The True Stories Of Nazis Who Escaped To South America
ISRAEL - CIRCA 1961: Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann smoking in his cell at Djalameh Jail; Haifa. Source: (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Some Nazis escaped justice during and after World War II. Many, of course, were killed during the war, and many others were caught and tried for war crimes -- but thousands of them fled Europe. A lot of these fugitive Nazis ended up in South America, especially Argentina.
Decades went by -- some of our favorite decades. Rock 'n roll was invented, as was the birth control pill. Beatlemania struck. Man landed on the Moon and a big concert took place near Woodstock, New York. There were two great Godfather movies. And then there was disco.
And through it all, there were still World War II Nazis in South America. And all the world knew it. In a general sense, we knew they were down there -- we didn't know where, or in some cases, we knew where but had no means to extract them and bring them to justice. These remnants of the most hateful regime in modern times were living out their days in peace and obscurity, looking forward to dying of natural causes.
It's a quiet background story to the entire groovy era, an open secret: The existence of fugitive Nazis in South America. The vast majority were never caught, but some of the more famous ones were pursued and even captured.
What Kind Of Country Welcomes Nazis?
Argentina had been neutral during World War II but had shown sympathy for the Axis powers, partly because the country had welcomed a steady flow of immigrants from Italy and Germany since the 1800s. Argentina was also worried about war with rival Brazil, which had joined up with the Allies. After World War II ended, Argentina got a new president: Juan Peron, who was an avowed fan of Mussolini's leadership style. It's also been reported that Peron and his wife Eva ("Evita") had been receiving money from the Third Reich.
So for a German fleeing Europe, Argentina was the country most likely to welcome. And in fact, there were established routes and mechanisms for escape, called "ratlines" -- a Nazi on the lam or in a POW camp might take a side door out by picking up some forged identity papers through the Catholic church, which could then be traded in for a Red Cross passport. The Red Cross passport wasn't a ticket to anywhere in the world -- just the countries that didn't ask many questions. Next stop, Buenos Aires.
It beggars belief today, but it's a well-documented fact: Peron, who'd criticized the Nuremberg Trials as excessive, welcomed Nazis with open arms. He did this, incidentally, while establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and granting Jews the right to hold governmental office for the first time. Peron does not seem to have been a closeted Nazi or actively anti-Semitic in his personal behavior. But his friends -- that's a different story.
Argentina was the most notorious Nazi safe haven, but it wasn't the only place these fugitives wound up -- Chile, Paraguay, Colombia, Brazil, and Uruguay were also destinations at the end of the ratlines. Here are the cases of just seven of the vilest perpetrators who managed to escape to South America and what became of them afterward.
Adolf Eichmann, Architect Of The 'Final Solution'
The most wanted of these was Adolf Eichmann. He was the one who actually orchestrated the “Final Solution” including the elaborate system of identification and transportation of the Jews to the horrible death camps. Once he arrived in South America, using his fake name, he lived a normal suburban life in Buenos Aires with his wife and kids and worked in a Mercedes-Benz auto plant. But he met his fate ten years later in 1960 when he was brought to Israel to face trial. It was through a brave and ingenious plan, agents were able to track him down and capture him. They followed the clues that led them to Ricardo Klement (his fake name), and when they were sure of who he really was, the plan was set in motion. Once they captured him, they drugged and disguised him as a flight crew member in order to fly him to Israel. After the trial, which only lasted four months, he was executed by hanging on May 31, 1962.
Joseph Mengele, The 'Angel Of Death'
Josef Mengele was the next most wanted who also escaped to South America. A doctor with expertise in genetics, he was called the “angel of death” because of his gruesome experiments on his victims. Those he selected for experimentation were the disabled, pregnant women, and twins, as well as children. Like Eichmann, he also became a suburbanite in Buenos Aires. With the news of Eichmann’s capture and press coverage now focused on Mengele as the "new" most wanted, he was feeling the heat and fled Argentina for Brazil. There, he worked in farming and evaded capture for nearly two decades. In 1979, while swimming off the coast of Brazil, Mengele suffered a stroke and drowned to death. He was buried as "Wolfgang Gerhard." It wasn't until 1985 that investigators pieced together Mengele's story; the body of Wolfgang Gerhard was exhumed and testing confirmed that it was, in fact, the corpse of Josef Mengele.
