the Italian Court of Appeals convinced him of the multiple first-degree murder and ruled to sentence him to life in prison. Priebke then even took the appeal all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Imagine. A Nazi, well not just a normal Nazi but the second in command of the SS branch in Rome, who personally shot two and sent 333 other prisoners in front of a death squad and who signed for 6-7 thousand Jews to be sent to a death camp, is now talking about human rights! WTF? Anyway. In the end, due to his health conditions, he was allowed to serve his sentence under house arrest. Erich Priebke died in 2013 at the age of 100, from natural causes.
The “severe’ punishment
A bloody house arrest? After having the privilege of 50 years of free life in beautiful Patagonia? Just a bloody house arrest for being responsible for 335 direct and possibly 6-7 thousand indirect murders? When you think about it, especially now locked in your flat because of the bloody lockdown, when we’re all pretty much under house arrest… I’m sure that the families of his victims were being as satisfied with the “severity” of the punishment.
And you know what? Guess what Priebke thought about it all? Except for the Nazi anti-semitic “Last Mohican/Jewish dirty game” remarks, he also said: “I gave Argentina 50 years of my life, and they don’t want me. I fought for Germany during the war, now they want me to be put to trial for obeying orders.” How twisted is that? And btw, the other Nazi, Reinhard Kopps, apparently fled Bariloche after he gained some time by diverting attention to Priebke. I could not find much information about his life following his escape, except the fact that he died on September 11, 2001, in Bariloche.
“Hitler is alive” conspiracy theories
Anyway. What bothers me even more than the “severe” punishment of that mass murder is how did he get to Argentina and how come could such a war criminal live freely for 50 years? Furthermore, were there any more Nazis hiding in the area? Following such international headlines, more “investigative journalists” wanted to uncover their own Nazi hide-out stories.
The most famous of them all was probably the conspiracy theory that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun lived nearby Bariloche for many years after World War II. It’s not the first time that such a ridiculous claim was made. This time it was by an Argentinian journalist and researcher Abel Basti in his 2004 book Bariloche Nazi, as well as a pair of British authors Gerrard Williams and Simon Dunstan in their 2011 book: Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler.
The claim was that Hitler and Braun escaped the bunker through the secret tunnel and then flew to Denmark, from where they’ve visited General Franco who got them to the Canary Islands, where a submarine was ready to head to Argentina. Adolf and Eva then apparently lived happily ever after and had two daughters. Of course, these “investigative” journalists have produced zero evidence to back up their claims.
To be honest, in 2014 FBI declassified numerous documents that the US government had undertaken an investigation into similar claims but that’s about everything that’s real about this theory. If you want to find out more about the books, here’s an article in British paper Daily Mail, which somehow can’t shake off its own fascination with nazis and fascism, even though it’s been more than 80 years since they have begun promoting these ideologies as a way to go forward.*
Nazis in South America: Eichmann, Mengele and the lot
Regardless of such ridiculous conspiracy theories, it is a known fact that Argentina and some other Latin American countries did welcome quite a few escaped Nazis. The most high profile case was probably Adolf Eichmann, the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, AKA one of the top 5 most prominent Nazis, and the orchestrator of the Holocaust. There’s a decent film called Operation Finale (2018, dir. Ch. Weitz) about his Mossad-organised kidnapping to Israel to be the first high profile Nazi to stand trial in the country.
Another high-rank Nazi who found a temporary home in Argentina was doctor Josef Mengele, AKA “Angel of Death”. Among others, there were also for example the “White Death” killer of people with mental and physical disabilities Franz Stangl; the SS commandant in charge of three labour camps in the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi-occupied Poland Josef Schwammberger and more. In fact, there were many more. Thousands of them and not only in South America. ): How have they’ve managed to escape? Read further…
Nazi Escape routes
The messy post-WW2 aftermath and the immediate birth of the Cold War have created an amazingly fertile ground for various shady operations around the globe. Among them, there were also the so-called “ratlines”, AKA escape routes set up for thousands of former SS officers who were trying to escape justice for their cruel war crimes.
