What's the true story on South American Nazis?

January 30, 2004

Dear Cecil:

What's the true story on South American Nazis? After World War II why would countries like Argentina and Paraguay want them?

Come now. After the war Argentina and Paraguay were run for years by nationalist strongmen, Juan Peron and Alfredo Stroessner respectively, who liked to strut around in military regalia and brutalize dissidents. Argentina had remained officially neutral until early 1945, when economic pressure forced it to throw in with the Allies, but until that point was in intimate contact with Hitler's regime and the fascist Franco government in Spain. Postwar Brazil was still fascist-friendly, a legacy of deposed dictator Getulio Vargas. Surely it's no surprise that the leaders of these countries nurtured fraternal feelings for fleeing Nazis. I might also point out that not all fugitives from the Third Reich ended up in South America--quite a few are said to have headed for Spain or the Middle East, and the U.S. imported a crowd of Nazi rocket scientists during Operation Paperclip. That said, the true story of how war criminals like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele wound up in the land of the gauchos has never been fully told, and even now it's difficult to separate fact from fiction. Leading candidates for chief enabler of the great escape include:

  • Odessa. Part of the popular consciousness ever since Frederick Forsyth's best-selling 1972 novel The Odessa File, this secret group (the name is an acronym for Organization der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, "Organization of Former SS Members") supposedly used stashed war booty and connections in high places to spirit Nazi big shots out of reach of the Allies. Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal says he first heard about Odessa during the Nuremberg trials, and in his 1989 book Justice, Not Vengeance he seems convinced it exists, or rather existed. He offers little evidence, though, and others have their doubts. Even some believers say the organization was amateurish and short-lived.
  • The Catholic church. The claim that members of the Catholic hierarchy were instrumental in obtaining documents, cash, and safe passage for many escaping Nazis is only barely scandalous these days. The benign view is that individual clerics acted out of humanitarian concern, believing they were aiding refugees from postwar communist persecution, and were unaware of their charges' sordid pasts. Others say the Vatican knew quite well what was going on but wanted former Nazis as allies in its struggle against the reds. A figure commonly named in this context is Alois Hudal, an openly pro-Nazi German bishop in Rome who is said to have helped engineer the escapes of dozens if not hundreds of Nazis--including Eichmann, who was living in Argentina when the Mossad caught him in 1960, and Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka death camp, who ultimately made his way to Brazil and was captured there in 1967.
  • All of the above plus Peron. Argentine journalist Uki Goñi, in The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron's Argentina (2002), offers what amounts to a synthesis of earlier theories. The "real Odessa," he says, consisted of about a dozen energetic ex-Nazis and Nazi collaborators from several nations, including a few wanted war criminals, working in concert with the Peron regime and sympathetic Catholic officials in both Europe and Argentina. Goñi makes a plausible case that the cabal, which was organized in Buenos Aires following Peron's election as Argentina's president in 1946, orchestrated the emigration of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Nazis and other unsavory types to the country in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (He also claims that the cabal was based at the presidential palace, and that many of its members were given important jobs in Peron's government.) The old Nazis made frequent trips to Europe to troll for more fugitives; some war criminals had to be smuggled out, but in other cases countries were glad to unload their troublesome Nazi refugees. Visas and landing permits were handed out freely, the chief concern being that no communists or Jews be allowed in by mistake. How many ex-Nazis made it to Argentina is not known. Goñi says he identified 300 during six years of research, and it's easy to believe there were many more.

It's a lot to swallow, no question, and notwithstanding his 591 footnotes Goñi concedes that many key Argentine records that would've corroborated his story have been destroyed. Still, he avoids the overheated claims of other writers, and the plain fact is that all those Nazis didn't wind up in South America by coincidence--they were going where they were welcome. As for the details? Given the current worldwide consensus that Nazis represent the ultimate human evil (and the resulting disinclination of officials in Argentina and elsewhere to come clean), Goñi's book may be as close as we'll get to the truth.

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