Franz Stangl, The 'White Death'
Franz Stangl, a commandant of the Treblinka death camp, wore a white uniform and carried a whip, earning the nickname "The White Death." He worked with those who euthanized the disabled (mentally or physically). As a commander at Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, he oversaw the murder of perhaps one million Jews. He was captured, but in 1947 escaped from an Austrian prison camp to Italy. With assistance, he was able to sail to Brazil in 1951. He actually used his own name and worked for Volkswagen until he was arrested in 1967. Interestingly, he was actually found by Simon Wiesenthal, a Nazi hunter, and Holocaust survivor. He was sentenced to life in prison and eventually died in 1971 of heart failure.
Walter Rauff, Designer Of The Mobile Gas Chamber
Walter Rauff was the one who not only designed but employed the use of mobile gas chambers. These were trucks modified so that the engine exhaust was pumped into an airtight chamber where victims would die from inhaling the carbon monoxide. He was arrested at the end of the war only to escape from a POW camp to Italy, and eventually ended up in Chile where he lived under his own name. Working as a manager of a king crab cannery, he was finally arrested again in 1962 but was released after a year by their supreme court. Eventually, he died in 1984.
Josef Schwammberger, Labor Camp Commander
Josef Schwammberger was a cruel commander who carried a whip and a German Shepherd with him as he “cleansed” the city of Mielec in 1944. The way he accomplished this was by shooting some in the back of the neck while others he would have sent to Auschwitz. According to some of the witnesses at his trial, he threw prisoners into bonfires, killed Jews beside mass graves, and slammed children’s heads into walls because he didn’t want to “waste a bullet on them.” He escaped to Argentina in 1948 and lived under his own name until he was extradited to West Germany to stand trial in 1990. He was only convicted of seven counts of murder and 32 counts of accessory to murder. After receiving a life sentence, he died at the age of 92 while in prison.
Erich Priebke, Gestapo Commander
A commander and member of the Gestapo, Erich Priebke was part of those responsible for killing 335 people in the 1944 Ardeatine Caves massacre in Rome. In 1946, he escaped from a POW camp, making his way to Argentina in 1948. He lived there under his own name while working at a German school and operating a deli. After they finally captured him in 1994, he was extradited to Italy and served a life sentence under house arrest. When he reached the age of 100, he died in 2013.
Gerhard Bohne, Mass Euthanizer
Gerhard Bohne was not only a Nazi officer but also a lawyer. He was in charge of the Third Reich’s Nursing Homes and Sanatoriums. Considered to be a “mercy killer,” he was actually one of those who were trying to “purify” the Aryan race by wiping out those who were mentally or physically disabled. Through the use of the gas chambers, they were the ones used for “trial” runs before beginning the mass exterminations later. He fled to Argentina using the disguise of a military technician for Juan Peron. After being indicted in 1963 in Germany, he was released on bail and fled back to Argentina, where he only stayed for three years because Argentina gave him up. Because he was unfit to stand trial, he was permitted to live 15 more years before he finally died in 1981.
Et Tu, Fuhrer?
Other Nazis who escaped to South America include: Eduard “the Butcher of Riga” Roschmann, who died there in 1977; Gustav "The Beast" Wagner, who died there in 1980 and whose extradition to Germany somehow got “blocked” due “paperwork;” Klaus "the Butcher of Lyon" Barbie, who was eventually extradited in 1983 and put in prison in France.
As for Adolf Hitler himself, he reportedly committed suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin in 1945. But, unsurprisingly, there have been plenty of reports -- more like rumors -- that he too escaped to South America.
Tags: 1950s News | 1960s News | 1970s News | Adolf Eichmann | Nazis | Rare Facts And Stories About History | WWII
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