Nazis in South America

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Podcast Transcript

On May 11, 1960, an auto worker who went by the name Ricardo Klement stepped off the bus after his shift at a Mercedes-Benz automotive plant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

As he was walking home, he was abducted by several men and thrown into a vehicle.

This was no ordinary kidnapping, however. There was no demand for ransom. That was because this was no ordinary autoworker. This was actually Adolf Eichmann, one of the masterminds behind the holocaust.

Eichmann wasn’t the only member of the German Nazi Party to have found his way to South America. He was one of thousands. 

Learn more about the Nazis who fled to South America after WWII and how they managed to escape on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

At the conclusion of the war in Europe in May 1945, many members of the Nazi Party and the German government knew that they would be in big trouble if they were captured by the Allies. 

High-ranking Nazi officials had been captured, and many of them were to be put on trial for war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials. 

Herman Goering was captured, put on trial, and committed suicide before being executed. 

Heinrich Himmler tried to escape, was captured by the British, and also killed himself. 

These were two of the very highest-ranking Nazis, but there were thousands more lower-level officers in the SS and Gestapo who committed countless crimes over the course of the Third Reich. 

They knew that their options were capture, which meant execution or imprisonment, possibly life imprisonment, or escape. Staying in Germany was not a good option because it would probably only be a matter of time before they were discovered. 

They would eventually have to provide documentation for jobs or ID cards, leading to their discovery. 

Thousands of Nazis went into hiding in an attempt to flee somewhere where they could be safe. 

In the months after the end of the war, an underground movement of former Nazis began to develop escape routes to countries mostly outside of Europe. 

These escape routes became known as Ratlines. The term ‘ratline’ doesn’t come from the fact that the Nazis were rats, although they were. Rather, it was a nautical term to describe the rope ladders used to climb up masts to access sails. 

There were multiple ratlines used by the Nazis, and they received help from many different sources, some wittingly and others unwittingly. 

There were multiple ways that former Nazis escaped, but there were two primary routes they took to escape Europe. 

The first route involved going through Spain. Spain wasn’t party to the Second World War but wasn’t totally neutral. They were very sympathetic to the Axis powers, as the leader of Spain, Francisco Franco, had been supported by fascist parties in Italy and Germany. 

In Spain, fleeing Nazis might not have been actively supported, but they also wouldn’t be actively hunted down. 

The other ratline went through Italy. Nazis would find their way to Rome and, from there, go to the port city of Genoa. 

In the chaos of Europe after the war, there was enough confusion to allow these Nazis to take advantage of services offered by the Allies, the Catholic Church, and the Red Cross. 

The Catholic Church had a system in place to settle Catholic Refugees during the war, which was co-opted. The International Committee of the Red Cross also offered passports to displaced persons.

In theory, the displaced person’s passports were issued after an investigation, but during this period, the standards were very lax.

This allowed these Nazis to travel under assumed names and to escape attention. 

In addition to exploiting these programs designed for legitimate refugees, they were also aided by those who were true believers and Nazi sympathizers. An Austrian Catholic bishop named Alois Hudal lived in Rome and actively supported Nazis trying to escape Europe. 

Likewise, there was a small group of Franciscan monks in Croatia led by an ultranationalist priest named Father Krunoslav Draganovi? who ran a ratline. 

There is no evidence that there was knowledge of this at the highest levels of the Vatican or that anyone approved it. Likewise, there is no indication that the Red Cross knew how its programs were being exploited. 

Some other Ratlines went through Finland. The Fins had some sympathies for Germany because they had a common enemy in the Soviet Union.  Nazis who got to Finland could then go to neutral Sweden and from Sweden to other countries.

Along the way, there were also officials who were simply corrupt and who would help or look the other way for money. 

Countries such as Spain, Italy, and Finland were not the final destination for these fleeing Nazis. 

Overwhelmingly, most Nazi officials attempted to flee to South America. 

Why South America? 

Several reasons made South America an attractive destination. The first is that every South American country was formally neutral during the war. 

Secondly, many countries had significant populations of German immigrants, which would allow them to blend in, and some members of that community were Nazi sympathizers. 

However, there was one country that was particularly attractive to Nazis on the run: Argentina. 

Argentina had a particularly large German population. Although neutral during the war, they joined the Allies in March 1945, less than two months before the war in Europe ended due to pressure by the Americans.

However, in 1946, a new president came to power in Argentina, Juan Peron. Peron had been sent to Italy as a diplomat in 1938, where he became enamored by the Fascist party that ruled the country. 

Even before he came to power, Argentina was seen as a destination for Germans fleeing the war. 

Two cases in particular proved this point. When Admiral Donitz ordered all German submarines to stand down on May 5, 1945, two submarines refused to obey the order. 