We have to remember that although Germany was defeated, there were still some functioning fascist regimes, such as the one of Generalissimo Franco in Spain, that was willing to provide temporary shelter to some of their Nazi comrades, especially when they could support their “asylum applications” some of the wealth they have managed to steal all over Europe.
Catholic Church and Red Cross officials involvement
However, if you’ve expected that the connections were established over the shared fascist values of the then-current Spanish officials, you are mistaken. Bizarrely enough, rather than the government officials, it was the prominent members of the Catholic Church, an institution that’s based on exact opposite teachings and values, that got involved to a significant degree in helping these new “asylum-seekers”. This Spanish ratline was however apparently still operating rather independently of Vatican.
But The Holy See itself was soon to become the major route for war criminals to escape, using the Red Cross to provide the escapees with false passports. To give you an idea of the scale of the operation, imagine that the Red Cross issued around 120 000 new identity documents, for the numerous refugees at the time, out of which, 25 000 is estimated to have been issued to various war criminals. The level of involvement and any alleged role of those two institutions are debatable and still highly controversial, although as Mr Steinacher points out, we need to take the context of the time, which we’ll talk about later on.
Evidence and studies
A researcher from Harvard University Gerald Steinacher, who conducted extensive research based on the Red Cross correspondence from the period, concluded that the organisation’s genuine intention was to help the true refugees. Post WW2 Europe was however chaotic, facing hard economical challenges as well as an unprecedented amount of refugees. While the Red Cross as an institution was “never a willing partner” in the ratlines scheme, there were however also some Nazi sympathisers, who were willing to participate in the “ratlines scheme” and the leadership have most likely turned “a blind eye” about the issue of helping many disguised Nazis.
And then there were the background checks, which was the core condition for issuing new documents, were conducted by the Vatican. The Holy See‘s involvement remained to be still covered in secrecy until March 2020, when they’ve made the archive covering this period available for the public. There isn’t a proper study of these papers yet but as for Steinacher‘s findings, he said: “many leaders of the Catholic Church, sometimes knowingly, at other times unwittingly, also were involved in large-scale Nazi smuggling. A key motive for the clergy was the need to fight against ‘godless communism.”
Nazi sympathisers and the stolen Jewish gold
We are talking about several proactive Nazi sympathisers, such as Bishop Alois Hudal in Rome and the Archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Siri. There are however also voices to say that some individuals in the Vatican could have been just simply corrupted and motivated by the stolen Jewish gold they have received in return for forged background checks, rather than the more noble idea of fighting the godless communism as claimed.
Apologies: better late than never
One way or another, things that were done can not be undone. To be fair, Red Cross has undeniably done countless good deeds over the course of its existence, including the post WW2 period and we should not forget that. But what is astonishing is the feedback, the self-reflection of those days and how long did it take to admit their mistakes. For instance, it took Vatican 53 years to apologise for failing to speak out against the Nazi Holocaust during WW2 and a further 22 years to release the papers from the period.
The Red Cross has publicly apologised for not speaking out against Holocaust during WW2 a year earlier (1997) than the Vatican and at the same time, it handed over 60 000 pages of WW2-era documents to Israel. As for their lack of vigilance when it came to issuing travel documents in the WW2 period, they’ve publicly apologised in 1992.
Nazis in Argentina
In 1946 then-popular Argentinian President Juan Perón, who was a rather outspoken Nazi sympathiser (although not so much of an anti-Semite) institutionalised the ratlines by ordering his diplomats and intelligence officers “to establish escape routes through ports in Spain and Italy to smuggle thousands of former SS officers and Nazi party members out of Europe.” Perón hoped to attract the interest of various skilled workers and trained experts. He was particularly keen on military experts.
