Ten Fugitive Nazi War Criminals who went to South America

Mengele, Eichmann and Others

During World War Two, the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy enjoyed good relations with Argentina. After the war, many fugitive Nazis and sympathizers made their way to South America via the famous “ratlines” organized by Argentine agents, the Catholic Church and a network of former Nazis. Many of these fugitives were mid-level officers who lived out their lives in anonymity, but a handful were high-ranking war criminals sought out by international organizations hoping to bring them to justice. Who were these fugitives and what happened to them?  

Josef Mengele.

Nicknamed “the Angel of Death” for his ghoulish work at the Auschwitz death camp, Mengele arrived in Argentina in 1949. He lived there quite openly for a while, but After Adolf Eichmann was snatched off a Buenos Aires street by a team of Mossad agents in 1960, Mengele went back underground, eventually winding up in Brazil. Once Eichmann was captured, Mengele became the #1 most-wanted former Nazi in the world and the various rewards for information leading to his capture ultimately totaled $3.5 million. In spite of the urban legends about his situation – people thought that he was running a twisted laboratory deep in the jungle – the reality was that he lived the last few years of his life alone, bitter, and in constant fear of discovery. He was never captured, however: he died while swimming in Brazil in 1979. More »

Adolf Eichmann. Photographer Unknown

Of all of the Nazi war criminals who escaped to South America after the war, Adolf Eichmann was perhaps the most notorious. Eichmann was the architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution” – the plan to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe. A talented organizer, Eichmann oversaw the details of sending millions of people to their deaths: construction of death camps, train schedules, staffing, etc.  After the war, Eichmann hid out in Argentina under a false name. He lived quietly there until he was located by the Israeli secret service. In a daring operation, Israeli operatives snatched Eichmann out of Buenos Aires in 1960 and brought him to Israel to stand trial. He was convicted and given the only death sentence ever handed down by an Israeli court, which was carried out in 1962.  More »

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Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon

Klaus Barbie. Photographer Unknown

The notorious Klaus Barbie was a Nazi counter-intelligence officer nicknamed “the Butcher of Lyon” for his ruthless handling of French partisans. He was equally ruthless with Jews: he famously raided a Jewish orphanage and sent 44 innocent Jewish orphans to their deaths in the gas chambers. After the war, he went to South America, where he found that his counter-insurgency skills were much in demand. He worked as an advisor to the government of Bolivia: he would later claim that he helped the CIA hunt down Che Guevara in Bolivia. He was arrested in Bolivia in 1983 and sent back to France, where he was convicted of war crimes. He died in prison in 1991.

Ante Pavelic. Photographer Unknown

Ante Pavelic was the wartime leader of the State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet regime. He was head of the Ustasi movement, proponents of vigorous ethnic cleansing. His regime was responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs, Jews, and gypsies. Some of the violence was so horrific that it shocked even Pavelic’s Nazi advisors. After the war, Pavelic fled with a cabal of his advisors and henchmen with a great deal of plundered treasure and schemed his return to power. He reached Argentina in 1948 and lived there openly for several years, enjoying good, if indirect, relations with the Perón government. In 1957, a would-be assassin shot Pavelic in Buenos Aires. He survived, but never quite regained his health and died in 1959 in Spain. More »

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Josef Schwammberger, Cleanser of the Ghettoes

Josef Schwammberger in 1943. Photographer Unkown

Josef Schwammberger was an Austrian Nazi who was put in charge of Jewish ghettoes in Poland during World War Two. Schwammberger exterminated thousands of Jews in the towns where he was stationed, including at least 35 which he allegedly murdered personally. After the war, he fled to Argentina, where he lived in safety for decades. In 1990, he was tracked down in Argentina and extradited to Germany, where he was charged with the deaths of 3,000 people. His trial began in 1991 and Schwammberger denied taking part in any atrocities: nevertheless, he was convicted of the deaths of seven people and involvement in the deaths of 32 more. He died in prison in 2004.

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Erich Priebke and the Ardeatine Caves Massacre

Erich Priebke. Photographer Unknown

In March of 1944, 33 German soldiers were killed in Italy by a bomb planted by Italian partisans. A furious Hitler demanded ten Italian deaths for every German. Erich Priebke, a German liaison in Italy, and his fellow SS officers scoured the jails of Rome, rounding up partisans, criminals, Jews and whoever else the Italian police wanted to get rid of. The prisoners were taken to the Ardeatine Caves outside of Rome and massacred: Priebke later admitted to killing some personally with his handgun. After the war, Priebke fled to Argentina. He lived there peacefully for decades under his own name before giving an ill-advised interview to American journalists in 1994. Soon an unrepentant Priebke was on a plane back to Italy where he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment under house arrest, which he served until his death in 2013 at the age of 100.

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Gerhard Bohne, Euthanizer of the Infirm

Gerhard Bohne was a lawyer and SS officer who was one of the men in charge of Hitler’s “Aktion T4,” an initiative to cleanse the Aryan race through the euthanizing of those who were sick, infirm, insane, old or “defective” in some way. Bohne and his colleagues executed around 62,000 Germans: most of them from Germany’s hospices and mental institutions. The people of Germany were outraged at Aktion T4, however, and the program was suspended. After the war, he tried to resume a normal life, but outrage over Aktion T4 grew and Bohne fled to Argentina in 1948. He was indicted in a Frankfurt court in 1963 and after some complicated legal issues with Argentina, he was extradited in 1966. Declared unfit for trial, he remained in Germany and died in 1981.

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Charles Lesca, the Venomous Writer

Charles Lesca. Photographer Unknown

Charles Lesca was a French collaborator who supported the Nazi invasion of France and the puppet Vichy government. Before the war, he was a writer and publisher who wrote rabidly anti-Semitic articles in right-wing publications. After the war, he went to Spain, where he helped other Nazis and collaborators flee to Argentina. He went to Argentina himself in 1946. In 1947, he was tried in absentia in France and sentenced to death, although a request for his extradition from Argentina was ignored. He died in exile in 1949.

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Herbert Cukurs, the Aviator

Herbert Cukurs. Photographer Unknown

Herbert Cukurs was a Latvian aviation pioneer. Using airplanes that he designed and built himself, Cukurs made several groundbreaking flights in the 1930’s, including trips to Japan and Gambia from Latvia. When World War Two broke out, Cukurs allied himself with a paramilitary group called Arajs Kommando, a sort of Latvian Gestapo responsible for massacres of Jews in and around Riga. Many survivors recall that Cukurs was active in the massacres, shooting children and brutally beating or murdering anyone who did not follow his commands. After the war, Cukurs went on the run, changing his name and hiding in Brazil, where he set up a small business flying tourists around Sao Paulo. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret service, the Mossad, and assassinated in 1965. 

Franz Stangl. Photographer Unknown

Before the war, Franz Stangl was a policeman in his native Austria. Ruthless, efficient and without a conscience, Stangl joined the Nazi party and quickly rose in rank. He worked for a while in Aktion T4, which was Hitler’s euthanasia program for “defective” citizens such as those with Down’s syndrome or incurable illnesses. Once he had proved that he could organize the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians, Stangl was promoted to commandant of concentration camps, including Sobibor and Treblinka, where his cold efficiency sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths. After the war, he fled to Syria and then Brazil, where he was found by Nazi hunters and arrested in 1967. He was sent back to Germany and put on trial for the deaths of 1,200,000 people. He was convicted and died in prison in 1971. More »