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Why did Argentina Accept Nazi War Criminals After World War Two?

Thousands of Nazis Welcomed by the Peron Government

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Why did Argentina Accept Nazi War Criminals After World War Two?

Erich Priebke

Photographer Unknown

Why did Argentina Accept Nazi War Criminals After World War Two?

After World War Two, thousands of Nazis and wartime collaborators from France, Croatia, Belgium and other parts of Europe were looking for a new home: preferably as far away from the Nuremberg Trials as possible. Argentina welcomed hundreds if not thousands of them: the Juan Domingo Perón regime went to great lengths to get them there, sending agents to Europe to ease their passage, providing travel documents and in many cases covering expenses. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes, such as Ante Pavelic (whose Croatian regime murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies), Dr. Josef Mengele (whose cruel experiments are the stuff of nightmares) and Adolf Eichmann (Adolf Hitler's architect of the Holocaust) were welcomed with open arms. It begs the question: Why on Earth would Argentina want these men? The answers may surprise you.

Important Argentines were Sympathetic

During World War Two, Argentina clearly favored the Axis because of close cultural ties with Germany, Spain and Italy. This is not surprising, as most Argentines were of Spanish, Italian or German descent. Nazi Germany nurtured this sympathy, promising important trade concessions after the war. Argentina was full of Nazi spies and Argentine officers and diplomats held important positions in Axis Europe. Perón's government was a big fan of the fascist trappings of Nazi Germany: spiffy uniforms, parades, rallies…and vicious anti-Semitism. Many influential Argentines, including wealthy businessmen and members of the government, were openly supportive of the Axis cause, none more so than Perón himself, who had served as an adjunct officer in Benito Mussolini's Italian army in the late 1930's. Although Argentina would eventually declare war on the Axis powers (a month before the war ended) it was partly a ploy to get Argentine agents in place to help defeated Nazis escape after the war.

They still had many friends in Europe

It's not like World War Two ended one day in 1945 and suddenly everyone realized how horrible the Nazis had been. Even after Germany was defeated, there were many powerful men in Europe who had favored the Nazi cause and continued to do so. Spain was still ruled by the fascist Francisco Franco and had been a de facto member of the Axis alliance; many Nazis would find safe, if temporary, haven there. Switzerland had remained neutral during the war, but many important leaders had been outspoken in their support of Germany: these man retained their positions after the war and were in a position to help out. Swiss bankers, out of greed or sympathy, helped the former Nazis move and launder funds. The Catholic Church was extremely helpful: several high-ranking church officials (including Pope Pius XII) actively helped the Nazis escape.

There was Money Involved

There was a financial incentive for Argentina to accept these men. Wealthy Germans and Argentine businessmen of German descent were willing to pay the way for escaping Nazis. Nazi leaders plundered untold millions from the Jews they murdered and some of that money accompanied them to Argentina. Some of the smarter Nazi officers and collaborators saw the writing on the wall as early as 1943 and began squirreling away gold, money, valuables, paintings and more, often in Switzerland. Ante Pavelic and his cabal of close advisors were in possession of several chests full of gold, jewelry and art they had stolen from their Jewish and Serbian victims: this eased their passage to Argentina considerably. They even paid off British officers to let them through Allied lines.

They Were an Essential Part of Perón's "Third Way"

By 1945, as the Allies were mopping up the last remnants of the Axis, it was clear that the next great conflict would come between the capitalist USA and the communist USSR. Some people, including Perón and some of his advisors, predicted that World War Three would break out as soon as 1948. In this upcoming "inevitable" conflict, third parties such as Argentina could tip the balance one way or the other. Perón envisioned nothing less than Argentina taking its place as a crucially important diplomatic third party in the war, emerging as a superpower and leader of a new world order. The Nazi war criminals and collaborators may have been butchers, but there is no doubt that they were rabidly anti-communist. Perón thought these men would come in useful in the "upcoming" conflict between the USA and the USSR. As time passed and the Cold War dragged on, these Nazis would eventually be seen for the bloodthirsty dinosaurs they were.

The Americans and British didn't want to give them to communist countries

After the war, communist regimes were created in Poland, Yugoslavia and other parts of Eastern Europe. These new nations requested the extradition of many war criminals in allied prisons. A handful of them, such as the Ustashi General Vladimir Kren, were eventually sent back, tried and executed. Many more were allowed to go to Argentina instead, because the Allies were reluctant to hand them over to their new communist rivals, where the outcome of their war trials would inevitably result in their executions. The Catholic Church also lobbied heavily in favor of these individuals not being repatriated. The allies did not want to try these men themselves (only 23 men were tried at the famous Nuremberg Trials), nor did they want to send them to the communist nations that were requesting them, so they turned a blind eye to the ratlines carrying them by the boatload to Argentina.

Legacy of Argentina's Nazis

In the end, these Nazis had little lasting impact on Argentina. Argentina was not the only place in South America that accepted Nazis and collaborators: many eventually found their way to Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and other parts of the continent. Many Nazis scattered after Peron's government fell in 1955, fearing that that the new administration, hostile as it was to Peron and all of his policies, might send them back to Europe.

Most of the Nazis who went to Argentina lived out their lives quietly, fearing repercussions if they were too vocal or visible. This was particularly true after 1960, when Adolf Eichmann, architect of the program of Jewish genocide, was snatched off a street in Buenos Aires by a team of Mossad agents and whisked off to Israel. There he was tried and executed. Other wanted war criminals were too cautious to be found: Josef Mengele drowned in Brazil in 1979 after having been the object of a massive manhunt for decades.

Over time, the presence of so many World War Two war criminals became something of an embarrassment for Argentina. By the 1990's most of these ageing men were living openly, under their own names. A handful of them were eventually tracked down and sent back to Europe for trial, such as Josef Schwammberger and Franz Stangl. Others, such as Dinko Sakic and Erich Priebke, gave ill-advised interviews which brought them to the attention of the public: both were extradited (to Croatia and Italy respectively), tried and convicted.

As for the rest of the Argentine Nazis, most assimilated into Argentina's sizeable German community and were smart enough to never talk about their past. Some of these men were even quite successful financially, such as Herbert Kuhlmann, a former commander of the Hitler youth who became a prominent businessman.

Sources:

Bascomb, Neil. Hunting Eichmann. New York: Mariner Books, 2009

Goñi, Uki. The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron's Argentina. London: Granta, 2002.

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