U-977 and U-530, completely independent of each other, decided to sail to Argentina. U-530 arrived on July 10 and U-977 arrived on August 17. 

With Peron in power, he began to actively help former Nazis escape and set up a new life in Argentina. Peron publicly denounced the Nuremberg Trials.

He commanded Argentian embassies to issue visas and travel documents to Nazis that wished to come to Argentina. 

When the Nazis arrived in Argentina, they were given cover and sometimes given money to establish a new life. 

Argentina accepted the largest number of Nazis, but there were also significant numbers that fled to Chile, Brazil, and Paraguay, with smaller numbers in other Latin American countries. 

It isn’t known exactly how many former Nazis fled to South America because no records were kept, and most of them were never discovered. 

Some of the best estimates put the number of Nazis who found sanctuary in South America at 10,000. At least half of that number, and perhaps more, settled in Argentina. 

The primary exodus of Nazis took place between 1945 and 1950. 

While most of the Nazis who fled to South America were never arrested or even uncovered, several of the highest-ranking officials in the Third Reich were pursued for years after the war.

The best-known Nazi fugitive was Adolf Eichmann. 

Eichmann was the architect of the final solution. He was considered to be the world’s most wanted Nazi. He arrived in Argentina using a falsified Red Cross passport, which he used to board a steamship from Genoa in 1950. 

He used the alias Ricardo Klement, lived outside of Buenos Aires with his wife and four children, and worked at a Mercedes-Benz factory. 

He was abducted by agents of the Israeli Mossad in 1960, smuggled out of the country dressed as an El Al flight crew member, and taken to Israel. 

There, he faced a public trial and was executed minutes after midnight on June 1, 1962. 

The manhunt, abduction, and trial of Adolf Eichmann will be the subject of a future episode.

Dr. Josef Mengele was probably the most wanted Nazi after Eichman. Mengele conducted medical experiments at concentration camps on twins, pregnant women, and disabled people. He literally tortured people to death in the process of conducting his macabre experiments. 

Mengele arrived in Argentina in 1949, married in Uruguay under his own name, and returned to Argentina to live in a suburb of Buenos Aires. 

The government of West Germany asked Argentina to extradite him, but they never granted the request. After the arrest of Eichman, Mengele spent the rest of his life in hiding, moving between Paraguay and Brazil. 

He died after suffering a stroke while swimming in 1979. His remains were positively identified in 1985. 

Walter Rauff was a colonel in the SS who implemented the mobile gas chambers that were responsible for killing 100,000 people. 

He was actually captured by the Americans after the war, but he escaped. He made it to Ecuador in 1949, then moved to Chile, where he openly lived under his own name.

His whereabouts became known because he sent a letter to the West German government with his new address so his pension could be forwarded. 

He was arrested in 1962, but the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet refused to extradite him to West Germany. 

He was never put on trial and died in 1984.

These were just some of the more high-profile cases. However, there were many more Nazis who were known to live in South America. 

Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, lived in Bolivia. 

Franz Stangl, known as the White Death, ran the Nazi euthanasia program. He was arrested in Brazil and put on trial in West Germany for the murder of 900,000 people. 

Josef Schwammberger was the commandant of three labor camps and organized the execution of hundreds of people, personally killing at least 35 with his own hands. He became a citizen of Argentina and stood trial in West Germany in 1990. He died in prison in 2004.

In 2015, researchers from the University of Buenos Aires found the ruins of a building built during the war that had German coins from the period as well as other Nazi artifacts. The building was located in the rainforests of northeast Argentina, very close to the border of Paraguay. The theory is that the building was constructed during the war in the event Nazi leaders had to flee the country, but it was never used. 

There is one thing that many of you might be thinking at this point. Given all the high-ranking Nazis who fled to South America, what about the rumors that Hitler himself might have made it to South America?

Rumors have swirled for decades about the possibility that Hitler might have survived the war and lived out the rest of his days in hiding somewhere in South America. 

The death of Hitler and the rumors surrounding his survival are worthy of its own episode. Suffice it to say that one of the reasons why the rumors persisted was because of the lack of evidence of the death of Hitler that was provided by the Soviets. 

Even the Americans issued memorandums during the occupation of Berlin regarding the whereabouts of Hitler or his body. 

The true stories of the German U-boats that traveled to Argentina only fueled the stories of Hitler surviving the war. 

There were many accounts of people who claimed to have seen someone who looked vaguely Hitler-esque, but there has never been any hard evidence that Hitler actually survived the war or ever made it out of his bunker in Berlin.

The escape of Nazi war criminals to South America was facilitated by a combination of organized networks, sympathetic and corrupt officials, and exploiting legitimate services designed for refugees. This allowed many high ranking Nazis to evade justice for years, with even more having never been brought to justice at all.