Given the circumstances, the Nazis and their collaborators such as Vichy officials happily obliged, arriving into the country as well as to neighbouring Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia and other Latin American countries in large numbers. Perón took the whole thing to another level. He even employed Ludwig Freude a former Ribbentrop‘s (Nazi Foreign Minister) agent as chief of intelligence and Ante Pavelić, a founder of Croatian Nazi collaborators, whose actions in WW2 were often too much to watch even for the ordinary Wermacht soldiers, as his security advisor.
The “ratline stream” of Nazis into South America has lasted for about four years until 1950. The escaped Nazis have enjoyed few decades of relative prosperity and peace in their new homes. They’ve even formed an Organisation of former SS members (ODESSA), but with Perón‘s decline of power and international pressure, the “good times” lasted until about the 70s, depending on the wealth of the individual escapees but as you can see via the example of Erich Priebke, some of them made it even to the new millennium…
Context of the period in time and other “perspectives”
As mentioned above, to understand the issue better, one has to look at these facts through the context of the time. Things weren’t just back or white at the time. Let’s not forget about the birth of the Cold War that came with a threat from yet another ideology of fear and prejudice and the powerful dictatorship that came with it. In many ways, Stalin‘s regime didn’t lag far beyond Hitler‘s when it comes to various horrible crimes against humanity. This is not to apologise for anyone’s actions but for many people in some countries of the former USSR, Hitler represented the lesser evil. In other words, for many millions in the former USSR, it was only a matter of perspective.
The polarisation was therefore not always the same for everyone, while globally it has generally shifted away from Nazis to Bolsheviks after WW2. As the two future superpowers and former anti-fascist allies were catching breath for the new ideological conflict that was mean to last much longer than Third Reich, new economy and emerging propaganda politics have surfaced, where many have perceived Nazis as some sort of former “anti-communist brothers in arms”. What a twisted perspective from a twisted period in human history.
Nazis in USA, USSR, DDR and West Germany
Perón however wasn’t the only politician who was interested in the military knowledge, intelligence and science gathered over the period of Nazi technological superiority. The two emerging superpowers wanted to take advantage of the Nazi technologies and knowledge within their own programmes. This is for example one of the reasons why many Nazis also ended up in the USSR or in the US, often with the direct assistance of KGB, respectively CIA. Further info on this subject could be found here (USSR) here (USA) in case you were interested.
In the newly split Germany, the situation with skilled administrators was also difficult. For example, in spite of the “denazification” process in West Germany, many former Nazis ended up serving in the new administration, with few of them even in senior positions. In fact, in the period between 1945-1973, 90 out of 170 leading lawyers and judges in the West German Justice Ministry were former Nazis. Some further information about that could be found here.
In the meantime, in East Germany, some former Nazis turned their coats upside down and offered their skills to Stasi, the infamous communist network of spies in the country but even there, in the most anti-fascist country back then, 14% of workers in the East German Interior Ministry were former Nazis. Further information about the East German Nazis could be found here.
The non-Nazi German migrants in Latin Americas and Europe
I would like to point out one more thing. As I’ve mentioned above, in the regions with multiple waves of German migrants, there was a natural clash between those poor Germans who fled the Nazis and the Nazis that fled Germany between 1945 and 1950. The problem was that the latter group often came with a lot of wealth, stolen from their ruthless war machinery days, plus the widespread antisemitism. The influence of the Nazis in the region, therefore, wasn’t entirely zero.
The non-Nazi Germans didn’t have it easy before, nor they could have enjoyed huge popularity after WW2 and it took many decades for the general public to begin distinguishing the Nazis from all Germans. In Central and Eastern Europe, there were some post WW2 pogroms and mass killings of the ethnic Germans, many of which did not pledge their loyalty to NSDAP. A negative stereotyping, not only about Germans but also other nations and ethnicities have been with us throughout our history and for some politicians, it still appears to be a tool to gain popularity even nowadays.
