Ante Pavelic, Croatian War Criminal

The Highest Ranking World War Two Criminal to Escape to Argentina

Ante Pavelic signing a document

Keystone / Stringer / Getty Images

Of all the Nazi-era war criminals who escaped to Argentina after World War Two, it is possible to argue that Ante Pavelić (1889-1959), the “Poglavnik,” or “chief” of wartime Croatia, was the vilest. Pavelic was the head of the Ustase party which ruled Croatia as a puppet of the Nazi regime in Germany, and their actions, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, sickened even those Nazi advisors stationed there. After the war, Pavelic fled to Argentina, where he lived openly and unrepentant for several years. He died in Spain in 1959 of wounds suffered in an assassination attempt.

Pavelic Before the War

Ante Pavelić was born on July 14, 1889 in the town of Bradina in Herzegovina, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. As a young man, he trained as a lawyer and was very active politically. He was one of many Croatians who chafed at his people becoming part of the Kingdom of Serbia and subject to a Serbian king. In 1921 he entered politics, becoming an official in Zagreb. He continued to lobby for Croatian independence and by the late 1920’s he had established the Ustase Party, which openly supported fascism and an independent Croatian state. In 1934, Pavelić was part of a conspiracy which resulted in the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia. Pavelić was arrested but released in 1936.

Pavelić and the Croatian Republic

Yugoslavia was suffering from great internal turmoil, and in 1941 the Axis powers invaded and conquered the troubled nation. One of the first actions of the Axis was to set up a Croatian State, the capital of which was Zagreb. Ante Pavelić was named Poglavnik, a word which means “leader” and is not unlike the term führer adopted by Adolf Hitler. The Independent State of Croatia, as it was called, was actually a puppet state of Nazi Germany. Pavelić established a regime led by the vicious Ustase party which would be responsible for some of the most horrible crimes committed during the war. During the war, Pavelić met with many European leaders including Adolf Hitler and Pope Pius XII, who personally blessed him.  

Ustase War Crimes

The repressive regime quickly began acting against the Jews, Serbs and Roma (gypsies) of the new nation. The Ustase eliminated their legal rights of their victims, stole their property and finally murdered them or sent them to death camps. The Jasenovac death camp was established and anywhere from 350,000 to 800,000 Serbs, Jews and Roma were murdered there during the war years. The Ustase slaughter of these helpless people made even hardened German Nazis flinch. Ustase leaders called on Croatian citizens to murder their Serbian neighbors with pickaxes and hoes if need be. The slaughter of thousands was done in broad daylight, with no attempt made to cover it up. Gold, jewels and treasure from these victims went directly into Swiss bank accounts or into the pockets and treasure chests of the Ustase.

 Pavelić Flees

In May of 1945, Ante Pavelić realized the Axis cause was a lost one and decided to run. He reportedly had about $80 million in treasure with him, looted from his victims. He was joined by some soldiers and some of his high-ranking Ustase cronies. He decided to try and make for Italy, where he hoped the Catholic Church would shelter him. Along the way, he passed through zones controlled by the British and it is assumed he bribed some British officers to let him through. He also stayed in the American zone for a while before making his way to Italy in 1946. It is believed that he traded intelligence and money to the Americans and British for safety: they may have also left him alone as partisans were fighting the new communist regime in Yugoslavia in his name.

Arrival in South America

Pavelić found shelter with the Catholic Church, as he had hoped. The church had been very friendly with the Croatian regime, and also helped hundreds of war criminals escape after the war. Eventually Pavelić decided that Europe was just too dangerous and headed to Argentina, arriving in Buenos Aires in November of 1948. He still had millions of dollars’ worth of gold and other treasures stolen from the victims of his murderous regime. He traveled under an alias (and a new beard and mustache) and was warmly welcomed by the administration of President Juan Domingo Peron. He wasn’t alone: at least 10,000 Croatians – many of them war criminals – went to Argentina after the war.

Pavelić in Argentina

Pavelić set up shop in Argentina, attempting to overthrow the regime of new President Josip Broz Tito from half a world away. He set up a government in exile, with himself as president and his former undersecretary of the Interior, Dr. Vjekoslav Vrancic, as vice-President. Vrancic had been in charge of the repressive, murderous police forces in the Croatian Republic.

Assassination Attempt and Death

In 1957, a would-be assassin fired six shots at Pavelić on the street in Buenos Aires, hitting him twice. Pavelić was rushed to a doctor and survived. Although the assailant was never caught, Pavelić always believed him to be an agent of the Yugoslav communist regime. Because Argentina was becoming too dangerous for him – his protector, Peron, had been ousted in 1955 – Pavelić went to Spain, where he continued trying to subvert the Yugoslav government. The wounds he suffered in the shooting were serious, however, and he never fully recovered from them. He died on December 28, 1959.

Of all of the Nazi war criminals and collaborators who escaped justice after World War Two, Pavelić is quite arguably the worst. Josef Mengele tortured inmates at the Auschwitz death camp, but he tortured them one at a time. Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl were responsible for organizing systems which killed millions, but they were operating within the framework of Germany and the Nazi party and could claim to have only been following orders. Pavelić, on the other hand, was the commander-in-chief of a sovereign nation, and under his personal direction, that nation coldly, brutally and systematically went about the business of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. As war criminals go, Pavelić was up there with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Unfortunately for his victims, Pavelić’s knowledge and money kept him safe after the war, when Allied forces should have captured him and turned him over to Yugoslavia (where his death sentence would have come swiftly and surely). The aid given to this man by the Catholic Church and the nations of Argentina and Spain are also great stains on their respective human rights records. In his later years, he was increasingly considered a bloodstained dinosaur and if he had lived long enough, he may have eventually been extradited and put on trial for his crimes. It would be of little comfort to his victims to know that he died in great pain from his wounds, increasingly bitter and frustrated at his continuing irrelevance and inability to re-establish a new Croatian regime.  


Ante Pavelic.

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

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Minster, Christopher. "Ante Pavelic, Croatian War Criminal." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 28). Ante Pavelic, Croatian War Criminal. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Ante Pavelic, Croatian War Criminal." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 15, 2021).