Epilogue on hate
January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. It is imperative to remember and to remind ourselves of the evil certain ideologies can produce. I’m not only talking about the beliefs based on the idea that one race is superior to others. It applies to other ideologies that favour certain social classes above others, as well as hate towards majorities whether they are based on political or religious beliefs, sexual orientation, the colour of skin or one’s gender.
Everyone is entitled to have their own opinions, beliefs and set of values. Ideally, you grew up surrounded by people who brought you up as an empathetic and understanding person. I hope your parents, friends and the whole society made it possible for you to think for yourself and not to be dogmatised to hate someone just because their skin colour is different, or because they believe in a different god or are different from you in any other way.
But even if you had the misfortune to be indoctrinated by hate, you are still free to hate who you want to hate. However, as soon as you start talking about turning your hate into action, such as taking the rights or even lives of those you hate away, there are consequences you need to face. Free speech is not consequence-free, especially if it produces criminal behaviour.
We must prevent witnessing such consequences take place again, regardless of who is the victim. Racism or fascism is therefore not a legitimate political opinion, nor an ideology to discuss, the same way we don’t discuss for example legalising slavery, murders or paedophilia. In other words, it is as normal to be against fascism as it is normal to be against crimes such as murdering and/or paedophilia. Those things are something to prevent, something to fight against. And we have learned the hard way that we should not give way an inch.
*Daily Mail has remained to be faithful to its heritage of hate towards minorities for decades but its contemporary incarnation has become rather flexible about what kind of hate it spreads and about whom if compared to when it was founded. Their campaigns are also a little less radical but that might be due to the fact that in the UK law criminalises a speech that is hateful towards a person on account of disability, ethnic or national origin, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation or skin colour.
In case you are worried about antisemitism, in particular, you don’t have to worry so much, at least when it comes to Daily Mail because most of the hate they have been spreading lately isn’t aimed at Jewish people anymore. In recent decades, it’s been targeting other groups, in general, it is any immigration of the non-white or poor-white people, in particular, it’s Eastern Europeans and Muslims.
Sources and possible further reading
- ABC News interview with Priebke: the original ABC programme
- Erich Priebke: Emily Langer for Washington Post on Priebke’s crimes, trial and death
- Ardeatine massacre: Jason Dawsey for The National WW2 Museum New Orleans: The Italian Resistance and the Ardeatine Caves Massacre
- Hitler escaped to Argentina theories: Vanessa Thorpe for The Guardian: “Hitler lived until 1962? That’s my story, claims Argentinian writer“
- Daily Mail and fascism: Robert Philpot for The Times of Israel: “How Britain’s Nazi-loving press baron made the case for Hitler“
- Vatican’s knowledge of escaped Nazis: Deutsche Welle‘s article about the extend of Vatican’s knowledge about “the Ratlines”
- Vatican’s knowledge of Holocaust: Harriet Sherwood for The Observer on the 2020 release of Vatican papers and the institution’s knowledge of Holocaust
- Vatican’s apology for Holocaust: William Drozdiak for Washington Post about John Paul II‘s apology to Jews over not acting against Holocaust on behalf of Vatican
- Red Cross and Catholic Church involvement in Ratlines: Robert Gerwarth piece on the subject for Irish Times
- Nazi abuse of ICRC humanitarian service: Red Cross own article
- Most prominent escaped Nazis: Christopher Klein for History: The 7 Most Notorious Nazis Who Escaped to South America
- Ratlines: Wiki‘s page
- Nazis in East Germany’s secret service Stasi: Lorenz Maroldt for Wall Street Journal on The Lives of Nazis, the Stasi and Others
- Nazis in West Germany’s justice system: Stefan Wagstyl for Financial Times on Postwar West German ministry ‘burdened’ by ex-Nazis, study says
- Nazis in the US: Eric Lichtblau for New York Times article about Nazis that were given safe havens in the US
- Nazis in the US: National Public Radio‘s interview with Eric Lichtblau about his book The Nazis Next Door